Why is eating meat destroying the planet?

As environmental science advances, it is increasingly evident that the human appetite for animal flesh aggravates most environmental problems, such as deforestation, erosion, scarcity of drinking water, air and water pollution, climate change. climate and biodiversity loss.

Ask if eating meat is a matter of public concern and you will find that most people are surprised. Whether or not to eat meat (or how much) is a private matter, they will say. Maybe it has some implications for your heart, especially if you are overweight. But it is not a prominent public issue that presidential or congressional candidates are expected to address, such as terrorism, the economy, war, or the "environment."

Even if you are one of the few who recognize that eating meat has important environmental implications, these may seem relatively small. Yes, there have been reports of rainforest being cut down to please landowners, and native grasslands are being destroyed by cattle ranching. But until recently, few environmentalists have suggested that eating meat is as important as the issues they address. Amazon Watch, Conservation International, or Greenpeace.

However, as environmental science advances, it is increasingly evident that the human appetite for animal flesh aggravates most environmental problems, such as deforestation, erosion, drinking water shortages, air and water pollution. , climate change, the loss of biodiversity, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of diseases.

How has a seemingly small issue like individual meat consumption moved so quickly from the margins of the sustainability discussion to the center of the debate?

Firstly, because per capita meat consumption has more than doubled in the last half century, despite the increase in the world's population. Consequently, the demand for meat has increased fivefold. Which has increased pressure on the availability of water, land, pasture, fertilizers, energy, waste treatment capacity (nitrates), and most of the planet's limited resources.

To provide an overview of the importance of the challenge of a previously marginal issue, we decided to analyze the relevance of meat consumption with each of the most important environmental impacts that are conventionally thought to be critical to the sustainability of civilization. A brief analysis of each topic is accompanied by quotes from important authors, some of whom offer recommendations on how to approach such a difficult topic, since not everyone who likes pork chops or ribs is going to switch to tofu without resistance. .

Deforestation was the first major environmental damage caused by the development of civilization. Large areas of forest were cleared for agriculture, which included the domestication of both edible plants and animals. Domestic animals require much more surface area than crops to produce the same amount of calories, but that didn't really matter during the 10 years in which there was always more land to discover or expropriate. In 1990, however, the world hunger program at Brown University estimated that the world's crops, if distributed equitably and without allocating a significant percentage to livestock, could provide a vegetarian diet for 6.000 billion people, while one A meat-rich diet, like that of the inhabitants of rich countries, could feed only 2.600 billion.

In other words, with a current population of 6.400 billion, this would mean that we already suffer from a land deficit, aggravated by overfishing of the oceans, which are rapidly being depleted. In the short term, the only way to feed the entire world population, if we continue to eat meat at the same percentage or if the world population continues to grow at the expected rate (8.900 billion in 2050), is to cut down more forest. From now on, the question of whether we get our proteins and calories from animals or plants has direct implications for how much remaining forest we have to clear.

In Central America, 40 percent of rainforests have been cut down or burned in the past 40 years, mainly to graze cattle for the export market, often for meat in US hamburgers. Meat is too expensive for the poor in meat-exporting countries, but in many cases cattle pastures have replaced highly productive forms of traditional agriculture. -John Revington in World Rainforest Report -

Reports from the Center for International Forestry Research indicate that rapid growth in sales of Brazilian beef has accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. "They are destroying the Amazon to produce meat for hamburgers," according to the center's general director, David Kaimowitz. -Environmental News Service

The destruction of grasslands accelerated with the expansion of herds of domesticated animals, and the environment in which wild animals such as bison and antelope lived was trampled and replanted with monocultures of forage plants for cattle. In a review by Richard Manning of James Risser's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1995 book Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, he observed: "Many experience anguish over the clearing of native forest remnants. , to be replaced by single-species monocultures. But few perceive, according to Manning, that a field of golden wheat is the same thing, a monoculture that has replaced what was once a species-rich and diverse prairie."

The grasslands were the largest ecosystem in North America; no other ecosystem has suffered such an enormous loss of life. -Richard Manning in Grassland

Another solution [to the destruction of grasslands in Africa] would be to replace cattle with native species. Antelopes, unlike cattle, are adapted to semi-arid regions. They do not need to walk daily to the watering holes and therefore cause less trampling and compaction of the soil. Antelope manure is small dry balls, which conserve their nitrogen and fertilize the soil efficiently. Cows, on the other hand, produce large, flat, moist droppings, which heat up and quickly lose much of their nitrogen (as ammonia). An experimental farm in Kenya saw great economic success while restoring the grassland ecosystem. -Paul R Ehrlich, Anne H Ehrlich and Gretchen C Daily in The Stork & The Plow

Fresh water, like land, seemed inexhaustible during the first 10 millennia of civilization. So it doesn't seem to matter how much water a cow consumes. But a few years ago, experts calculated that humans consume half of the fresh water available on the planet, leaving the other half to be divided among a million or more species. Because we depend on many of these species for our own survival (they provide all the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe, among other services), such water hoarding poses a dilemma. If we look at it in detail, species by species, we discover that the largest water use is due to the animals we raise for meat. One of the easiest ways to reduce water demand is to consume less meat.

