In recent years, the impact that we are having on our planet has never been more apparent, and we are all aware that greenhouse gases are posing a significant threat to our survival. However, while many of us are looking to make lifestyle changes to be more sustainable, the food we eat is often one of the most overlooked.
Eating meat has a significant environmental impact, and the industry is a major contributor to global warming. So with this in mind, what meats are the most eco-friendly, and what can you do to reduce your impact on the planet? We thought we would take a closer look¦
The environmental impact of meat consumption
Cultivating any food has some impact on the planet. Still, research has shown that meat production is by far the most damaging, accounting for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases created by the food production industry.
Meat consumption in History
The human love affair with meat is nothing new. In fact, historians believe that our ancestors were eating meat as far back as two million years ago.
Animal agriculture began around 12,000 years ago, and since then, the demand for meat has increased exponentially.
Our ancestors eat meat for several reasons, including the fact that it is an excellent source of protein. In addition, meat was often easier to obtain than plants, which were often seasonal. However, how we produce and consume meat has changed dramatically over the years, with industrialization playing a considerable role.
The industrialisation of meat production
The industrialization of meat production began in the early 20th century and has since changed how we mass-produce meat. This process has made meat more affordable and widely available than ever before. However, this increase in production has also had a significant impact on the environment.
The current state of meat production in the world
The world's appetite for meat has been steadily increasing in recent years, and it is now estimated that we will consume 222 million tonnes by 2030. This increase is mainly due to the growing middle classes in Asia, who can afford a more diverse and protein-rich diet.
The food and agriculture organization of the United Nations has found that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so it is essential that we are all taking steps to reduce our impact. There are many ways of doing this, but one of the simplest is to be more mindful of the types of meat we consume. The global meat industry is worth an estimated $315 billion, with over 56 billion animals being slaughtered annually.
Intensive farming is one of the most damaging methods of meat production, as it requires large amounts of land, water, and energy. This farming method also emits high levels of greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is particularly damaging to the environment, as it is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The way we feed animals also contributes to the problem. Animals such as cattle and sheep are often fed grains that require large amounts of water and energy. In addition, clearing land to grow these crops can result in deforestation, which further damages the environment.
However, this increase in meat consumption comes at a high cost to the environment.
The real impact of food systems
The meat industry impacts the planet in a multitude of ways, including:
This might not be the first thing that springs to mind, but industrial meat is the world's most significant source of deforestation. Farmers across the globe, particularly those around the Amazon rainforest, are setting fires to clear large areas of forests.
This space is then used to raise cattle for slaughter or produce industrial animal feed that is used across the globe.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Alongside destroying forests, the meat industry is also a major producer of carbon dioxide. Recent research has found that the entire sector produces almost the same amount of greenhouse gases as all the vehicles and planes combined.
Damaging animal welfare
Deforestation is destroying habitats, and the industrial meat sector also damages animal welfare. The pesticides used in the cultivation of animal feed and raising cattle is leading to a rapid biodiversity loss leading to the extinction of thousands of species of animals and insects.
Harming human health
This destruction of habitats is not only a threat to animal welfare but also a significant threat to human health. An astonishing 75% of new diseases impacting humans come from animals, and as they have no option but to seek shelter closer to large populations, the higher the risk of a new pandemic.
Raising animals for consumption also requires vast amounts of water. Estimates suggest that to produce just one pound of beef, farmers will need to use 1,800 gallons of water while growing enough vegetables for a salad would only require 21 gallons.
Food waste is another huge issue when it comes to meat production. It is estimated that in the US alone, 40% of all food produced goes to waste, and a significant proportion of this will be meat that has been wasted at various stages of the process from farm to table.
The term "sustainable meat" is often used, but what does it actually mean? In general, sustainable meat is produced in a way that reduces the negative impact on the environment and animal welfare. This means that farmers use methods such as rotational grazing, which allows the grass to recover, and animal manure as a fertilizer. It also means that animals are slaughtered in a way that is humane and causes them minimal stress and pain.
What is the most eco-friendly meat?
vegan products. However, while 31% of Britons are looking to cut back on eating meat, carnivores still make up the most significant portion of society, so which meat options should we switch to in order to lower our environmental impact?
Another type of meat with a far lower environmental impact is fish. While overfishing can cause many issues, sustainable fishing has a very low impact on our planet. This is because it requires minimal fossil fuels to catch them, which is the industry's leading source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Different species have different impacts, so if you want to be as sustainable as possible, you must research the type of seafood you are eating.
