Debate: should we stop eating meat to help the planet?

The environmental impact of the livestock industry is huge. Now, people, animals and cars are competing for scarcer and costlier grain supplies. Maryann Bird asks if it’s time for the planet to “go veggie”.

The global food crisis has put a new focus on the debate over the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Apart from the usual arguments about animal rights, healthy eating, chemical residues, food-borne illnesses, pollution and waste, dwindling fish populations and more, there is the question of feeding the livestock raised for slaughter.

Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals destined for our dinner tables need to be fed – indeed, fattened up – before they are killed. As more countries around the world develop their economies and their people become wealthier — especially in Asia and Latin America — the demand for meat is booming. At a time when a steadily climbing global human population needs food, more grain is being used as animal feed.

Additionally, more and more forested land (even in unique places such as the Amazon rainforest) is being cleared for pasture and plantation. And while humans and animals both now require more grain – wheat, corn and rice — and soybeans for food and food products, there is now a further hungry mouth demanding grain supplies: the biofuels industry. All of this has driven grain prices up in places where hungry people can least afford it, and provoked protests – some violent — in countries across the global south.

The World Food Programme (WFP) recently announced that high food prices are creating the biggest challenge that the United Nations agency has faced in its 45-year history, a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger. "This is the new face of hunger – the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are,” the agency’s executive director, Josette Sheeran, said in April 2008.

The prices of grain and dairy products — including bread, pasta, tortillas, flour, milk and eggs — are on the rise everywhere, in addition to the direct cost of meat itself.

As Lester R Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington has written: “The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people. The risk is that millions of those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level.”

As well as the grain-price and grain-competition aspects of the meat-producing industry, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported in 2006 that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

In a report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, researchers concluded that the impact of the sector – while socially and politically very significant – was so environmentally massive that its impact needed to be urgently reduced. According to the report, livestock – while providing a third of humanity’s protein intake and creating livelihoods for one billion of the world’s poor — also:

— has degraded about 20% of the world’s pastures and rangeland (and 73% of rangelands in dry areas);

— is responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent – more than transport’s share;

— accounts for more than 8% of the world’s human water use;

— contributes to eutophication, “dead” zones in coastal areas and degradation of coral reefs;

— adds to health-harming pollution in water, through animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilisers and pesticides;

— affects the replenishment of freshwater by compacting soil, reducing infiltration, degrading the banks of watercourses, drying up floodplains and lowering water tables;

— pre-empts land that once was habitat for wildlife, thereby reducing biodiversity.

Chiefly among wealthy nations, “high intakes of animal-source foods, in particular, animal fats and red meat”, are linked to cardio-vascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.

In addition, vast amounts of energy are expended in transporting animals to slaughterhouses, killing them, refrigerating their carcasses and distributing their flesh. Producing one calorie of meat protein, according to research at the University of Chicago, means burning far more fossil fuel and outputting far more CO2 than does a calorie of plant protein.

Musician Paul McCartney, a longtime vegetarian, recently urged the world to turn vegetarian in the fight against global warming. “The biggest change anyone could make in their own lifestyle would be to become vegetarian,” the former Beatle said in April. “I would urge everyone to think about taking this simple step to help our precious environment and save it for the children of the future.”

Heard enough argument? Should we all be reducing, or entirely eliminating, animal flesh from our diets? Is it time to become vegetarian? Or would you find it too difficult to reduce or give up some foods you enjoy (and other animal products)?

Let us know on the forum what you think.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.