What Is the Impact of Meat on Climate?

Diagram showing timelines through history

Claire Goble

The IPCC concluded last year that we have to cut our CO2 emissions almost in half in the next dozen years if we are going to have any hope of limiting the damages from climate change. Given the enormity of this task, I assigned each of my 60 students studying sustainable design at Ryerson School of Interior Design a different facet of the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Each student had to look at the history of the issue and how we got here, why it is a problem now, and what we have to do to fix it. Some of the responses were really terrific, and I will be publishing some of the best here on TreeHugger, starting with Claire Goble on the subject of meat. These were prepared as slideshows for the class, and I have included all the slides here, so I apologize in advance for all the clicks.

We have been consuming meat for millions of years. Our earliest ancestors ate predominantly a plant-based diet and ate meat as scavengers only when available. As we have evolved so have our abilities, and so the ability to hunt allowed us to kill animals to eat. Over the years we have domesticated animals, adapting our bodies to be accustomed to consuming larger proportions of meat, even animal byproducts such as milk. Originally our bodies were not designed to digest cow milk; it is something we have formed over time. New tools have been developed, shaping the way we farm. We have transported livestock overseas to “new worlds”. Scientific societies and breed associations have been created, and meat has become a commodity. The industrial revolution brought mass production, agricultural mechanization, and marked the beginning of factory farming. Later antibiotics were introduced, as well as genetic engineering and DNA products.

This leads us to today: in 2016, over 74 billion animals were killed for human consumption. This is a massive amount of meat, but it's what we are demanding. And with such high demands, we pay a price...

Firstly, the animal agriculture industry uses massive amount of fresh water that we cannot spare. In fact, agriculture uses 69% of the entire world’s available fresh water, an irresponsible amount considering only 2.5% of the water on this planet is usable. And especially since places such as California are experiencing the largest drought in history and are having to drill into the fossil water under the mountains which has been collecting over the past millions of years... and it will take millions more to get it back. To put this into perspective: 1 quarter pounder is equivalent to 660 gallons of water, which is the same as showering for 2 months. In fact, in the U.S, 5% of the water is taken for domestic use, while 55% is used in the animal agriculture. Though much of this water, almost 9 trillion gallons, is consumed by the animals themselves, most of it is spent on growing the crops that feed the animals: water that we could be using to grow our own food directly.

meat and greenhouse gases

The greenhouse gas emissions are massive too: The top 20 largest meat and dairy corporations emit more greenhouse gases than the entire country of Germany’s combined emissions. Globally, methane accounts for about 11% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, but methane has a global warming effect 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide because of its ability to retain heat in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide has a 6% emission but has a global warming potential 300 times greater than carbon dioxide and stays in the atmosphere for 150 years. Both of these gases are products of animal manure and gas. Because of these gases’ different reactions in the atmosphere, if we were to eliminate our carbon dioxide emissions, it would take centuries to have an affect on the atmosphere. But if we eliminated our methane emissions, in only a few decades we would see noticeable changes.

The rainforest is one of the most important places on our planet; it produces over 20% of the world’s oxygen (some areas are 40), and we have only explored minuscule amounts of it. Of the 1% of the Amazon we have explored, 25% of all prescription drugs and 70% of all cancer medication has been discovered from plants and trees. Unfortunately, 91% of its deconstruction is due to animal agriculture, through cattle ranching and clear cutting to grow crops to feed the animals. Every second, 2 football field-sized pieces of land are lost in the Amazon, and every day 100 species of animals and insects are extinct. Again, that same quarter pounder we saw earlier also costs 55 square feet of land, and it's not just beef. In a single crop year, KFC used 2.9 million acres of land to feed their chickens.

Land Use

In total, 50% of the planet’s land is used for agriculture, and 77% of that land consists of livestock. 23% is used for crops, and of that amount, only 55% is for human intake. 36% is for animal feed. It seems ridiculous that we are devoting so much land to feed something to be killed and eaten when we could use that land to grow food to directly feed us.

Why not?

These are major issues that are going to have detrimental impacts on our world in the very near future, so why aren’t we being informed?

credit: Claire Goble

One of the reasons is out of the fear of our reaction. In an interview where former U.S. vice-president and creator of “The Inconvenient Truth” Al Gore was presented with this information and asked for his thoughts, his response was, “It's hard enough to get people to think about carbon dioxide. Don’t confuse them." A lot of people (especially Americans) don’t like being told what to do, and so groups that should be spreading this information are afraid that being told we need to make such drastic changes to our lifestyles will have a negative affect, and as a result they might lose attention and or funding to other important issues.

Here is what the new 2019 Canada Food Guide’s contribution was to this issue – a tiny comment saying, “Choose protein foods that come from plants more often." And yet, out of the 36 recipes they are suggesting we try, 21 are meat-based meals from their terrific tuna and tomato salad,to their moose stew... Who doesn’t love the thought of gunning down a national animal for lunch? So you can see here that we are sort of being slowly introduced to the idea, but there is no indication as to WHY plant-based diets should be used, nor does there seem to be any sort of urgency to the issue.

