Meat: An Environmental Issue

The mission statement of the SASAH Program is to “help students realize their critical and cultural potential to make a transformative impact on the world.” As a student in the latest cohort, I’ve taken these ideas to heart and looked into one of my favourite topics: sustainability.


As a student, I need to cook for myself, and the food industry has always intrigued me– specifically raw meat and the processes to make it. When you buy your meat, do you think about the animal that it comes from? Do you envision the exact production time it takes to raise, kill, and transport the animal to your supermarket? In the popular consciousness, there is a general knowledge that the meat industry is excessively cruel and vicious, but being vegetarian is, nonetheless, not perceived as an easy alternative.

The idea of forgoing meat is commonly scoffed at, complete with vitriol comments on meat’s taste or jokes about plant lives. But if the script was flipped to environmentalism, the topic is not so hotly contested. Actions such as idling, smoking, or not recycling are heavily discouraged. Once a week, when you throw out your compost, you most likely mentally thank yourself for your small contribution to the earth. Hey, you think, at least I recycle. Because these changes are so simple, they can be easily implemented, all the while making you feel great.

But what if there was a more efficient way to ease our strain on the environment? What if the biggest waste of resources comes not from ourselves, but from another species entirely? What if the solution to these problems is in what we eat?

Meat is a gargantuan drain on our resources. Have you ever considered the ways your diet affects the earth? Because, if the goal is to make small changes to help the environment, cutting down on our meat intake is more effective than either recycling or not idling. Surprise! Meat is an environmental issue.

corn fieldConsider this: in the United States, half of the country’s national water usage is spent on irrigating crops. That’s great, because we eat those plants — except we don’t. These crops, such as corn, are actually crops that animals eat. This means that half the water used in the entire United States is not even used to wash, clean, or feed the animals themselves. It’s used to grow the food that they eat. All the water used in our everyday lives from showering, cleaning, or drinking is less than than the total water used to irrigate crops for animal consumption! Remember, this is not water used for animals to drink — it’s water used to grow crops.

A Cornell study estimated that if the United States just ate all this grain themselves, they could feed 800 million people. Not happy with eating all this grain? They could export it instead for 80 billion to other countries. Either way, the meat industry with its beloved bacon, beef, and chicken uses a colossal amount of resources.

Let’s focus on beef. Compared to the 500 litres of water needed to grow a kilogram of potatoes, beef requires an incredulous 100,000 litres — literally two hundred times more. Still not convinced that beef is the ultimate resource waster? It has a 54:1 energy consumption to protein output ratio. Water inefficiencies are just the tip of this problematic iceberg. Livestock production also drains the earth’s resources through deforestation and greenhouse gases. Does it bother you every time you hear about the Brazilian Amazon being destroyed? Well, you can thank your meat for that — grazing land for animals is a key factor for clearing out the Amazon. If you’ve ever considered carpooling or cycling to reduce your urban footprint, cut your meat intake instead, as livestock emit more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector. In fact, emissions from livestock contribute to more than half of all “annual worldwide greenhouse gas emissions”. factory smoke

This blog post merely grazes over the meat industry’s issues, so maybe I haven’t sold you on the environmentalism. Let’s focus on your health instead, because, surprise! Meat is also a health issue. Last year, the World Health Organization released a study linking red meat with cancer and urged consumers to eat less meat. You might protest this and argue that you eat a healthy amount of meat — except you most likely don’t. Based on a 2011 data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Canadians eat over 3.5x more meat than the recommended maximum intake of 500 grams. So while you might not lower your meat intake for the environment, at least limit your weekly red meat intake for your own health.

As a student myself, I am not asking you to cut meat out entirely, but merely to consume less. When possible, choose the vegetarian option. Do it to lower your risk of health complications as well as to ease your environmental strain. Remember, reducing your meat intake is much more effective than smoking less or bicycling more. Hopefully, this blog post leaves you with lots of plant-based food for thought!

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