The hidden costs of meat
1. Costs for the Environment
The livestock sector is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, generating 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions (more than the transport sector, which contributes 13% of emissions).
Standard industrial farms in particular have a big impact on the environment for many reasons:
Huge, concentrated volumes of manure cause pollution. In addition, because they are ruminants, cattle emit methane (CH4), which is 30 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.
A third of the world’s cultivated land is used to grow a billion tonnes of feed, mostly soy and maize.
Soy, an energy-rich legume, has become an important part of the diets of cattle, pigs, and poultry. Since 1995, the global area planted with monocultures of soybeans has increased by a third, and is now 90 million hectares, three times the size of Italy. The biggest producer in the world is Brazil, followed by the United States and Argentina. Out of all the soy cultivated in the world, 82% is genetically modified.
This crops are located thousands of kilometers away from animal farms, so the climate cost of transporting feed is very high.
Monocultures of soy and maize for feed production are growing in the Global South, particularly in Argentina and Brazil. These countries produce cheap soy and maize to feed the intensive farms in the Global North.
The biggest problem is cattle farming: In Brazil, home to the world’s second-largest herd of cattle, more than 60% of deforestated land is destined to become pasture.
So, one fifth of the original Amazon region has been deforestated for animal husbandry.
Over 30% of global croplands are used to produce feed for livestock: In the European Union the figure is higher, with 60% of EU cereals being used to feed animals.
Feeding cereals to animals is inefficient. For every 100 calories that we feed to animals in the form of crops that are edible for humans, we receive, on average, just 17–30 calories in the form of meat.
The heavy machinery used in monocoltures compacts the soil. Intensification means more irrigation, which leads to salinization and reduces soil fertility.
The excess of reactive nitrogen needed to grow crops damages the soil, water, and air.
The largest use of reactive nitrogen in Europe is to make fertilizers used to grow fodder crops for animals. The unabsorbed nitrogen pollutes the environment: It is washed into rivers and leaches from the soil into groundwater, contaminating sources of water.
23% of the fresh water available on the planet is used for livestock farming.
In terms of water footprint, around 15,500 liters of water are needed to produce one kilogram of beef in intensive factory farms (taking into account the amounts necessary to raise animals and irrigate the fields in which their feed is grown), and 4,325 litres are required for each kilogram of chicken.
In the United States, 60% of the cattle reared on big industrial farms come from just three breeds: Simmental, Hereford, and Angus.
The livestock sector is the main culprit in the overall loss of biodiversity on our planet.
A quarter of surviving livestock breeds are in danger of becoming extinct in the coming years.
Animal feed often must travel long distances before reaching farms, animals sometimes travel hundreds of kilometers to reach slaughterhouses, and meat products travel long distances to arrive on our tables.
2. Costs for our Health
Animal fats and proteins are consumed at dangerously high levels in developed countries, to the point that they are causing illness.
Excessive consumption of meat and fats is associated with cardiac disease, diabetes, high blood cholesterol levels, and certain forms of cancer.
Animals in industrial stalls routinely receive antibiotics in order to prevent disease, which is frequent in confined spaces.
These antibiotics can be found in manure, which means that they seep into the soil and pollute rivers and lakes; and in the final meat products. Over time, bacteria build up resistance and antibiotics become ineffective. Moreover, antibiotics from meat or growndwater end up in our bodies, making it increasingly difficult to fight diseases as common as seasonal flu. Factory farms use 70% of the antibiotics produced in the world.
In the US, 80% of the total antibiotics produced are destined for the livestock industry.
To prevent these diseases it is important to reduce the consumption of meat, particularly red meat and industrially processed meat products (cured and tinned meats, ham, and heavily processed sausages that contain harmful additives and preservatives), and increase the consumption of plant-based foods, such as unrefined grains, pulses, and a large variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruits that, if well balanced, can provide our body with all the necessary nutrients. According to nutritionists, a healthy adult needs only 500 grams of meat per week.
3. Costs for Animals
Animals often spend their brief, painful lives confined in tight cages and small spaces, often tied up. In the course of their lives, animals are subjected to a variety of mutilations: their beaks are trimmed, their tails or wings are clipped, they are castrated without the use of anesthesia, and they are dehorned at 5-6 weeks of age so that they won’t injure each other due to the stresses and strains of an unnatural lifestyle. In intensive livestock farming, animals rarely graze outdoors and when they do, only small paddocks are available.
If forced into cramped, crowded spaces, animals develop anomalous behaviors and become aggressive.
Cows naturally eat only grass or hay, turning the cellulose in the grass (which humans cannot digest) into highly nutritious protein. Cereals, on the other hand, are suited for human consumption, not consumption by ruminants.
Preventing cattle from ruminating causes them health problems.
In factory farms, cattle eat soy, corn silage, industrial by-products (including ethanol, fructose, and corn syrup derivatives), grains, supplements, and, of course, antibiotics instead of grass and hay. This unnatural diet produces stomach swelling, diarrhea, and other problems.
In a global context where arable land s becoming harder to find and the population is growing rapidly, feeding grain to animals is senseless, as it puts people and livestock in competition.
Transporting animals to the slaughterhouse usually involves many hours of travel in conditions that generate great suffering. Stripped from their environments and in the hands of workers without proper training, animals are subjected to all kinds of stress and fear. The distances that animals travel between farm and slaughterhouse have doubled in the last 30 years.
4. Social Costs
In 2010 food prices hit the highest levels since the 90s.
The recent increase in meat consumption is one of the main reasons for the recent food crisis.
The growth in the demand for agricultural goods is not only due to population growth, but also to the use of these resources for purposes other than feeding humans (animal feed and bio fuels), the devaluation of the dollar, and the increase in fuel prices and financial speculation.
In the Global South, meat consumption is a luxury and hunger is the leading cause of death. To this day, 900 million people do not have access to food or are undernourished, while 1.9 billion are overweight.
By moderating our food habits, we can build a fairer world. Many countries that have been through decades of shortage can increase their meat consumption, while those where excessive consumption has become the norm must consider consuming less meat.
There is enough land, water, and air in the world to satisfy everyone’s needs, but only if we adopt more balanced consumption habits.