Meat consumption, known for its various health benefits, has steadily risen since the 1960s. While it provides essential nutrients to our diets, it is important to consider the environmental implications associated with its production.
As global demand for meat grows, so does the strain on natural resources. This includes increased greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change, and challenges to wildlife habitats, water availability, and pollution levels.
This article explores the reasons producing meat negatively impacts the environment. We will also discuss the history of eating meat, the meat people eat, and ways to produce meat sustainably.
Meat consumption goes back to the early origins of the human species. Our predecessors hunted wild animals for meat for a long time before the domestication of animals began. Fossil evidence shows meat intake dates back to five million years ago.
Archeologists believe meat consumption led to the invention of better tools and hunting weapons. The earliest records of humans in Europe showed humans hunted large animals like mammoths and some extinct elephant species. To do so, they developed more advanced tools, like bows and arrows, to make more accurate shots.
The most recent ice age was about 20,000 years ago. During these times, evidence showed humans herding reindeer with dogs. The domestication of animals for their meat became more prominent. They reared animals like pigs, horses, cattle, goats, sheep, and llamas according to the ecosystem of various regions around the world15.
The South American highlands allowed the domestication of llama and alpaca, and central Asia domesticated yak. Horses, donkeys, sheep, cattle, camels, and goats, initially domesticated in North Africa and central Asia, became widespread.
Humans killed and slaughtered these animals in small slaughterhouses in the 1770s. However, small slaughterhouses became unsustainable as the human population grew and mass production increased the efficiency of our food chains. Abattoirs became the new norm.
The earliest records of abattoirs were in France in 1300. Then modern abattoirs became popular in Paris between the years 1807-1818. Later, they established large private abattoirs for large-scale production and exportation.
Meat producers developed these large private abattoirs in North and South America, New Zealand, and Australia in 1860. The first mechanized large-scale slaughter was in Chicago in 1870, using machines throughout the process, including the scalding, dehairing, and scraping of pigs
The international meat trade began around 1840, initially over short distances. Over time, meat processing advanced, and exportation over long distances became more common.
English farmers used oil cakes to fatten their livestock. The species of meat consumed depended on what was available. Northern Scandinavia depended on reindeer for meat and dairy. Asians mostly consumed fish, poultry meat, guinea pigs, and dogs. During war periods, Europeans ate dogs and cats.
The first shipment of chilled meat was in 1875. From New York to Glasgow, they shipped chilled meat using large ice blocks to keep the temperature under 3°C. In the late 1890s, Northern America exported 80,000 tons of chilled meat annually.
Apart from meat consumption, humans eat a wide range of animal parts. Animal offals, brains, lungs, intestines, ears, tongues, udders, tails, skin, and testicles all feature in human diets to varying degrees. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, animal welfare regulations began to roll out in an effort to ensure improved conditions for livestock and other animals destined for slaughter and our tables.
The natural environment provides us with various types of meat, either from wild animals or grazing livestock. The classifications of meat often need to be clarified. Most people refer to the groups of meat as red meat and white meat using various criteria.
For instance, some scientists categorize meat as red and white based on their myoglobin structure, mitochondrial densities, muscle fiber physiology, and lipid profile. Sometimes, they use the response to physiological change during postmortem metabolism or protein breakdown8.
So, red meat includes beef, lamb, mutton, pork, venison, goat, and rabbit meat. White meat includes chicken, turkey, duck, and goose meat—however, more than these terms are needed for nutritional study.
In nutritional studies, they use white meat and red meat to describe saturated and unsaturated fat content. Here, nutritionists would consider poultry and turkey legs as white meat despite having different compositions from chicken and turkey breast. Also, veal meat would be white meat because of its low myoglobin structure.
They refer to fish as white meat. However, some types of fish, like salmon and tuna, are red before cooking. Tuna turns paler after cooking, while salmon turns light pink. Despite salmon turning from red to pink, they don't label it as red meat.
To avoid further confusion, here is a list of meat people around the world commonly eat as a product of meat production:
Food consumption patterns show that the global population has high meat consumption rates. The global meat industry produces over 350 million tons annually16. In 2021, the meat most consumed was poultry, at over 132 million tons. The second and third most consumed meat is pork, beef, and veal, at a staggering 108.8 million tons and 71.5 million tons13, respectively.
With the above statistics, you can imagine how large livestock production is worldwide. As the population increases, the demand for meat increases. This high demand for meat production has enormous impacts on the natural environment. Also, high levels of meat consumption affect human health.
Here, we will examine six environmental impacts of livestock farming and meat consumption on the environment.
The first impact of meat production in the food industry stems from animal feed. Animal food is fundamental in animal agriculture because it is the key to a meaty harvest. Think of it like soil fertilizers used to grow plants. With healthy soil, a bountiful harvest increased sales.
To produce livestock feed, we need to plant crops. Various species of animals eat different types and parts of crops. For instance, ruminant species feed on grass, leaves, and forages. Monogastric species eat oil crops, grains, and household food waste. In 2005, ruminant livestock ate 4.9 billion tonnes of feed, while pigs and poultry ate 1.4 billion tonnes of feed9.
The production, processing, and transportation of animal feed through the supply chain contribute 45% of the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the meat industry. In check with the increasing demand for meat consumption, the feed required to feed livestock keeps growing. This means that animal food production will contribute more tons of carbon dioxide to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Feed production produces a lot of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide greenhouse gases. The deposit of fertilizers and manure on the soil produces nitrous oxide, while carbon dioxide is from the heavy use of fossil fuels. Feed production requires heavy machinery to harvest and process crops. These intensive farming practices also disrupt the soil and its fauna.
The livestock industry produces over 14% of greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture contributes two primary types of greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. Methane gas is from enteric fermentation and manure storage, while nitrous oxide gas is from manure storage and the use of organic & inorganic fertilizers.
Enteric fermentation is a digestive process of ruminant animals. It is a necessary digestive process that allows ruminant animals’ fore-stomach to release hydrogen. Bacteria, fungi, and protozoa break down and ferment the plant food the animals consume. They convert the digested food into volatile fatty acids. Then the animals pass it out as a gaseous waste product with a belch or eructation2. The waste product is methane gas.
The quantity of methane and nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere depends on the storage conditions of the manure. Storing manure for an extended period will release more gasses under warm and wet conditions. Apart from these, the production of livestock feed, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides also contributes to the release of greenhouse gases. Transportation of these products to various animal farms leaves a heavy carbon footprint on the environment.
Methane and nitrous oxide impact climate change and global warming more than CO2. Methane increases the risk of global warming 28 more times, while nitrous oxide increases the chances of climate change 265 times higher. With the global population projected to hit 9.8 billion in 2050, we might experience the worst climate change yet.
Further reading: What Are Greenhouse Gases?
There are three classifications of water in the environment. Blue water refers to surface and groundwater, green water refers to soil water used in evapotranspiration (evaporation and transpiration), and gray water refers to water used to dilute soil pollutants7.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, animal agricultural practices use an equivalent of 11 900 km³ of freshwater annually10. In 2010, livestock farming consumed 2 290 km³ of green water and 370 km³ of blue water. These statistics show animal farms use a staggering amount of water to produce feed, care for animals, slaughter, and process them.
For instance, a slaughterhouse in California was found to illegally use 4-5 million gallons of water daily to live slaughter chickens. Besides high water consumption rates, livestock waste also pollutes surrounding water sources. Livestock wastes contain bacteria and protozoa that can contaminate surface and groundwater sources.
Cattle have access to open rivers and streams in extensive grazing systems. They easily defecate in these water sources, and the pathogens in their feces travel far distances. Water contamination by these microbial bodies often leads to waterborne diseases in humans. Other sources of water contamination in livestock farming are sewage sludge and septic tank discharge1.
Further Reading: Water Pollution Facts and Statistics
Beef production is responsible for 41% of tropical deforestation5. Extensive cattle ranching requires intensive land use; to create this, farmers destroy forests and cut down trees.
The Amazon Forest is a prime example of deforestation for the sake of grazing animals. Farmers also destroy forests to plant crops for feeding livestock. Soy crops are the crops that drive the ruin of forests globally. 70-75% of soy crops feed livestock17.
However, deforestation is harmful to biodiversity at large. Many animal species lose their habitats, which leads to displacement and, prospectively, extinction.
Also, deforestation increases the risk of climate change. It releases large amounts of heat-trapping gasses. Burning these forests also raises the carbon footprint of cattle farming, contributing to climate change. These trees are helpful and necessary for carbon capture and sequestration. Without these trees, we have no hope of combating climate change.