The usual diet of a person in the United States requires 16.000 liters of water per day (for watering animals, irrigating crops, processing, washing and cooking, among other uses). A person with a vegetarian diet requires only 1.100 liters per day. -Richard H Schwartz in Judaism and Vegetarianism

A report from the International Water Management Institute, after pointing out that 840 million people in the world suffer from malnutrition, recommends producing more food with less water. The report highlights that 550 liters of water are required to produce enough flour for one serving of bread in developing countries. but up to 7.000 liters of water to produce 100 grams of beef. -UN Commission on Sustainable Development, "Water-More nutrition for the same amount of water", 2004

If you shower once a day, and each shower lasts an average of seven minutes, at a rate of 8 liters per minute, you will use 19.300 liters a year for showering every day. When you compare that figure to the amount that the Water Education Foundation estimates is used in the production of each kilo of beef (20.515 liters), you will notice something extraordinary. Today you could save more water by not eating a kilo of meat than by not showering for an entire year. -John Robbins in The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and the World

The dumping of waste, in the same way as the supply of water, seemed to have no limits. There were always new places to dump garbage, and for centuries most of the waste conveniently decomposed or disappeared from sight. Just as we were not concerned about how much water a cow consumed, nor how much it excreted. But today, the waste from our colossal stables exceeds the planet's absorption capacity. Rivers carrying livestock waste dump so much nitrogen into bays and gulfs that they have already contaminated large areas of the marine world. The easiest way to reduce the amount of waste carried by the Mississippi, causing the death of the Gulf of Mexico, is to eat less meat, reducing the size of the herds upriver in Iowa or Missouri.

Huge livestock farms, which can house hundreds of thousands of pigs, chickens, or cows, produce immense amounts of waste. In fact, in the United States, these "Cattle Factories" generate 130 times more waste than the entire population. -Natural Resources Defense Council

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, livestock waste has contaminated more than 40.000 kilometers of rivers and groundwater in
dozens of states. -Natural Resources Defense Council

Nutrients from livestock waste cause algae blooms, which consume oxygen from the water, helping to create a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico where there is not enough oxygen to support aquatic life. The dead zone affected more than 20.000 square kilometers during the summer of 1999. -Natural Resources Defense Council

Energy consumption, until very recently, seemed like a refrigerator issue, which had nothing to do with the meat and milk inside. But when we pay more attention to the life cycle analysis of the items we buy, it is clear that the journey of the steak to our refrigerator consumed surprising amounts of energy. We can begin the cycle with the cultivation of cereals to feed cattle, which requires large quantities of agricultural chemicals derived from petroleum. Subsequently, the fuel required to transport the cattle to the slaughterhouses and from there to the markets must be added. Today, most of the meat consumed travels thousands of kilometers. And then, after being frozen or put in the refrigerator, it has to be cooked.

It takes 8,3 liters of gasoline to produce one kilo of feed-fed beef in the United States. Some of the energy was consumed in the barn, or in transportation and cold storage, but most of it went into fertilizers from the corn and soybeans in the feed that cattle are fed. The average annual beef consumption of an American family of four requires 983 liters of oil. -"Meat equals war", Save the Earth website, Humboldt, California

On average, it takes 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption, [while] it takes only 3,3 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of grain protein. for human consumption. -David Pimentel, Cornell University

The transition of world agriculture from food grains to feed grains represents a new form of human evil, with consequences possibly greater and longer lasting than any previous evil actions inflicted by men against their fellow human beings. Today, more than 70 percent of the grains and soybeans produced in the United States go to the cattle feed, mostly for cattle. -Jeremy Rifkin, Los Angeles Times, May 27, 2002

[Feeding grain to animals is] very inefficient, and an absurd use of resources. -Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba

Global warming is due to energy consumption, to the extent that the main energy sources contain carbon that, when burned, emits carbon dioxide and other polluting gases. As already noted, the production and marketing of meat requires the consumption of large quantities of such fuels. But livestock also directly emit greenhouse gases, as a byproduct of digestion. Cattle emit significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The environmental group Save the Earth recommends a major reduction in the current global cattle population, which stands at 1.300 billion head.

