The Meat-Lover’s Sustainability Dilemma

Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is set to announce that “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. So I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider.”

By contrast, transportation contributes 13% of our greenhouse gas footprint.

Greenhouse gases are released throughout the meat production cycle, during land clearing, making and transporting fertilizer, feed antibiotics and hormones, burning fossil fuels in farm vehicles, and emissions from the animals themselves, which is a major proportion of gases emitted. Refrigeration and transportation of the meat for processing, packaging, distribution, retailing and to the consumer are also huge contributers.

Population growth and changing consumption patterns in developing countries will continue to increase pressure on global food supplies and food security. Livestock production has increased all over the world as demand for meat rises. The resulting increase in water scarcity, land degradation and soil erosion are key threats to productivity of farmland, not to mention the effects of loss of biodiversity associated with deforestation for high-maintenance agricultural land. Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that increases in global temperature adversely affects soil fertility, reducing crop yield. Water runoff from livestock farming can cause significant contamination and eutrophication of surface and ground water if the solid waste generated is not managed properly. Farming subisidies (like other poorly applied subsidy programs) tend to create an uneven playing field, further exacerbating the problem.

Possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with farming animals include genetically engineering strains of animals that produce less methane and ammonia. Organic farming is not a feasible option globally, due to the comparatively low productivity and yield.

We all know by now that eating less meat is better for your health. A price on carbon could cause the price of meat to rise, people would eat less, and, at the same time, reduce associated emissions of greenhouse gases and other adverse environmental impacts. This might just be the added incentive that ardent meat-lovers like me need to make another personal choice that contributes to the sustainability of our planet. Given the magnitude of the impacts, reluctantly, I’m adding eating less meat to my list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

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