Dangers of eating meat

Audrey Marah and Audrey Marah

Did you know that you can combat environmental problems, like climate change and algal blooms in Lake Erie, from the comfort of your couch?

You can, and it is as easy as eating less red meat! There are many reasons that people reduce or completely stop meat consumption, especially related to ethics and health. While those reasons are also compelling, the focus of this write-up will be on environmental impacts. Few people are aware of the great difference they can make for the environment, along with their health, through a simple diet change.

Every time we, or another animal eats, there are going to be parts of the food that cannot be digested, as well as byproducts from metabolizing the food.

Along with poop, we rid ourselves of metabolic waste by urinating, breathing and releasing heat. All of these processes are examples of ways that we lose some of the energy we eat. For all of the feed that the animal consumes, we only get to eat about 3-40% of it as meat. The range is large because efficiency differs with the type of animal and management practices. Cows are one of the biggest offenders—according to a study led by Cornell researcher Dr. Pimentel, for every 40 kg of energy going into the production of beef, we only get 1 kg of meat.

How does all this affect the environment? We have to use a lot of space, almost 1/3 of the United States alone, to support livestock and their feed. Most land doesn’t come ready to support livestock, so we take over all kinds of environments and replace them with fields and pastures, which eliminates habitats for other important species. On top of that, we need to help the plants that support the livestock grow, which we usually do by adding fertilizer.

Much of this fertilizer ends up running off into the water, and eventually stimulates growth of harmful algae, like the bloom in Lake Erie that made Toledo area water undrinkable for a couple of days in August 2014. By reducing our dependence on cows and other livestock, we can lessen the amount of plants that need to be grown, and therefore fertilizer that reaches the water.

Besides the harm to land, eating meat contributes to climate change in a major way. As we move from talking about land to climate, we also transition from talking about poop to talking about farts and burps. When cows and other ruminants, like sheep and goats digest food, they release large amount of methane. Carbon dioxide is the most famous greenhouse gas, but methane is even better keeping heat trapped in our atmosphere.

Looking at peer-reviewed journal articles and data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, somewhere between 12-18% of greenhouse gas emissions are from livestock production. These emissions are largely a result of cow gas and manure storage, but also from artificial fertilizers, transportation and land conversion. Several studies have found that strategies to combat climate change would need to incorporate increasing productivity, managing manure better and decreasing meat and dairy consumption to be successful.

Some people worry that without meat they won’t be able to eat nutritiously. However, there are many other foods that contain protein.

One study compared average greenhouse gas emissions for several example meals. By eating a meal with carrots, whole wheat, soy bean products and apples you get the same nutritional value as eating green beans, potatoes, pork and an orange or frozen vegetables, rice, beef and tropical fruit.

However, in comparison to the soy bean meal, the pork meal produces about three times more greenhouse gases, and the beef meal produces about 11 times more greenhouse gases. When you consider the impact of eating meat, particularly beef, on climate change, land use, and the efficiency of our food system, it is clear that the environment loses. In fact, I could only scratch the surface here, and I recommend doing more reading about eating meat and the environment. Either way, whether you are concerned about the environment, your health, or ethics, reducing meat consumption can only make things better.