Another reason these issues are not being advertised is because the animal agriculture industry is one of the largest lobby groups to government employees, and even to environmental groups. This is a major issue in the U.S, which incidentally has some of the largest meat corporations. Government agencies are being paid off by agriculture lobby groups. Here is a list of the top 20 recipients who have received money, and here is a list of the top contributors (lots of Republicans). These show just how much power these large corporations have on what information we receive.

And that’s how we get this: Laws and legislations have been put into place that prevent people from “interfering” with the animal agriculture industry. The Ag-Gag legislation prevents anybody to “defame” a corporation that sells or distributes animal products. Essentially these laws are against animal welfare, food safety, market place transparency, worker’s rights, free speech, and environmental protection. These laws have been put into effect over the past decade, intending to shut up whistleblowers that reveal animal abuses on industrial farms through recording, possession or distribution of photos, video and or audio on a farm. An example of this is the Oprah Winfrey V. Texas Beef group case. In 1996, Oprah did a show on food safety when there was a mad cow disease scare. Former cattle rancher Howard Lyman spoke up about how dead cows are ground up and fed back to other cows, and if one had mad cow disease, it can affect thousands. Obviously appalled, Oprah commented on how cows are herbivores not cannibals. And said that “this has just stopped me cold from eating another burger." The U.S. beef industry immediately pulled $600,000 from her advertising and two months later her production company and Lyman were served with a $20-million lawsuit charged with making “slanderous statements about beef causing those in the cattle industry to suffer “shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and mental pain and anguish." Six years and millions of dollars’ worth of legal fees later, the case was dismissed with prejudice.

credit: claire Goble

Similar to this, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and the American Legislative Exchange Council are also in effect. These laws apply to all animal enterprises: farms, grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, science fairs, etc.... They intend to stop anyone from “interfering with” the operations of an animal enterprise. These laws prevent any peaceful and lawful protest activities of animal and environmental advocates such as protests, boycotts, undercover investigations, picketing, or whistleblowing. In 2013 two animal rights activists released minks and foxes from fur farms in the U.S. and face federal charges sentencing them to 10 years in prison and branded for life as terrorists. They ended up having to pay a $200,000 restitution and one served 6 months under house arrest, while the other was sentenced to 3 years in federal prison.

“If you commit a crime, any crime, including violating an ag-gag bill, on a state level, then you can be prosecuted federally as a terrorist under the animal enterprise terrorism act."

The animal and ecological terrorism act: Under this legislation, anybody who commits any of their listed crimes, ag-gag laws, or ALEC laws they can be branded a terrorist. Examples include: “Depriving” the owner of an animal or natural resource from participating in an animal or natural resource activity or even entering an animal or research facility when it's closed. And of course, their worst fear: Documenting with photos, videos, or audio what goes on in their facilities, in an attempt to, again, DEFAME them. According to section 5, once you have been deemed a “terrorist”, the registry shall contain the name, a current residence address, a recent photograph and signature of the offender. The attorney general shall create a website containing the information set forth in this paragraph for each person who is convicted or pleads guilty to a violation of this act. Information regarding an offender shall remain on the website for no less than 3 years.

Even though this issue is most prominent in the U.S., it does also exist here in Canada. This lady from Burlington, ON, was charged with criminal mischief and faced jail time for approaching a truck load of thirsty pigs on their way to be slaughtered and giving them water. The pigs were not given any water on the truck aside from what this person provided. She did not end up by getting charged but to be arrested in the first place seems ludicrous.

Why isn’t this the main topic of large environmental groups' website forums? A lot of times the meat industry does provide funding for these groups: These are screenshots, one from Greenpeace’s website, the other from the Rainforest Alliance. The issues are addressed, and they make it clear that agriculture is the culprit, but their solution is, “Yes, you can still eat meat, but it should be ecological or sustainably produced."

And that’s where we get this – this myth that we can consume meat at the same amount we are today, as long as it's been labelled 'sustainable'. On the left here is from the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, from their National Beef Sustainability Strategy. But they provide us with a list of goals, a lot of them addressing issues, but then their solutions to these problems are a compilation of drivel, usually something along the lines of “support the research for this, and encourage the enhancement of that." Their last goal here is to "increase the demand for Canadian beef through consumer awareness of sustainable production," which apparently they will do by supporting responsible communication of marketing of production practices that are of interest and concern to the consumer. So these guys want us to eat more beef! And they are using this “sustainable” title as a way of doing so – to make us think we are doing good, when in fact it's worse! One of “sustainable” farming’s implementations is the elimination of steroids and growth hormones, which is great, but without which the animals become a lot leaner. So in order to produce the amount of meat demanded, there is an expected increase of over 30% livestock. Studies show an increase of 468 million gallons of water would be expected, and not to mention a massive increase in food. The animal’s change in diet also poses a threat. These animals are often grass-fed (what they are supposed to be eating naturally). Under this diet, cows require 23 months of growth before they are slaughtered, whereas when they are grain- or corn-fed they only need 15 months of growth. This means that there is an extra 8 months' worth of water, feed and land use. Some studies show that these diets actually produce more methane, rather than supposedly decrease it.

Is there truly a solution? Absolutely, and it's up to us! The easiest, fastest, and most efficient way of solving so many of the world’s problems is adopting a vegan diet. Each day you save over 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, the equivalent of 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, and at least one animal’s life.

credit: Claire Goble

Thanks to Claire Goble.