The True Cost of Meat Eating

The growing demand for meat has brought about a massive expansion of intensively farmed livestock. This has:

diverted vast quantities of grain from human to animal consumption, which:

  • makes less food available to the world
  • requires intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides

which causes a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health:

  • the water pollution from chemicals is creating dead zones in the seas, causing toxic algal blooms and killing fish
  • while air pollution is affecting bees, amphibians and sensitive ecosystems
The UNEP report Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution urges people to reduce their meat intake by 50% to reduce ecological impacts on the planet. Meat  nutrients are produced at great expense globally, but most of them end up wasted through the animals’ manure.
Figure 1: Estimated net anthropogenic nitrogen inputs according to river catchments
Figure 2: Nutrient flows showing use (blue arrows) and recylcing (greeen arrows) and numbers indicate suggested Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE)
For the Nutrient flow diagram above, the Nutrient Use Efficiency improvements 1 to 10 are;
  • Agriculture: 1, 2, 3
  • Transport and Industry: 4,5
  • Waste and Recycling: 6, 7
  • Societal Consumption pattern: 8,9
  • Integration and Optimization: 10

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) partnered with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis and consulting firm, to do lifecycle assessments of 20 popular types of meat (including fish), dairy and vegetable proteins. Unlike most studies that focus just on production emissions, EWG assessment calculates the full “cradle-to-grave” carbon footprint of each food item based on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm – from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking and, finally, disposal of unused food. The analysis also includes the emissions from producing food that never gets eaten, either because it’s left on the plate or because of spoilage or fat and moisture loss during cooking. About 20 percent of edible meat just gets thrown out (EWG/CleanMetrics analysis of 2011 USDA data) Meat eating takes its tolls in a number of ways:

  • Billions of animals slaughtered every year
  • Toll on health, the environment, climate and animal welfare
  • Producing all this meat and dairy requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water
  • It also generates greenhouse gases and large amounts of toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and, ultimately, the ocean
  • Eating large quantities of beef and processed meats increases your exposure to toxins and is linked to higher rates of health problems, including heart disease, cancer and obesity.
If present trends continue, meat consumption will expand:
  • Americans consume 60 per cent more than Europeans (FAO 2009)
  • The global appetite for meat is exploding.
  • From 1971 to 2010, worldwide production of meat tripled to around 600 billion pounds while global population grew by just 81 percent (US Census Bureau, International Data Base)
  • At this rate, production will double by 2050 to approximately 1.2 trillion pounds of meat per year, requiring more water, land, fuel, pesticides and fertilizer and causing significant damage to the planet and global health (Elam 2006)

The lifecycle assessments are based on conventional rather than pasture-based or organic systems of food production. EWG  focused on conventionally produced, grain-fed meat because that is mostly what Americans eat.

EWG Infographics on the impact of meat-eating

Antibiotics and Meat-eating