Eat less meat for the environment…and for your health!

Aug 2014

How to feed the 9-10 billion people projected to inhabit the planet by 2050, while being sustainable, is a challenging task. Improving food system efficiency i.e. reducing wastage during production, processing and consumption; changing our agricultural practices towards more sustainable methods i.e. sustainable intensive agriculture (although an oxymoron if ever there was one), and eating differently have all been posited as solutions. What is interesting about the last option is if we simply modified our culturally and economically-embedded eating habits, western societies could markedly reduce the environmental (and health) impacts of wasteful, unsustainable over-consumption of food – especially of meat. Let’s take a quick look at what is a ‘sustainable diet’, why reducing our meat consumption might be necessary and what we have to do to achieve it.

A sustainable diet

You have heard of slim-fast diets, high-protein diets, weight-watcher diets but what about a sustainable diet. A report from the Food and Climate Research Network (FCRN) part of the Oxford Martin School published earlier this year discusses what is meant by a ‘sustainable diet’. According to them, it is a diet that has minimal impact on the environment in terms of minimising GHG emissions, good, effective and sustainable use of land and consideration for biodiversity, while being nutritious and healthy. Such a diet involves not consuming more than one needs, low consumption of meat/fish/dairy protein and high consumption of minimally processed non-meat products – grains, tubers, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. Here is the specific list from the report defining the aspects of a sustainable diet:

  • Diversity – a wide variety of foods eaten
  • Balance achieved between energy intake and energy needs
  • Based around: minimally processed tubers and whole grains; legumes; fruits and vegetables – particularly those that are field grown, „robust‟ (less prone to spoilage) and less requiring of rapid and more energy-intensive transport modes
  • Meat eaten sparingly if at all – and all animal parts consumed
  • Dairy products or alternatives eaten in moderation eg. fortified milk substitutes and other foods rich in calcium and micronutrients
  • Unsalted seeds and nuts
  • Small quantities of fish and aquatic products sourced from certified fisheries
  • Very limited consumption of foods high in fat, sugar or salt and low in micronutrients e.g. crisps, confectionery, sugary drinks
  • Oils and fats with a beneficial Omega 3:6 ratio such as rapeseed and olive oil
  • Tap water in preference to other beverages – particularly soft drinks

Challenges of course in pin-pointing what a sustainable diet should comprise includes the how we define, measure and monitor ‘sustainability’ of the food and its production, along with economic and social aspects of sustainability.

For example, beef is getting a lot of ‘beef’ at the moment (sorry for the pun) as it is highly intensive (in terms of land, water and energy use), inefficient in calorie and land conversion and environmentally detrimental (loss of forests in the Amazon, degradation of freshwater ecosystems, etc). Is ‘beef’ intrinsically unsustainable or could there be levels of beef production/consumption and methods of production that would be acceptable under the sustainability remit? With regards to economics, affordable food is essential but at what cost? How does one find the balance between affordability and environmental sustainability?

Our love of meat

Core to a sustainable diet is low meat consumption i.e. beef, venison, lamb, pork, chicken… But our consumption of meat is expected to grow significantly.

…on the global scale the world’s meat production is poised to more than double over the next 45 years.

Since 1961 global meat consumption has quadrupled standing now at 283 million tonnes per year. Although not expected to grow at the same rate as this, on a ‘global scale the world’s meat production is poised to more than double over the next 45 years’. To meet the demand for beef only, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research estimates that by 2050 we will need a cattle population of 2.6 billion animals.

Meat production is increasing above what is expected because diets are changing. Both in Asia and Africa meat consumption is increasing, becoming a more common part of the daily diet. According to the FAO, between 1997/99 and 2030, annual meat consumption (from livestock) in developing countries is projected to increase from 25.5 to 37 kg per person, compared with an increase from 88 to 100 kg in industrial countries.

Why does meat consumption matter?

Assuming farming practices don’t change, projected demand in meat is not just unsustainable, it is simply impossible without causing unconscionable ecological degradation, exploitation of our water resources, and erosion and loss of our land and biodiversity.

…the absolute growth of 359.3 million tons of meat production is substantially more than we can produce today using essentially all of our productive farmland.


Currently 70% of our agricultural land (33% of which is dedicated to growing feed crop for farm animals) is used to sustain our love of meat (Global Agriculture). This amounts to about 3.4 billion ha of land. Based on a doubling of demand we would therefore need at the bare minimum of another 3.4 billion ha by 2050. Is this a viable scenario? Not really, not without huge trade-offs. According to the US Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), there is currently around 7.2 billion ha of available land with the potential for rain-fed production but only 1.4 billion ha of prime land remains. With limited available land to increase productivity to meet demand, it all falls in increasing yields. If yields can not be maintained then there will be increased pressure to use more fragile lands that are not farmed today.

Converting more of the Amazon into grazing for cattle should simply not be an option. Is a steak worth the loss of Amazonian biodiversity? No? Already over the past 50 years 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been lost, mostly due to forest conversion for cattle ranching. In Central America, forest area has been reduced by almost 40% over the past 4 decades, with pasture and cattle population increasing rapidly over the same period.  In addition, soybean and cereal production primarily destined for feed production has unleashed a wave of events leading to the destruction of natural habitats. Between 2004 and 2005 an estimated 1.2 million hectares of rainforest was cut down as a result of soybean expansion (FAO).