One ton of methane, the main greenhouse gas emitted by livestock, has a planet-warming potential of 23 tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of methane. A dairy cow produces approximately 75 kilograms of methane per year, equivalent to more than 1,5 tons of carbon dioxide. The cow, of course, does it naturally. But people tend to forget, it seems, that livestock farming is an industry. We clear the land, plant fodder plants and feed livestock industrially. It is a human enterprise, not a natural one. We are very efficient, and that is why atmospheric methane concentrations have increased by 150 percent compared to 250 years ago, while carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 30 percent. -Pete Hodgson, New Zealand Minister for Energy, Science and Fisheries

There is a close relationship between human diet and methane emissions from livestock farming. As beef consumption increases or decreases, head numbers and related methane emissions will also increase or decrease. Latin America has the highest methane emissions per capita, mainly attributable to the large cattle populations of meat-exporting countries such as Brazil and Argentina. -United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Change Unit.

Livestock flatulence emits 16 percent of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. -Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg in The State of the World 2004

Fight the planet's climate change with your knife and fork.-Article by Elysa Hammond on Sustainablebusiness.com

Food production from farmland grows less than the population. When Paul Ehrlich warned three decades ago that "hundreds of millions" of people would starve, he probably exaggerated, for now. (Tens of millions alone died of hunger.) The green revolution, an injection of fertilizers and mass manufacturing techniques, increased crop yields and delayed shortages. That, combined with more intensive use of arable land through irrigation and the massive use of fossil fuel-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides, allowed us to more or less keep pace with population growth for another generation. Another additional gain, but very small and with unpredictable consequences, can come from genetic engineering. Population stabilization will not occur for another half century, and we are left with only one important alternative: drastically reduce meat consumption, because converting land from pasture to food crops will increase the amount of food produced. (Some argue that pastures use land unusable for crops, and in these areas livestock can continue
playing a role, but large areas of arable land are set aside for cattle to feed on and destroy).

Let's say we have 20.000 kcal [kilocalories] of corn. Suppose we use them to feed cattle (as we do with approximately 70 percent of the grains and soybeans produced in the United States). The cow will produce 2.000 kcal of usable energy from those 20.000 kcal of corn (assuming 10% efficiency). Those 2.000 kcal of beef would feed a person for a day, assuming a diet of 2.000, which is common in the US. If instead they ate the 20.000 kcal of corn directly, instead of through the cow, we could feed many more people with the same amount of cultivated land; not necessarily 10 times more, because we are not as efficient as cattle at converting energy from corn, but considerably more than the only person who could be fed if the corn passed through the cow first.

[Therefore], we could feed a lot more population with the same amount of cultivated land if we went down the food chain, if we ate primary producers instead of herbivores (corn instead of meat). Or we could feed the same number of people as today, but with less environmental degradation because we would not need to have as much land under cultivation. -Patricia Muir, Oregon State University

While 22,4 million hectares of land in the United States are used for pasture for livestock, only 1,6 million hectares are dedicated to growing vegetables for direct human consumption. -US Department of Commerce, Agrarian Census

Communicable diseases do not move from one place to another on their own; There has to be a vector of transmission, whether it be dirty water, the infected blood of rats or insects, or contaminated meat. Globalization has increased the mobility of all these media, and one consequence is that outbreaks that in recent centuries could be contained within a city or country, now spread rapidly throughout the world. When a case of mad cow disease was detected in the United States in 2004, it was discovered that parts of that cow had been distributed to a dozen different federal states. The problems of containing outbreaks in a global distribution system are compounded by the use of mass manufacturing facilities that rely on antibiotics rather than more costly cleaning of facilities to prevent infection and disease. As antibiotic resistance increases around the world, diseases are becoming more unimpeded. Some of the most dangerous outbreaks come from the growing illegal trade in meat from tropical forests, where diseases affected primates, such as HIV (AIDS), which in the past may have been confined to distant jungles, and which Now they spread throughout an international market without regulations or controls.