Fish is an excellent option if you are looking for eco-friendly meat. While fish is often seen as a healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to meat, this is not always the case. Farmed fish, for example, can often be just as damaging to the environment as other farmed animals.
This is because they are often fed an unnatural pellets diet containing chemicals and antibiotics. They also produce large amounts of waste, which can pollute local waterways. So, when looking for sustainable seafood, it is essential to choose wild-caught fish. Just be sure to do your research and choose wild-caught over farmed.
Chicken and turkey
Chickens and turkey are two of the best meats to opt for. These birds not only require far less water and food, but they also do not produce methane. This ensures that their environmental impact is far less than other types of animals.
However, as with all meats, the amount of CO2 produced depends on farming techniques. Large intensive poultry farms require toxic pesticides and heavy metals, polluting soil and local waterways. The cramped conditions also significantly impact animal welfare.
That is why you should focus on using free-range and organic meat. This is not only more ethical for the animals, but they are also more environmentally friendly.
Grass-fed meat, in general, is also a great option as it has been found to have a lower carbon footprint than grain-fed. So, when looking for chicken or turkey, ensure that it is free-range, organic and, ideally, grass-fed.
While a bacon sandwich might be a treat in the morning, pork products can harm the environment. On average, a kilo of pork generates over twelve kilos of carbon dioxide, drastically more than fish and poultry.
Intensive pork farming can also be incredibly cruel to the animal. That is why you should always opt for organic pork products, as this ensures that the pigs have been treated as humanely as possible.
Pork is, therefore, not considered sustainable meat because of its large carbon footprint. So, pork is not the best choice if you are looking for an eco-friendly option. These are just a few options available for choosing eco-friendly meats.
Pasture-raised meat is often the best option as it has a lower carbon footprint. However, it is important to do your research and ensure that the meat produced comes from an animal raised as humanely as possible.
Non-Grass-Fed & Grass-Fed Beef
Livestock is responsible for nearly 15% of all global greenhouse gases, and cows are amongst the most significant contributors to this enormous number. Despite beef generating over double the amount of carbon dioxide that pork does, it is one of the most consumed meats on the planet.
Beef production also requires drastic deforestation, as large forest areas are cleared to make room for pasture. This destroys the natural habitat, is responsible for many global emissions, and accelerates climate change.
Ground beef is particularly damaging as it is often made up of trimmings and scraps from multiple cows. This means that the methane produced by one cow can be multiplied by the number of cows used to make the beef.
The methane production of cows can be decreased by changing their diet or by using them for other purposes such as dairy.
Opting for free-range and organic meat products that are animal welfare approved will ensure the animals can live as naturally as possible.
Also, grass-fed beef has been shown to have a lower environmental impact. This is because grass-fed cows generally live longer and produce less methane than grain-fed cows.
Methane gas is also less harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. That is why grass-fed beef is often seen as a more sustainable option.
However, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), often keep cows in cramped conditions and feed them an unnatural diet. This can lead to numerous health problems for the cows and a significantly higher carbon footprint. Therefore, you should always ensure that beef is free-range, organic and, ideally, grass-fed. These are just a few options available for choosing eco-friendly meats.
Grass-fed animals are generally healthier, and the meat is lower in saturated fat.
Many people mistakenly believe cows are the most non-eco-friendly animals in the food industry, but that is not the case. Lamb is far worse, having a far higher environmental impact than any other meat, especially chickens and turkeys.
As with cows, baby sheep produce large amounts of methane when they digest foods. While the quantity of methane emitted is equal to that of cows, the fact that so little edible meat is produced from these animals, their environmental impact is far higher.
Lamb produces nearly three times as much greenhouse gas emissions per kilo as chicken and turkey. This is primarily because they have a very inefficient digestive system and require a lot of land and food to produce very little meat. Lamb is also one of the most water-intensive meats, requiring twice as much water to produce than chicken. Lamb is not considered environmentally sustainable, and you should avoid it when looking for environmentally friendly meat.
Is eating meat sustainable?
Eating meat can be considered sustainable if the proper precautions are taken. For example, if you only eat organic, free-range, grass-fed meat products, the environmental impact will be much lower. You should also try to eat less meat overall and ensure that you are getting a variety of different meats, rather than just consuming large amounts of one kind.
Many options are available on the market today, such as plant-based foods or meat alternatives.
How to reduce your impact on the planet
Following an entirely plant-based diet is the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; however, if you plan to continue eating meat, you should try to reduce the amount you consume. Cutting just one steak from your diet a week is equivalent to leaving your car parked on your driveway for three months! This would make a massive difference on a global level.
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