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The impact of meat consumption on the environment

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Today, beef is the main cause of deforestation worldwide, responsible for 41% of the destruction of tropical forests.

Imagine eating a hamburger just right, with bacon and melted cheese. Your mouth will probably water. There is no denying that many of us love the taste of meat and cheese. However, these products have a major environmental impact globally.

Numerous research indicates that people informed about the environmental impact of certain food products are more willing to reduce or eliminate their consumption.

And you? Would you cut down on your current meat and dairy intake at some point in your life?

The environmental impact of animal products

The Earth has never supported so many human beings as before and our agricultural expansion threatens the planet. Researchers from the University of Oxford calculated that 83% of global agricultural land is used for the production of animal products, while the caloric intake for humans is only 18% and protein 37%. It is, therefore, an inefficient and low-performance surface use. But why do animal products need large fields?

The main reasons are, firstly, the grazing of ruminants and, secondly, crops for the production of feed (especially for poultry and pigs).

For example, Brazil and the United States are the largest soybean producers. These countries produce millions of tons of this legume per year, of which only 7% is used directly for human food products, such as tofu and textured soybeans. More than 77% of soybeans are used for the manufacture of feed assigned to livestock feed. In other words, most of the cultivated soybeans are used to feed the animals that we eat.

Deforestation

Every cause has its consequence: if vast agricultural lands are needed, deforestation is promoted. Today, beef is the main cause of deforestation worldwide, responsible for 41% of the destruction of tropical forests. By comparison, logging for wood and paper is only 13%.

But it is not an issue that occurs in the other part of the globe and that does not concern us all, since much of the beef sold in the European Union is imported from Brazil, the country with the most annual loss of forest.

Beef is the main driver of deforestation. Design by Daniel Rūthemann (dunkhell_1.618 / Instagram) and copyright by Vegane Gesellschaft Schweiz (vegan.ch/Instagram).

Biodiversity loss

The loss of tropical forests and the loss of biodiversity , whose functions are essential for both human and planetary health, go hand in hand. It has been estimated that we have lost more than two-thirds of wild animal populations in the last 40 years.

Some current agri-food systems are far from sustainable and are causing rampant destruction of ecosystems, threatening most endangered species .

Greenhouse gases

While forest trees absorb carbon dioxide, the general trend of greenhouse gas emissions associated with factory farming is increasing globally. Extensive livestock farming linked to the territory (for example, pasture systems) is an exception, which can have negative carbon dioxide emissions .

In general, animal products produce 10 to 50 times more greenhouse gases than plant products. Exceptions include chocolate, coffee, and palm oil. Per kilogram of product, the production of these foods generates more gases than many meat products.

Greenhouse gas emissions due to production and transportation per kg of food product. Production emissions include emissions from livestock (for example, methane from animal digestion), land use, food and feed crops, and the supply chain (minus transportation ). Data from Our World in Data, figure from Veggie Science ES

Contrary to popular opinion, today the transport of food (Figure above, orange bars) contributes minimally to the total emission of polluting gases, compared to the production of these (black bars). Thus, apart from buying local products, it would be more efficient to reduce the quantity of ruminant meat and cheese to reduce global emissions.

Perspective of a plant and ‘in vitro’ future

To look at the environmental impact of animal products, we can imagine a utopian situation in which the world population consumed only plant products. The Oxford researchers calculated that agricultural land use could be reduced by 76%, an area equivalent to the size of the United States, China, Australia and the European Union combined.

Vegetable imitations of meats, such as the products of the American company Beyond Meat and the Catalan startup Heura Foods , are also more sustainable for the environment. Also, such products made from legumes and grains can be high-quality protein sources .

Another promising initiative is meat produced from laboratory-grown animal cells ( in vitro ). As an example, an Israeli company ( Future Meat ) expects its production of beef cell burgers to generate 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and use only a small fraction of the land and fresh water that traditional production uses. .

In parallel, the company Those Vegan Cowboys is generating milk from grass in a factory that mimics the processes of the animal’s body with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of dairy .

On the left, a 100% vegetable burger (photo by Vegan Junk Food Bar Spain) and, on the right, a burger with laboratory-grown meat (photo by Future Meat Technologies). Vegan Junk Food Bar Spain (veganjunkfoodbar.spain / Instagram) and Future Meat Technologies (future-meat-technologies / LinkedIn).

Scientific data indicates, therefore, that reversing the current consumption trend would benefit the planet, but also human and animal health. Excessive meat intake increases the risk of diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases, the leading cause of death in the Western world. The diets well – planned plant – based (unprocessed) can also be healthy and prevent chronic diseases. In addition, factory farms are potential factories of bacteria resistant to antibiotics and zoonotic viruses. Therefore, if we reduce the consumption of animal products and improve the conditions of the livestock industry, we could prevent future pandemics.

Obstacles to initiating change

In Spain, meat consumption has quadrupled in the last half century, reaching 100 kilos per person per year. However, a recent survey indicated that in this country more than two thirds of the population has managed or intends to reduce the intake of this product due to its environmental consequences.

In fact, a decrease in the consumption of meat products in households has been observed in the last decade (before the start of the pandemic). Even so, there is a long way to go to achieve a consumption that could become sustainable.

Some of the inconveniences that prevent the population from taking the step and reducing the consumption of animal products are cultural, related to their palatability, associated with the belief that they are essential in our diet, gastronomic ignorance and because humans think that our individual contribution is laughable on a planetary scale.

But do not be discouraged, every stone makes a wall.

Therefore, experts recommend informing the population about the environmental impact of animal products and educating about nutritional needs in a healthy and sustainable diet.

After all the above, let’s go back to the beginning. Does this knowledge motivate you to reduce the consumption of animal products? And, if the burger had the same look, texture, and flavor but was made from plants or cells grown in the lab, would you give it a try?

Value judgments aside, scientific data support that this could be the only sustainable way to meet the demand of the world’s growing population without causing further damage to the planet.


In this article we focus on the global impact of some animal products, most of which come from unsustainable livestock. Reducing the environmental impact of these systems and switching to more sustainable ones are other potentially beneficial strategies for the environment.


Bob T. Rosier, PhD Student, Fisabio and Sandra Carbó Ramírez, Research assistant, Fisabio


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