Negative Environmental Impact of a Meat-Based Diet
The production of beef along with other animal protein tends to consume a lot of our natural resources including fossil fuels, water, and topsoil. At the same time, there is a resultant pollution of natural resources (Baroni et al, 2006).
The depletion of our natural resources is the greatest negative environmental impact of a meat-based diet. It is estimated that there are approximately 17 billion livestock in the world, and this translates into about three time the number of the world population. In order to raise this large number of animals, we need a lot of water to irrigate the hay and grains fed to these animals.
The Water Education Foundation estimates that in order to produce a single pound of beef in the state of California, we require about 2,464 gallons of water. On the other hand, the production of one pound of beef only requires 25 gallons of water. The United States Geological Survey estimates that there is a drastic drop in water tables across the world. The Survey also estimates that in 2000, 40 percent of all the fresh water that was consumed in the United States was used to irrigate livestock feed.
Besides water, other natural resources that get depleted by raising livestock include topsoil and fossil fuels. A study that was carried out by researcher from Cornell University revealed that in order to produce a single calorie of protein from feedlot beef, we require 40 calories of fossil fuel. On the other hand, in order to produce a single calorie of protein from tofu, we only need two calories of fossil fuel.
Another important natural resource that gets depleted by producing meat base diets is the topsoil. Corn and soybeans are the main grains fed to livestock. A lot of soil erosion occurs during their production since these crops have to be grown in rows. Because of the presence of bare patches between rows of soybeans and corn, the topsoil gets exposed to both rain and wind erosion.
The study at Cornell University that was headed by David Pimentel calculated that about half of the topsoil in Iowa has already been lost as a result of farming activities that have taken place in the state for the last 100 years (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008). The study further estimated that every year, nearly 7 billion tons of topsoil is lost.
The rainforest is also under threat owing to the increased production of livestock. The Nature Conservancy estimates that nearly the size of a football field of rainforest gets destroyed every day (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003). A lot of the forestland is normally cut down to create room for farming and livestock rearing, and such produce exported to the United States. The sad thing is that this threatens the lives of hundreds of insect, plant, and bird species. Different plant species are also under threat.
Moreover, the production of meat based diets pollutes our air and water. For example, these animals produce a lot of urine and manure, and this then pollutes natural resources. Animal wastes contaminate the air and changes the PH of water, while the gasses emitted by such wastes are thought to contribute greatly to global warming. In a bid to get rid of these wastes, a lot of farmers report to spraying it to nearby fields as fertiliser (Baroni et al, 2006).
Not only is this practice expensive, but it is not also the most ideal nutrient balance for crop production. In addition, there is the risk of spreading disease carried by such wastes to humans. Other farmers make use of manure lagoons thinking that this is a safe method of storing the animal waste.
However, research show that such lagoons are not actually safe. For example, in 1995, a hog farm spilled some 25 million gallons of urine and manure into the New River in North Carolina. As a result, more than 10 million fish were killed instantly resulting in the closure of shell fishing that affected a coastal wetland of 264,000 acres.
In addition, a 7,000 square mile termed as a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico no longer supports aquatic life as a result of pollution from chemical fertilisers and animal waste (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008). Also, the waste released from factory farms emits such harmful gases as methane, hydrogen sulphide, and ammonia, in addition to particles and clouds of dust.
All these harmful substances pollute our air. Methane is by far the most dangerous gas released from the production of meat based diets. In fact, the global meat industry is thought to release more than 100 million tons of methane gas every year. Methane gas impacts negatively on the environment by trapping heat in the atmosphere, thereby resulting in an increase in global temperatures.
Solution is plant based and benefits of plant based diets
Even as enhanced agricultural practices helps to reduce environmental impact of the food industry, nonetheless, we should not neglect the contribution made by changing our dietary choices from meat based diets to plant based diets. Available data appears to suggest that plant based diets are more beneficial to the environment than meat based diets (Reijnders & Soret, 2003). For example, growing of food requires less land in comparison with a meat based diet.
Consequently, a lot of land is freed, and can be sued to support the agricultural needs of less fortunate people. In their June 2010 report, The United Nations Environmental Program stated that we could only hope to significantly reduce the negative impacts of meat based diets to the environment by switching to a plant based diet (UNEP, 2010). This is an important consideration because the world population is set to reach the 9.2 billion mark by 2050.
If we let the number of animals to increase in tandem with the increase in human population, a lot of forest land shall be cleared to pave way for the cultivation of livestock fodder. This means that will be forced to encroach on land that would have otherwise been used to settle the increase in global population and to cater for their farming needs as well. In addition, a switch from animal based diet to a plant based diet means that there shall be less demand for animal products (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003).
Consequently, a lot of farmers will have to reduce the acreage set aside for growing livestock fodder. At the same time, the number of livestock shall also reduce drastically. As a result of an elimination of animal products, we shall move a step closer towards lowering global emission, and in effect helping to cool the planet. This is because the livestock industry contributes significantly towards global warming and pollution by releasing vast amounts of toxic gases to the atmosphere.
In addition, we need to remember that the meat industry released vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere through deforestation as we try to create livestock fields (Reijnders & Soret, 2003). Furthermore, the actual process of meat production and transport also emits tones of carbon dioxide, and hence a major source of pollution. As such, shifting to plant based diets will go a long way towards reducing environmental pollution.
By embracing a plant based diet, you will have made the first step towards reducing your carbon footprint. The livestock industry is believed to emit vast amounts of greenhouse gasses (18%), more than even the transport system in the entire world (13.5 %). In addition, plant based diets will also help us to save our water resources. Growing vegetables, pulses and grains requires very little water, while producing a kilo of beef requires thousands of liters of water.
We can also save the aquatic lives in rivers and lakes from antibiotics, hormones, and manure released from livestock waste. Moreover, we are likely to save land, seeing that livestock production accounts for nearly 70 percent of the deforestation at the Amazon. According to Goodland, if the world meat consumption was to reduce by just a %, we could achieve a similar effect to investing $ 3 trillion in solar energy (2010, p. 51).
Livestock emits a lot of methane whose global warming potential is 25 times worse in comparison with carbon dioxide. The United States has devoted between 80 and 90 percent of all its agricultural land to livestock production. By shifting from a meat based diet to a plant based diet, a lot of this land shall be freed to other agricultural practices that do not have a lot of negative impacts on the environment.
Baroni, L., Cenci, L., Tettamanti, M., & Berati, M. (2006). Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1–8
Goodland, R. (2010). The Overlooked Climate Solution. Journal of Human Security, 6(3), 50-60.
Pimentel, D., & Pimentel, M. (2003). Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr, 78, 660S–663S.
Pimentel, D., & Pimentel, M. (2008). Food, Energy, and Society. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2008.
Reijnders, L., & Soret, S. (2003). Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary protein choices. Am J Clin Nutr, 78, 664S–668S.
UNEP. (2010). Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials. United Nations Environmental Programme. Available from http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Portals/24102/PDFs/PriorityProductsAndMaterials_Report.pdf