The Meat Industry: Climate Change, and So Much More

Another article demanding I go vegan? Nope, that’s next week’s article, and even then, not quite. Today, I’m discussing the many layers of the meat industry, or more so its many many consequences.

The topic of the meat industry is a complicated and lengthy conversation because it encompasses animal cruelty, environmental degradation, economic necessities, consumer demands, and on and on. However, a crucial factor that avid meat eaters unwisely dismiss is how meat affects our health, as there’s overwhelming evidence claiming health conditions like heart disease increase with too much meat consumption.

2013 study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that total annual emissions from animal agriculture (production emissions plus land-use change) were about 14.5% of all human emissions, of which beef contributed 41%. *This statistic by FAO only modestly accounted for emissions as a result to land use, and therefore makes for a conservative estimate. When considering the environmental impacts of the meat industry we must consider the methane belched by cows, water needed for the food that fattens them up, and land use.

Considering the beef industry alone, the average cow produces up to 500 liters of methane a day. Globally, livestock are responsible for burping (and a small amount from farting) methane equivalent of 3.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. It takes an astonishing 1,800 gallons of water per pound of beef produced. Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world. The beef industry is the least sustainable yet largest of the meat industries, and we can’t seem to get enough of it.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef. In 1960 it produced 16 billion pounds of beef and in 2018, 27 billion pounds. 2019, the U.S. reached more than 27.4 billion pounds — a record. According to a 2016 analysis by John Dunham & Associates, the U.S. meat and poultry industry accounts for $1.02 trillion in total economic output or 5.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The meat industry is also connected to 5.4 million jobs and $257 billion in wages, the report found. An estimated 527,019 people have jobs in production and packing, importing operations, sales, packaging and direct distribution of meat and poultry products. However, just like the energy sector can advance to more sustainable options, so can the meat and poultry industry.

Without even room to turn around, I doubt this is comfortable

To be completely honest I’m not extraordinarily versed on animal cruelty and the truth behind the meat industry, but I do know that it inspires many vegetarians and vegans alike. But just from what little I know, most cows and other cattle will only leave their cage on their trip to the slaughterhouse, and these cages are so small the victim isn’t even allowed the freedom to turn around, sometimes even stand up. Livestock are constantly being over fed and grown with the purpose to produce the most meat possible. The lives of pets are unimaginably luxurious compared to the livestock that are force fed and locked away. More on the animal cruelty sector is just a quick web search away.

Furthermore, the meat industry is not represented universally the same. Developed countries like the United States and China produce and consume an obscene amount of meat and dairy products, while other developing countries could benefit from an increase in meat for healthier diets.

In a report written by 37 scientists from 16 countries and published Wednesday in the medical journal The Lancet, in conjunction with an advocacy group called the EAT Forum, it claimed that people in North America eat more than 6 times the recommended amount of red meat, while countries in South Asia eat half of what’s recommended. Based on an average intake of 2,500 calories a day a consumer should intake of only half an ounce of beef or lamb a day. To put into perspective, that’s about a quarter pound hamburger every eight days (and apart from vegetarians I don’t know anyone who eats that little meat, but this is life in America).

Nevertheless, even though the meat industry poses a myriad of negative consequences, production is predicted to exponentially grow by 2050. Specifically, FAO predicts that global demand for beef could grow by 88% from 2010 to 2050, encroaching on natural wildlife territory, endangering biodiversity, and fueling climate change. Regardless of improvements to the efficiency of the industry, pastureland could expand by 400 million hectares (which is larger than the size of India). While the industry is not alone in its blame for climate change, this massive increase in emissions would dismiss any chance of achieving the Paris Climate Agreement of capping the global temperature rise of 1.5-2 degrees C.

Apart from the devastating and irreversible consequences the meat industry poses for our environment’s future, we must also understand that our population will continue to grow and will need an increase in food production to sustain it. Already, over 800 million people worldwide do not receive adequate nutrition, and we’re dreaming if we think meat production can keep up with population boom. For the amount of land, water, and resources that animal products require we could produce exponentially more plant based foods. Beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more GHG emissions per gram of edible protein than common plant proteins, such as beans. Sustainability does not only refer to biodiversity and natural resources (although just, if not more, important), we all depend on sustainable food production to sustain our population!

In an effort to conclude the mind numbing dangers of the meat industry I close by encouraging you to find out more. This article only skimmed the surface of the meat industry to point out the many layers of the challenge we face and will continue to struggle against in the future. It’s important to understand the gravity of a problem before dismissing the so-called deranged scientists that warn of the dangers. Stay tuned for next weeks article on what you and I can do to keep the industry in check and pioneer a more sustainable diet for consumers worldwide.


Published by Sofia Manriquez

Founder of I'm passionate about all things environmental, although I've always had a particular connection with the ocean since I've grown up loving the beach. I would love to collaborate with others and meet friends who share environmental passions!

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