The conspiracy theory that eating meat destroys the planet contrasts with the reality of the nutritional imbalance that would result from limiting humans in the consumption of products of animal origin.
It is not eating meat that causes damage to the environment, but rather, how it is produced, transported and sold. But meat has become a public target as more and more people advocate eating less meat to save the environment. Some fanatics even propose to put a tax to reduce their consumption.
Opponents of meat argue that its production generates more greenhouse gases than the entire transport sector. However, this statement is false. Nonetheless, the persistence of this idea leads to inaccurate assumptions regarding meat consumption and climate change.
There are many reasons to choose either to consume animal proteins or to choose a vegetarian menu. However, the renunciation of meat and its derivatives is not a panacea for the environment, as many would have us believe and, taken to the extreme, it can also produce negative nutritional consequences.
Much of the meat’s bad reputation comes from the claim that livestock is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the world.
For example, an analysis published by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington in 2009 assured that 51% of the emission of greenhouse gases in the world came from the breeding and processing of livestock.
But, according to the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, the main sources of greenhouse gases in the US during 2016 were electricity production, transportation and industry. Altogether added up 76% of all emissions.
Agriculture and livestock account for only 9% of emissions, with livestock contributing with a laughable 3.9%. The numbers show that livestock cannot be compared to transportation in terms of pollution.
Why has that conclusion that meat production produces more greenhouse gases been reached then?
In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published a study entitled The long shadow of livestock: environmental problems and options. The report, which attracted international attention, claimed that livestock produced an astonishing 18% of greenhouse gases around the globe. But even if it were true, it was still far less than transportation, industry or electricity production.
The agency came to a surprising conclusion: “cattle did more damage to the climate than all types of transport combined”.
This statement is FALSE and was denied by Henning Steinfeld, the main author of the report.
The mistake was that FAO analysts carried out a comprehensive life cycle assessment to study the climate impact of raising livestock, but when analyzing transport they used a different method.
For livestock, FAO took into consideration all the factors associated with meat production, among which are the emissions generated by the manufacture of fertilizers, the conversion of forests into pastures, the cultivation of feed and the emissions that come from the animals burps and flatulence, from his birth to his death.
The catch is that when they analyzed the carbon emissions produced by transport, they ignored the effects on climate that come from the manufacture of materials and parts of vehicles, their assembly and the maintenance of roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructures.
Instead, they only took into account the emissions of cars, trucks, trains and airplanes. As a result, FAO’s comparison of greenhouse gas emissions between livestock and transport was completely distorted.
Despite the fact that FAO acknowledged the error, still today climate change fanatics fight to show that it is not like that.
In its most recent evaluation report, FAO estimated that livestock produces 14.5% of the greenhouse gases from human activities worldwide.
There is no comprehensive life cycle assessment of the transport with which it can be compared. However, as Steinfeld points out, direct emissions from transport can be compared with direct and indirect emissions from livestock, with the former at 14%, compared to 5% for the latter.
Solving the problems of how meat is produced is the secret to decrease pollution
Many people still think that stop eating meat only one day a week will influence the fight against climate change. Nothing is further from reality.
A recent study shows that even if a population of say, 300 million people eliminated all animal proteins from their diets, greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by 2.6%.
According to the results of research conducted at the University of California at Davis, if the entire population of the United States joined the practice of a meatless day, a reduction in emissions would only be reduced by 0.5%.
In addition, the technological, genetic and management changes that have taken place in agriculture and livestock in the United States over the past 70 years have made livestock production more efficient and less harmful to the environment.
According to FAO’s statistical base, direct emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States have decreased by 11.3% since 1961, while the production of meat from livestock has multiplied by more than two.
Demand for meat is growing in emerging and developing economies, with the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia leading the way. Even so, the consumption of meat per individual in these regions is still far from that of the developed countries.
In 2015, the average annual consumption of meat per capita in the countries with solid economies was 92 kilograms, while in the Middle East and North Africa it was 24 kilograms, reducing to 18 in Southeast Asia.
In any case, given the expected growth of the population in the future, countries like the United States should adopt more sustainable practices for raising livestock, not to eliminate its production altogether. The same should be done in other developed nations.
The positive impact of growing cattle beyond eating meat
If agriculture dispensed with animals, gas emissions would be reduced to a very small degree, but it would also be more difficult to achieve basic nutritional objectives.
Many critics who speak against raising cattle indicate that if the farmers cultivated plants only, they could produce a greater amount of food and calories per person. But humans also need many micro and macronutrients essential for health that plants cannot provide in the same volume as meat products do.
A more important point is that cattle raising adds economic and nutritional value to vegetable agriculture.
For example, cattle consume plants whose energy resides mainly in cellulose, which is not digestible for humans and many other mammals, but cows, sheep and other ruminants can digest it and release the energy it contains into their meat.
According to FAO, about 70% of the world’s agricultural lands are pastures that can only be used as grazing lands for ruminant livestock.
There is no way to guarantee that a meatless world would be able to feed number of inhabitants that we expect to have by say, 2050, when projections predict that the planet will be inhabited by around 9.8 billion people.
Nutrients per serving of meat exceed those of vegetarian options and ruminant animals grow thanks to foods that are not edible to humans.
The raising of cattle, in addition, supposes a necessary economic income for small farmers of developing countries: it is estimated that livestock is the main livelihood of a billion people around the world.
In sum, the coming population growth and the pollution caused by industrialized meat production gives us more than enough reasons to continue working in the search for greater efficiency in animal agriculture, not in the elimination of meat production or the limitation in meat consumption.