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Born to Be Killed: The Unsustainable Scale of The Meat Industry

Written by Tiffany Kulasekare

Ecological Economics

We have been fed yet another lie and quite literally this time. A little white lie that emphasizes eating meat to receive adequate levels of protein for our body to effectively operate. We have been influenced by our doctors, our parents, the National Food Guides, and even the ads on our TV into thinking that consuming animal-protein is an essential part of living a healthy life [1]. But at what cost? Well, it appears that it will come at the cost of our beautiful planet.

To put it simply, we are overconsuming thus overproducing. Developed nations are consuming above the average daily animal-protein requirement and consumption has increased significantly over the past few decades [2-3]. Our increased desire to consume meat has resulted in approximately 56 billion land animals raised worldwide every year just to be killed for human consumption [4]. This rise has resulted in part because of population growth but also due to increased demand [5]. And by rule of mainstream economics, increased demand results in increased supply regardless of the environmental consequences. While whether or not this is ethical is another debate, the amount of water, energy, and land consumed to raise these animals are at an unsustainable scale. This means that the rate at which we are depleting these natural resources is at a faster rate than the planet's capability of regenerating such resources and for there to be sufficient resources for future generations, this rate must be reduced [6-7].

The livestock sector is extremely resource-intensive. To produce one kilogram of rice or wheat requires 500 to 2,000 litres of water when in comparison, to produce the same amount of beef requires 43,000 litres of water [8]. The agricultural sector accounts for 92 per cent of freshwater use, with animal products relating to one-third of such usage [9]. To raise these animals requires a large amount of agricultural land and when animal products only contribute to 20 per cent of the global calorie intake pursuing such levels of production appears inefficient [10]. While there will evidently be an increasing reduction in the amount of agricultural land available, the global demand for meat is expected to substantially increase in the years ahead [11]. This leads to a predicament: how we are supposed to keep up with the increasing demand? Well, that is just it, we cannot because our planet has a finite amount of resources.

Amid a global climate emergency, our unsustainable level of meat consumption is contributing significantly to the increasing levels of toxic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in our Earth’s atmosphere [12]. Livestock supply chains emit 5 per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 44 per cent methane (CH4) emissions and a staggering 53 per cent of nitrous oxide (N2) emissions [12]. This leaves us in the zone of increasing risk in terms of climate change, among other finite biophysical limits [13]. If we continue in a similar scale, we will contribute to the warming of the planet that will leave it inhabitable for future generations [13]. So, where do we go from here?

Many ecological economists argue that in order to have a substantial impact on climate change we must have a radical shift in our society. This means that developed nations need to eliminate animal product consumption if not, reduce it. Now, this is not an easy task nor one that will happen overnight. While we may have to consume higher volumes of plant-based food items to receive the same level of protein from an animal product [14], there is a compelling case that this trade-off is well worth it. There has been an increase in studies demonstrating the benefits of a plant-based diet including decreased risk of cancer, diabetes and obesity [15]. However, if complete elimination appears unattainable perhaps a reduction would be a more practical focus. If the majority of the world’s animal product consumers (developed countries) cut their consumption by just 40 per cent, the benefits would be substantial—168 billion tons of future GHG emissions would be avoided and an area of land the size of India would be saved [2].

Thus, when comparing the benefits of reducing animal product consumption to the trade-offs, it would almost seem silly not to do so. Yet as humans we are largely influenced by those around us, including government and media so in order for fundamental change to occur such bodies must intervene. We look to these bodies for guidance and expertise so our greatest chance of reducing such unsustainable consumption ultimately lies in the hands of their powerful influence.



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