Not eating meat is one of the biggest ways to reduce your impact on the environment, analysis has shown. Isabelle Gerretsen considers some of the startling statistics on the impact of red meat production
A huge gap exists between how much food we produce today and the amount needed to feed the world in 2050, when the population is expected to reach 10 billion.
In order to keep global temperatures below 1.5C we need to drastically slash emissions from food production.
This means reducing the amount of meat we eat, especially red meat. Beef farming is by far the biggest climate culprit. It releases a huge amount of carbon emissions, fuels deforestation and contributes to biodiversity loss.
Beef’s carbon footprint
Farming animals is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and the production of red meat accounts for 41 per cent of those emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
Emissions from global beef production are roughly equal to those of India, according to the World Resources Institute.
To avoid dangerous levels of global warming, beef consumption needs to fall by 90 per cent in western countries, according to a 2018 study.
Per gram of protein, beef emits 20 times more emissions than pulses such as beans and lentils, and four times more than dairy products.
To produce 100g of protein, beef production emits around 50kg of greenhouse gas emissions, Dave Reay, chair in carbon management at the University of Edinburgh, told The Independent.
This is five times higher than emissions from dairy production, and almost 17 times higher than the carbon footprint of wheat, according to Reay.
Cows, sheep and goats are animals known as “ruminants”. Their stomachs contain special bacteria which help break down tough, fibrous matter such as grass. When cows eat grass, they fart or belch out methane.
This is a highly potent greenhouse gas which, although shorter-lived in the atmosphere, has a global warming impact 84 times higher than CO2 over a 20-year period. Methane and nitrous oxide, another potent gas, are also emitted from cow manure.
Beef’s carbon footprint can vary, depending on where the cows are reared. Beef cattle reared on deforested land account for at least 12 times more greenhouse gas emissions than cows raised on natural pastures, according to a 2018 study.
Land and water pressure
“Beef is more resource-intensive to produce than dairy and plant-based foods,” Richard Waite, senior research associate at the World Resources Institute, told The Independent.
It is highly water-intensive. “Beef accounts for about one-third of the global water footprint of animal agriculture, more than any other meat or dairy product,” said Waite.
According to the Water Footprint Network, one kilogram of beef needs about 15 thousand litres of water. Beef’s water footprint per calorie is 20 times higher than for cereal crops. Most of the water (98 per cent) is used to grow crops for animal feed, with just 2 per cent going towards drinking water for the animals.
Cows also require a huge amount of land and animal feed to grow and breed. They have lower growth and reproduction rates than other animals, such as pigs and chickens, so need more animal feed per unit of meat produced.
Beef requires 20 times more land per edible gram of protein than protein-rich crops, such as beans.
Producing 100g of beef protein requires more than 160 sq m of land, compared to the 2 sq m of land needed to produce the same amount of tofu protein, made from soybeans, Reay said.
The production of red meat contributes to deforestation, land degradation and biodiversity loss.
“While the majority of the world’s grasslands cannot grow crops or trees, native grasslands are already heavily used for livestock production, meaning growing global beef demand will likely increase pressure on forests,” said Waite.
The conversion of land for beef production is one of the leading causes of deforestation of the Amazon and other tropical forests. It is responsible for the destruction of 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year in South America.
Cattle ranching has been linked to an increase in fires and land clearance in the Amazon. Deforestation of tropical forests such as the Amazon releases huge stores of carbon dioxide and accounts for 8 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
The destruction of forests for beef farming is threatening biodiversity and already-endangered species, including the giant otter and the world’s largest anteater in the Amazon, according to Greenpeace.