aspect magazine

Can eating less meat be good for the planet?

Article by Serena Haththotuwa
Illustration by Sarah Fay

Animal agriculture has gotten significant attention in recent years for being one of the worst offending industries in the climate crisis.

For example, animal agriculture uses 70% of all agricultural land and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution. The industry makes up 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second biggest cause of global emissions behind the burning of fossil fuels. 

In 2015, the World Health Organisation said eating too much red and processed meat can be as carcinogenic as smoking cigarettes, and eating too much dairy and meat has been linked to a higher risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. 

Despite a growing awareness of animal agriculture’s impact on our health, the planet and the animals suffering within farms, few changes have been made to the way the industry operates.

As consumers choosing which industries we want to support has the potential to change industries for the better. Potentially, eating less meat can make animal product businesses rethink their practices and make eating local, ethical produce – which has less environmental impact – more normal.

But how has animal agriculture gotten such a bad reputation in recent years and why is it considered so bad for the planet in the first place? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of deforestation.

Animal agriculture requires a tremendous amount of land. Livestock is responsible for roughly 60% of the world’s deforestation. Every year, 70 billion animals are raised for human consumption, using up a lot of land, feed and water.

Deforestation plays a major role in climate change. It destroys green spaces, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ruins animal habitats, which puts species at risk of extinction and threatens the planet’s natural biodiversity – which is crucial to our survival.

2. Animal agriculture contributes to the loss of biodiversity in the natural world.

Biodiversity is all the different forms of life on our planet. Plants, animals and microorganisms all make up the natural world and support each other in ecosystems, creating balance. Biodiversity is important for everything needed for survival, including food and water. Animal agriculture upsets the planet’s natural biodiversity. 

report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Compassion in World Farming found that the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. The report suggests that an urgent reform of food systems, including a global movement to plant-based diets, is important.

3. Animal agriculture is a leading contributor to water pollution.

Livestock produces billions of tonnes of waste every year. This waste is kept in tanks in large ponds or pits and often leak. In addition, waste is sprayed onto farm fields to dispose of it. The environmental damage from spraying and leaking of these tanks is vast – threatening aquatic ecosystems and potentially affecting drinking water.

In a full circle, a considerable amount of the world’s clean water is used to produce meat products. For example, cattle use the most amount of water production, one kilogram of beef using about 15 thousand litres of water.

4. Animal agriculture produces almost a third of human-caused methane emissions.

An assessment by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) revealed that the methane caused by the animal agriculture industry plays a major role in climate change. The study shows that manure and gastro releases from livestock accounted for over 30% of human-caused methane emissions.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and the main contributor to ground-level ozone, hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gas. The research conducted by UNEP concluded that as populations grow, so too will the need for larger levels of food production – advising that populations move to plant-based diets.

A growing and urgent awareness of the human impact on the planet has left many of us wondering what we can do to help control climate emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius, the target of the Paris climate change agreement. 

A move to a plant-based diet, or even reducing the amount of meat in our diets can have a tremendous impact on the number of emissions produced. With our global population increasing and expected to increase by up to 70% by 2050, the need for us to change our diets and reorganise our agricultural systems may become imperative. 

This article is the product of the author’s participation in the Young Journalists’ Training, delivered by Pioneers Post, in the context of British Council’s Stronger Together for Climate programme around the Global Youth Letter. Take a look at the letter and participate in the 8,000 Rising Campaign to unite your voice with young people across the world!

 Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the British Council.