Energy and greenhouse gases

Producing meat is both energy intensive and a significant greenhouse gas emitter. According to a study carried out by the NGO, Environmental Working Group, lamb, beef and cheese have the highest greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that as much as half the emissions produced is due to the methane emitted by ruminant animals through their digestive process, called enteric fermentation; and methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Additionally, rearing ruminants is a more energy-intensive process (e.g. amount and type of feed) and produces more manure compared with other meat proteins such as pork and chicken. Beef production is 13 times more energy-intensive than vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu. Because it is the most consumed meat it also has a greater impact than lamb – 30% of meat eaten in America is beef (EWG).

Ecological degradation and water use

Animal husbandry has many ecological consequences. In the US, animal husbandry accounts for 55% of all soil erosion and sedimentation, 37% of pesticide use, 50% of antibiotic use and one third of freshwater pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus (Global Agriculture).

Worldwide, it is responsible for around 8% of human water use, mostly for the irrigation of feed crops. As a Guardian article presented it, for factory farmed meat it “takes 33 bathtubs of water to produce a single kilo of pork and 24 bathtubs go into a kilo of chicken but beef tops the list: it soaks up 90 bathtubs.” (Guardian, July 9th 2014).

Disease and antibiotic resistance

Finally, two other issues surround meat that is linked not to environmental degradation but our health – disease and antibiotic resistance. There is a concern that overuse of antimicrobials in animal husbandry is contributing to resistant infections in humans (APUA). Currently 50% of antibiotics in the US is used on livestock, not just to prevent disease but also to promote growth. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called the growing evidence of antibiotic resistant bacteria a global threat – something that could take society back to the dark ages where people die of basic infections. In order to keep up with demand for meat it is estimated that we need 2.8 billion cattle and 35 billion birds. How are we to maintain the health of these animals, while tackling growing antibiotic resistance?

Additionally, it is not only resistance that is a concern, it is also the transfer of disease from animal to humans. The BSE scare in the UK in the 1990s is one example. Where 177 people died in Britain from contracting variant CJD, a fatal neurodegenerative disease, after eating contaminated meat containing BSE. It is estimated that 1 in 22,000 people in the UK actually carrier a dormant version of CJD. This isn’t the most concerning scenario. Just this year in Denmark it was disclosed that three people died of a livestock-resistant MRSA bacteria (see Wired). While different strains of Avian Flu that have been transmitted from poultry to humans is an ongoing current threat (WHO). Although the death toll for humans is low, millions of birds, pigs and sheep have been culled as a result of these scares. Is this ethically acceptable? So can we actually manage safely – and ethically – the growing number of cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry that we need to meet demand?

Eating less meat = food security

The facts suggest that shifting our diet to a less meat (especially beef) and dairy heavy diet would have huge environmental and health benefits. But that is not all. Eating less meat will also mean greater food security for a growing population.

The argument goes that growing crops for animal feed results in land for direct food production being lost. Why is this? According to the calculations of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the calories which are lost by feeding cereals to animals instead of using them directly as human food, could theoretically feed an extra 3.5 billion people.

Animal production requires a lot of land for little calorific contribution, especially in the case of beef. While 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, beef only provides less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world. Currently, beef production requires 30 million square kilometres of land but only contributes 24% of the world’s meat. In contrast, poultry accounts for 34% of global meat consumption and pork accounts for 40% but both poultry and pork production uses less than two million square kilometres of land each (WRI).

A report from a UNEP project, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge for Science and Technology for Development IAASTD, presented a clear conclusion:

‘The consumption of meat and dairy products in industrialised countries must be reduced, whilst consumption in emerging economies must be limited to an acceptable level. These are the two most urgent and effective steps that must be taken to achieve food security and to protect natural resources and the climate’.

But can we change our habits?

According to the report by FRCN, some countries are implementing food policies promoting sustainable diets – the Health Council of the Netherlands, Sweden‟s National Food Agency and for the development of the 2015 United States Dietary Guidelines, a sub-committee has been set up to focus on food systems sustainability. Meagre examples but something. But can policy even have any effect? If not, how then can we change our eating habits?

Most methods to encourage dietary change are informational such as through communication campaigns. Take the ‘Eat your five a day’ in the UK which encourages everyone to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables a day because it reduces diabetes, heart disease and improves general health.  Another approach is through levying taxes on harmful substances. For example, there is now a call for a “sugar tax“ in the UK on products that have a high sugar content. But this is controversial from an economic and political point of view, and will unlikely happen. Voluntary agreements between government and businesses is a more likely approach.

Generally speaking communication campaigns and voluntary agreements will have little impact. Could you imagine a campaign by governments to encourage people to “Eat less meat for the environment”! What and how we eat is intrinsically embedded in our culture, who we are, as well as in our economies. But we need a more radical change to our diets – little or no meat is considered necessary to achieve a so-called ‘sustainable diet’! What is the solution then?

Being very cynical there are only a few things that can force us to give up what we like – money, fear or a cheap and equivalent alternative. If meat actually reflected its environmental cost it would be very expensive, pushing the price outside of what most people would consider affordable (on a regular basis), so people would eat less of it, and move towards more ‘sustainable’ meats such as chicken, or vegetable protein alternatives. If there were another food scare, as with BSE, people would avoid the product – albeit only for the short term. Alternatives will only be chosen if they taste better and are cheap  - insects are cheap but we are not ready to go there! There are only a small proportion of people that will avoid meat for ethical or environmental reasons, and we can not expect others to do the same.

Policy and good intentions will simply not do it. So let’s not beat about the bush, if we truly want people to eat less meat then there should be a significant tax levied on meat. However, drought, water shortages and land shortages will eventually push up prices and force a change. Its a question of whether we wish to choose the more sustainable and sensible way forward to protect ourselves and the environment – or whether we wish to be forced in the right direction.

Listen to this lecture at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future Of Food for an overview of the complexities in creating a sustainable world food system: