Last week, I described the health risks associated with eating red meat based solely on its nutrient content and only briefly alluded to its environmental impacts. Fact is, the modern meat industry – including poultry, not just red meat – wreaks havoc on our land, air, and water quality; depletes copious amounts of energy; and threatens human health through the additives we feed our animals. As the idea of sustainable eating becomes increasingly popular, it’s important to identify what exactly makes meat so unsustainable. Since there is a lot to cover, I’m just going to start with energy consumption and discuss other aspects in subsequent posts. Keep in mind, however, that most of these consequences stem from large-scale, industrialized agriculture; even if it’s inherently the least sustainable food type, meat could be produced by more Eco-friendly means.
Animal agriculture, like any form of food production, requires energy, most of which is attained through fossil fuel combustion. Grain to feed livestock is grown with petroleum-based agrochemicals and then harvested with gas-burning combines. According to the WorldWatch Institute, at least 70% of American grain is grown solely to serve as livestock feed, and “it takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed beef” – which requires more grain to produce than any other kind of meat – in the United States. Feed production accounts for more than half of the energy used in intensive meat production (Koneswaran et al.).
The feed is transported, typically via truck or train, to the livestock ranch, after which even more energy costs are incurred in transporting the animals to slaughter, their carcasses to processing plants, the processed meat to markets, and, finally, from the market to consumers’ homes. Since meat is very sensitive in terms of perishability, storing and transporting it also requires a lot of refrigeration, further drawing on fossil fuels and releasing CO2. Similarly, cooking the meat uses electricity and/or gas, and the plastic packaging that it typically comes in is the result of fossil fuel-intensive manufacture. As Emory University succinctly states, “meat is the least fuel-efficient food we have.”
If you’re a meat-eater, try to find grass-fed, rather than grain-fed meats, which have far lower energy costs associated with its feeding. Additionally, as with any food, try buying local, as this means that the meat doesn’t have to be transported as far or stored as long. And be on the lookout next Tuesday for another meaty article!
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