Why Meat Consumption Isn't Sustainable

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Do you think we can cut meat consumption in the West by up to 90 percent by the year 2050? Me neither. (Photo: martinho Smart/Shutterstock)

Quite often, I meet people — well-meaning, thoughtful, caring people who are vigilant about their meat consumption, who insist that if we grass-fed all the beef, if we free-ranged all the chickens, the world would be a better, cleaner place. We would all be healthier, and everyone could still eat meat, too.

And if we had an unlimited world, with unlimited amounts of grain and pasture and space, this could work. But we don't. We have one planet Earth and currently 7 billion people on it. And we keep eating more and more meat. And making more and more people.

World meat consumption is expected to double by 2050, especially in developed countries. According to the Worldwatch Institute, "Per-capita meat consumption has more than doubled in the past half-century, even as global population has continued to increase. As a result, the overall demand for meat has increased five-fold."

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization reports "26 percent of the planet's ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production. Livestock contribute to seven percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions through enteric fermentation and manure."

Running out of time

Aerial view of deforestation
When humans clear forests, there's a negative ripple effect. And livestock farming just eats up room on our planet — room we are slowly realizing we simply don't have. (Photo: Fedorov Oleksiy/Shutterstock)

If countries don't radically reduce the amount of livestock that is raised and consumed, Earth may not be able to sustain its population by the year 2050. This is all according to an study from the University of Oxford published in October 2018. Researchers recommend that western nations cut their meat consumption by 90 percent.

But why meat? How does livestock negatively impact the environment? The study notes that farming livestock is a triple threat — large amounts of methane released into the atmosphere, deforestation to make room for fields and massive amounts of water needed for each animal.

Those who produce beef, chicken, pork and other meats have to be as efficient as possible — and that's not free-range animals living on a bucolic farm. There's only so much space that's suitable for raising livestock in a lower-impact, healthier-for-the-environment (and healthier-for-the-animal) way. Packing them into feedlots, feeding them grains (instead of grasses for cows and bugs and worms for chickens) is cheaper, faster and easier.

With more people, should we be throwing away calories towards meat production? It seems unethical, since for every 100 calories of grains and feed we give to a beef cow, we only get 20 percent back in edible calories — and that's if we don't waste a bit of meat. It's slightly better for chickens, which give us 25 percent of calories fed back, but worse for pigs, at 15 percent. What this means is there's competition between feeding people and animals to feed people. It's just plain inefficient; if we want more people, we have to eat less meat.

"But there must be a way!" you think. "I want to eat meat and not contribute to environmental or human destruction!" Sure there is.

Here's how we can keep up America's current consumption of meat and expand it to the rest of the developing world:

Massively limit population growth: Meat production was sustainable for millennia, since there were many, many fewer people, and the waste and emissions that animals produced weren't impactful enough to be a problem. We can all eat meat every day if there are as many people as there were on the planet in, say, 1927 when there were about 1.2 billion people on the planet. Or hey, we can even stretch it to 1950 (that golden age of hamburgers), when there were just 2.5 billion people, almost one-third the number there are today. Now we just have to figure out how to wipe out two-thirds of the world population so we can all eat meat! Ideas?

The question is: More people, or more meat? We can't have both.

Eat less meat: If we ALL ate less meat — say a couple of times a week at most — that could make well-raised meat possible for all because meat consumption would be much lower overall. Or half of us could go vegetarian. (Those of us who already have love it.) Even if you don't want to go full-on vegetarian, there are enticements to lowering your meat consumption. Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at the long-running Nurses' Health Study and a following, looking at the eating habits of 80,000 women and men over eight years. The results were simple: Increases in red meat consumption, especially processed meat, were associated with higher overall mortality rates.

Embrace lab-grown meats: Many people are disgusted by the idea of in-vitro meats, but if you want to eat some animal flesh, well, this is a low-impact way to get your meat fix. As MNN writer Robin Shreeves detailed, a study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology "showed that full-scale production of cultured meat could greatly reduce water, land and energy use, and emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases, compared with conventional raising and slaughtering of cattle or other livestock."

I don't see any other alternatives, do you?

I don't see any of these scenarios happening — unless of course, one last option comes to pass: That meat becomes prohibitively expensive, a wealthy person's food, a daily treat for the 1 percent. You know, how it was for basically all of human history around the planet until the current industrial era.