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  • Writer's pictureJulian Cohen

Change what you eat – change the world. Why you should cut back on your meat consumption

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

How much can one person do? That is a question I find myself asking quite frequently in today’s political climate. With over 33 gigatons of CO2 emissions in 2019 alone,[1] my meager 16 tons seems insignificant.[2] How much of an impact can I really make? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

Every year, 80 billion animals are slaughtered as part of the meat industry,[3] and including aquatic life, this number jumps to 1.2 trillion.[4] Even more disturbing, this figure is expected to increase by 62 to 144 percent by 2050.[5] This rise is problematic for a few reasons.

First, greenhouse emissions. The agriculture industry is the second-largest emitter of any economic sector,[6] with almost 15% of all human greenhouse gas emissions coming directly from the meat industry alone[7] (I’m sure you’ve all heard that cow burps and farts make up 20 percent of U.S. methane-gas emissions).

Second, water use and pollution. Nearly half of all water used in the United States every year is from the meat industry.[8] It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce just one pound of meat.[9] Think about that. That is equivalent to 50 full bathtubs or the amount of water saved if you stopped showering for 6 months.[10]

And it is not just water use. The US EPA in their National Water Quality Inventory determined that around 40% of rivers and 45% of lakes are not clean enough to swim in.[11] The report determined agriculture to be the leading cause of this pollution, and it’s not hard to guess that animal agriculture makes up the vast majority, especially as a massive amount of animal feces is spilling into our waterways.[12]

The third and final issue is land use. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations explains that livestock production uses 30% of the planet’s land surface.[13] This excessive land use is driving deforestation across the globe. Every six seconds, an acre of forest is cut down to make way for cattle farming.[14] About seven football fields of land are bulldozed worldwide every minute to create more room for farmed animals.[15] Plus, more than 80 percent of the Amazon rain forest that has been cleared since 1970 is used for meat production.[16] This is a problem in the US as well. Over 260 million acres of land have been cleared to make room for animal agriculture.[17]

So, the question remains. What can we do about it? My suggestion: cut down on your personal meat consumption. And no, that does not mean you have to go vegan. Just removing beef from your diet can have a massive impact.[18]

Clearly, reducing meat consumption can reduce CO2 emissions. But what about the water and land-use problems. A meat eater’s diet requires 17 times more land, 14 times more water, and 10 times more energy than a vegetarian’s, according to research published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.[19]

Not only is it better for the environment, but it is better for your health as well. Data shows, that of the foods associated with improved health (whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and fish), all except fish have among the lowest environmental impacts, with fish still having markedly lower impacts than red meats and processed meats.[20] Foods associated with the largest negative environmental impact — unprocessed and processed red meat — are consistently associated with the largest increases in disease risk.[21] I’m sure you’re wondering, what does improved health really mean? The study looked at risk for diabetes, coronary heart disease, and general mortality.

But why does this matter? I used to think, “even if I don’t eat it, the animal is already dead, so the environmental harm has already been done.” But this kind of mindset ignores the fact that as consumers, we have the biggest impact on companies. If the demand for meat falls, so will supply! Moreover, it is imperative that we act against climate change immediately. The UN warns that climate change will become irreversible by 2030,[22] and lack of action will have serious consequences. Climate change will continue to cause sea levels to rise, disrupt farming and food, increase insect-borne disease, cause global migrations of climate refugees, increase drought and forest fires, create massive economic disruptions, and cause mass extinctions of animals which would destabilize entire ecosystems that we as humans depend on for food, clean water, and a stable climate. The time has come. We have to act.

Written by Julian Cohen

Julian Cohen is the Head of Finance for Eco Circle International and the Finance and Technology Director for Teens Be Heard, a student-led initiative focused on education and awareness in order to combat social injustices.

[17] [18] [19] [20] [21] Ibid. [22]

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