Further Reading: Deforestation Facts and Statistics
Another environmental impact of meat consumption is air pollution from animal farms. Animal factory farms contain high levels of organic dust and a mixture of gasses. These gases include ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) from animal manure.
They spread through farm activities like plowing land, fertilizing, storing, and spreading manure. Most farms need proper manure disposal and storage methods. Therefore, increasing the spread of pollutants in the air.
Chronic exposure to these toxic particles can lead to heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Inhaling these gases is very detrimental to human health. Out of the 15,900 annual death tolls in the United States, 80% is due to air pollution from animal production11.
Further Reading: Air Pollution Facts and Statistics
Eating meat can be detrimental to human health, specifically red meat. Consuming meat- especially wild meat - can put you at risk of viral infections. Researchers have discovered many viruses in wild meat markets. The most common viral infection from eating meat is hepatitis E (HEV). We risk infection when we eat improperly processed meat12. These wild meats include pork, wild boar, and deer meat.
According to research, 10% of wild boar meat and 15% of red deer meat samples from Spain have traces of hepatitis E. Most people infected with HEV are asymptomatic, but some can suffer the lethal effects of the virus. We can easily avoid these viral infections when cooking meat above 60°C. Scientists discovered coronavirus, the most recent global viral infection, in bats and rats, in Vietnam.
Red meat and processed meat increase the risk of experiencing coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and premature death. Red meat is rich in nutrients like proteins, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12, encouraging muscle growth and multiple red blood cells. These nutrients also help the body produce testosterone and selenium. However, you don't need red meat to get these nutrients.
A study by Dr. Frank Hu at Harvard showed eating meat in high amounts can shorten your lifespan3. He studied 37,000 men and 83,000 women over four years. Before his study, all participants were free from heart disease or cancer. By the end of the study, 5,900 died from heart disease, while 9,500 died from cancer.
Read more: Eat Less Meat to Help the Environment
Given the environmental impacts of the world’s meat consumption, minimizing meat in our diets is best. Reducing meat consumption means there won’t be a need to produce meat in enormous quantities.
We can do this by switching to plant-based foods. The impact of meat production would reduce if a large portion of the population cut down meat in their diets significantly, became vegetarians, and/or maintained a plant-based diet.
Besides a reduced meat diet in our overall food consumption, animal farms can rear livestock with more sustainable methods14. Some of these methods are:
Cultured meat, called vitro meat, is produced in vitro cell culture. Scientists have undertaken the task of creating meat with technology to counter the unsustainable methods of producing meat4. They isolated skeletal muscle-derived animal cells from slaughtered animals through a muscle biopsy.
Mark Post was the first to produce cultured meat in 2013 at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Later, many laboratories and companies started exploring the possibilities of engineered meat. A US-based company, and increasing numbers of emerging innovators, produce vitro meat in various forms like meatballs, beef fajita, chicken, and duck.
Our eating habits are more important now than ever. As you read earlier, producing meat commercially harms society much more than it provides good. To eat meat and dairy products, we need to be extra careful. Eating improperly processed meat puts us at risk of contracting viral infections. Also, overeating red meat puts us at risk of getting heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
Apart from the health risks of eating meat, we cannot ignore its high energy consumption rates and contribution to water and air pollution. Cattle farming puts the entire environment and our health at risk. So, let’s encourage animal farmers around us to partake in sustainable animal farming practices.
You can also decide to delve into vegetarian and vegan diets. This will go a long way in reducing meat consumption. If you can’t stop eating meat altogether, you can slowly introduce plant foods into your diet and gradually reduce meat consumption over time.
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Giampiero Grossi, Pietro Goglio, Andrea Vitali, Adrian G Williams, Livestock and climate change: impact of livestock on climate and mitigation strategies, Animal Frontiers, Volume 9, Issue 1, January 2019, Pages 69–76, https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfy034
Pan, A., Sun, Q., Bernstein, A. M., Schulze, M. B., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., Willett, W. C., & Hu, F. B. (2012). Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies. Archives of internal medicine, 172(7), 555–563.
Hong, T. K., Shin, M., Choi, J., Do, J. T., & Han, S. G. (2021). Current Issues and Technical Advances in Cultured Meat Production: A Review. Food Science of Animal Resources, 41(3), 355-372.
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Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.