A report from the US Department of Agriculture estimates that 89 percent of ground beef in hamburgers contains traces of the deadly E. coli.
-Reuters Agency

Animal waste contains disease-causing pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coniforms, which can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human feces. More than 40 diseases can be transferred to humans through manure. -Natural Resources Defense Council

According to the World Health Organization, more than 85 human deaths have occurred from at least 95 cases of Ebola in the remote Cuvette-Ouest region of the Congo. The possible outbreak occurred following the death of gorillas. Tests on their bodies confirmed the cause of death. Officials suspect the human outbreak was due to locals eating infected primates, including chimpanzees, monkeys and gorillas. When primates are killed and dismembered for their meat in markets, humans come into contact with contaminated blood. People also become infected when they eat infected meat. -Relationship of Ebola with forest meat, www.janegoodall.net

It is believed that a subspecies of chimpanzee from west central Africa could be the original source of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and that transmission of the virus, a simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), to humans was a result of exposure from hunters to the blood of chimpanzees.-Jane Goodall, lecture at Harvard Medical School, 2002

Lifestyle diseases, especially coronary heart disease, were not considered an "environmental" problem a generation ago. But today it is evident that most public health problems are environmental, and not genetic, or human nature. Furthermore, most preventable diseases are the result of complicated relationships between humans and their environment, rather than singular causes. Coronary heart disease is linked to obesity resulting from excessive consumption of sugar, salt and fat (especially animal fat) and lack of exercise resulting from car-based urban design. The environmental problems of suburban growth, air pollution, fossil fuel consumption, and poor land use policies are also factors that aggravate heart disease and cancer.

The irony of the food production system is that millions of wealthy consumers in developed countries die from the diseases of affluence, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer, caused by gorging on beef and other animals. , fed on grains and soybeans, while the poor of the Third World die from the diseases of poverty, because they are denied access to land to grow the grains to directly feed their families. -Jeremy Rifkin, Los Angeles Times

Who says meat is rich in saturated fat? This politically correct food campaign is just another example of the diet dictocracy trying to run our lives. -Sam Abramson, President, Springfield Meats

Meat provides a very important percentage of saturated fat in the American diet. -Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition at New York University

Not only is mortality from coronary heart disease lower in vegetarians than in non-vegetarians, but vegetarian diets have also been successful in curbing heart disease. Scientific data demonstrate a positive relationship between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk of obesity, coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, and some types of cancer. -American Dietetic Association

It is a great devourer of beef. I think it has damaged his ingenuity. -William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night

The average age (longevity) of a person who eats meat is 63 years. I'm about to turn 85 and I still work as hard as ever. I've lived long enough, and I'm trying to die; but I just can't do it. A steak would be enough; but I myself cannot persuade myself to swallow it. I fear to live forever. That is the only disadvantage of vegetarianism. -George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

The loss of biodiversity and the threat of extinction: above all the destruction of forests and grasslands due to cattle, and the creation of oceanic dead zones due to the dumping of livestock waste, the growing trafficking of forest meat It is decimating the scarce populations of gorillas, chimpanzees, and other primates. (One photo we received but decided not to print shows the severed head of a gorilla in a food basket on a bunch of bananas.) As the population grows, poor populations venture into flora and fauna reserves for meat, and less and less for their own subsistence. In these areas, it is not enough to say "eat less meat." Here, the long-term solution will depend on stopping the construction of forest roads for the felling of trees (which facilitates invasion by hunters) and greater protection against poaching and the commercialization of forest meat. It will also require a more equitable distribution of food, and the income with which to purchase it.

The problem worsened in the last 10 years, when large multinational companies, especially European ones, opened forestry trails in the forests of Central Africa. Hunters from the cities travel in logging trucks. They shoot everything from elephants to gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, monkeys or birds. They smoke them, load them on trucks and take them to the cities, where they do not serve as food for hungry people, but for the richest, who pay more for meat from the forest than for that of domestic animals. Pygmy hunters, who have lived in harmony with the forest world for centuries, are provided with firearms and ammunition, and paid to supply meat to logging camps. And that is totally unsustainable. -Jane Goodall in Benefits Beyond Boundaries, Television Trust for the Environment documentary broadcast on the BBC in 2003

The animals have disappeared, the forest is silent, and when the logging camps are gone, what will they leave for the indigenous peoples? Nothing.
-Jane Goodall in Benefits Beyond Boundaries

Albert Einstein, better known for his work in physics and mathematics than for his interest in the living world, once said: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances of survival of life on Earth as much as a vegetarian diet." . We do not believe that he was only referring to food. In this article we have not said anything about the role of meat in the diet, although there would be a lot to say, in addition to heart disease. Nor have we addressed the ethics of vegetarianism, or animal rights. The purpose of these omissions is not to ignore these concerns, but to point out that on ecological and economic grounds alone, eating meat is already a threat to the human species. The era of a meat-based diet will pass, as will oil, and the two declines are closely linked.

* By José Santamarta. Editing and translation