Why is Eating Better greener?

Eating less meat is better for the environment. The food we eat carries a huge environmental footprint and meat is a ‘hotspot’ for greenhouse gas emissions, water use, pollution, land use and biodiversity loss.

According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector is one the biggest contributors to the most serious environmental problems we face locally, nationally and internationally.[1] Livestock production is responsible for around 14.5% of the world’s human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions and 30% of the world’s biodiversity loss. (See Why is livestock such a big contributor to climate change? in Q&A)

Globally, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet.[2] Growing crops like soy for animal feed results in the loss of high value habitats, such as forests, while also releasing substantial emissions of greenhouse gases.  Demand for land to grow feed crops pushes small farmers and pastoralists into forest and marginal lands. Growing global demand for meat – predicted to double by 2050 - will only exacerbate these pressures.

Pollution is another problem. The synthetic fertilisers used to grow feed crops contain high levels of nitrogen.  Plants only absorb about half the nitrogen applied and animals excrete around half the nitrogen from their feed in manure.[3] The unabsorbed nitrogen is washed into rivers and lakes and leaches from the soil into groundwater, contaminating sources of drinking water and damaging aquatic and marine ecosystems.

The production of meat also requires vast quantities of water. On average producing one kilogram of beef requires 15,000 litres of water although the exact amount will vary depending on the location and type of farming.[4] The water footprint of one 150gram soy burger produced in the Netherlands is about 160 litres.  Producing a beef burger in the same country requires about 1000 litres of water.[5]

Naturally grazed, grass-fed livestock can avoid the impacts of intensively produced cereal-fed animals.  Indeed keeping livestock on semi-natural habitats such as plant and wildlife-rich meadows and pastures is an important conservation tool and permanent pasture for grazing can act as a carbon sink.

[1] Steinfeld, H. et al., 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Rome.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.

[5] Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 49, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.