So You Think You Can Be a Meat-Eating Environmentalist?

“There is no doubt that reducing consumption of meat, especially red meat, is one of the most effective things the individual can do to reduce their greenhouse gas pollution. Producing meat turns vegetable protein very inefficiently into animal protein, using large amounts of energy and water in the process. Secondly, meat production takes place a long way from the main population centres, so large amounts of fuel energy are needed to transport meat to urban consumers. Thirdly, meat products need to be cooked to be safe to eat, generating more greenhouse gas pollution. Ruminant animals also produce large amounts of methane a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, in the process of digesting grass. So overall, meat production in general and beef production in particular is a serious contribution to greenhouse gas pollution and hence global warming.” ~ Professor Ian Lowe, 2005. President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Author of ‘Living in the Hothouse’ Scribe Publications 2005.

Meat and the Greenhouse Effect

The methane from 28 million cattle is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The production of greenhouse gases (mega tonnes CO₂ eq per year) from meat products compared with grain production, household energy, car use and air travel in Australia

Energy Usage

It’s not just methane that makes meat a heavy greenhouse emitter. There are also large amounts of fuel and electricity used in the production and distribution of meat before it is cooked. Cattle trucks use energy, slaughterhouses use energy, refrigeration uses energy. To get a realistic comparison we used figures from the CSIRO/Sydney University Balancing Act report to compare Australian production of beef cattle and meat products against wheat, flour and bakery products in the graph below.

The energy used for meat is even higher if you consider that most bakery products do not need further cooking, but most meat products do. We produce and export about 10 times more wheat that meat, nevertheless meat production is a much larger user of energy- and you still have the cooking and refrigeration to add in.

As feedlotting of beef cattle increases and grain fed chicken and pig industries expand, the energy used in meat production increases. Most of Australia’s cattle today end their lives eating grain in feedlots. 75 days for the domestic market, and 145 days for the export market. Shipping grain around the country and refrigerated meat around the globe uses far more energy and generates more greenhouse gas emissions than shipping grain directly for human consumption. 8000 square kms of land was used to grow livestock feed in Australia in 2000.

Australian Grain Usage

Water Usage

Meat production and dairy farming are not only major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, they are also massive users and polluters of water.

Australian Water Use Per Year

Many people are surprised at the above graph which shows that meat uses twice as much water as rice in Australia, they are even more surprised when they realise that the rice we grow and export provides more calories than the two million tonnes of beef produced annually.

Much of the water involved in the meat industry ends up seriously polluted and needs treatment. Abattoir waste water and piggery effluent is some of the most highly polluted water in the world, requiring extensive treatment before release or reuse.

The usual measure of the quality of water is the BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand- the amount of oxygen required by bacteria for the decomposition of organic matter in 5 days at a standard temperature). The BOD of human sewage is 300 to 500 mg per litre, piggery effluent has a BOD of more than 5000 mg per litre.

The Protein Myth

The myth that animal protein is essential in the human diet was based on the studies of rats. The World Health Organisation revised it’s protein scoring tables in 1991 after research on humans demonstrated that plant protein was perfectly adequate.

But not only is it adequate, decades of good research shows that eating a whole foods plant-based diet, minimising refined foods, salt and animal fat, avoiding meat eggs and dairy products leads to the greatest health and the lowest incidence of heart disease, cancer and other western lifestyle induced diseases.

For more information on the steps you can take to reduce, or eliminate your meat consumption, see the Vegetarian/Vegan Society of Queensland’s website.

References: CSIRO/Sydeney University Balancing Act report 2005, the Australian Greenhouse Inventory 2002, various Australian Bureau of Statistics Year Books.

7 Responses

  • Louie
    August 24, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Zoey I never heard so much pseudo science used to justify killing the planet for the sake of being a lazy ass who doesn’t want to give up their McDiabetes burgers.

    Meat eating is purely an adaption in the human species to survive lean times, it is not and has never been a default requirement.
    Since we are not cavemen and the vast majority of us could actually benefit by losing, not gaining all those wasted meat calories that literally DEAD argument is never going be valid no matter how much you try to flog it.

  • Niki
    June 18, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    To Zoey,
    Humans don’t eat cellulose-based plants (grasses, trees, shrubs), dear – we’re not grazers. This is why we don’t chew a cud! (we’re not ruminants, either) Our bodies are VERY efficient at breaking down and utilizing plant material – much better than meat. Out digestive tract is fairly long – to accommodate this digestive process – as opposed to the fairly short intestinal tract of carnivores. I’ll only briefly mention how human teeth are designed to grind and chew plant material – not tear flesh (although we CAN do it).

    Your argument doesn’t hold ANY water! I won’t even get into your discussion about poop. It’s really FOS.

  • Zoey
    October 10, 2010 at 9:38 am

    What it doesn’t say is that we humans are very inneficient in digesting plant material as we don’t have the enzymes in our gut to reak down cellulose, the most widespread polysaccharide in the nature and to access the nutrients trapped inside plant cells. So, a MAJOR PART OF VEGETARIAN DIET ENDS UP IN POOP and is wasted. Animals however,(such as sheep and cattle) are super efficent to digest plants as have helper microbes in their gut. Apart from cellulose, these guys also convert nitrogen to protein, something that we can’t do. So all that lovely nitrogen present in your green veggies ends up – yes you guessed right – in your poop, then in sewage then in water/soil where it rots and turns into another greenhouse gas – nitrous oxide

  • Peter Bracher
    May 10, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    What an eye-opener! Presents a very strong case for not eating meat. Concise, main issues covered and the graphs convey a lot of info. in a highly accessible format.

  • May 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Great article! I’m going to show this to my meat-eating family. The statistics are quite shocking. That pie graph about meat and the greenhouse effect is just scary.

  • April 24, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    I always say if you couldn’t kill it yourself you shouldn’t be eating it!

  • April 24, 2010 at 5:11 am

    Good, informative article! A lot of people just won’t stop eating meat. In that case they should eat only locally produced, pastured meat. It’s healthier than feedlot meat and the footprint is lower.

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