Meat Free Monday is all about reducing the amount of meat we consume because of its health and environmental benefits. An easy way to start is to cut meat from meals one day a week. It’s a campaign which has been promoted by former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney.
It is predicted that by 2050 nearly twice as much meat will be produced as today.
This is due to a number of factors - there are more people on the planet - 7.8 billion and counting - and there is more demand for cheap meat, plus as people become more affluent and can afford to eat meat, they tend to eat more. Demand is particularly increasing in Asia and the Middle East.
But is this sustainable? Sustainable agriculture would be capable of continuing in that way, indefinitely, without any long term impacts. As we shall see, the impacts of livestock farming at the moment are great.
The livestock sector is.... “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”.
United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Let’s look at some of these impacts.
In the UK we eat 25 - 50% more meat than is recommended by the World Health Organisation. Eating a lot of red and processed meat can increase the risk of some cancers and heart disease and may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Meat forms a nutritional part of many people’s diets, but perhaps if we all ate less, but better quality meat, the benefits to ourselves and to the planet would be greater.
The world’s population is rising. 2011 saw the arrival of the 7 billionth person on the planet! As nations develop and people become more affluent their appetite for meat also increases. Since 1950 the richest 1/5th of the population has doubled its consumption of energy, meat, timber, steel and copper per person. There is also a desire among those who can less readily afford meat to buy cheap meat, which is reared in intensive farming systems, in order to maximise the production and in order to supply this market.
“...between 1961 and 2007 the world population increased by a factor of 2.2, but meat consumption quadrupled, and poultry consumption increased 10-fold.” - Meat Free Monday (PDF) Everything You Need to Know.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), to meet the rising demand, the livestock sector will need to increase its production from 228 million metric tons (2010) to 463 million metric tons by 2050. In this case, the number of cattle would increase from 1.5 billion to 2.6 billion and goats and sheep from 1.7 billion to 2.7 billion. (FAO)
Around the world, more than enough food is produced to feed the global population—but more than 690 million people still go hungry. One solution would be if the land used to rear animals or to grow crops to feed animals could be used to grow food for people instead! Twenty-six percent of the Planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are used for livestock feed production. For every 1 kg of beef, 7 kg of grain is needed and 4kg grain is needed for 1kg of pork (White, T 2000). Estimates vary but a “typical” meat eater’s diet needs 2.5 times more land than a vegetarian’s (Nonhebel, S 2004). One hectare of land can feed as many as thirty people on a diet of cereals, fruits, vegetables and vegetable fats whereas the same area of land used for meat and/or dairy production would only feed between five and ten people (Pachauri, R.K 2008).
Soya beans are high in protein and grown as animal feed, but if they were used to feed people instead, the difference would be huge, though not to everyone’s tastes! A study by Tickell (1991) said that 10 hectares (or 5 football pitches) of soya could feed 61 people, the same area of land would feed 10 on a maize based diet, or 24 on a wheat based diet. The same area of land used to raise animals would support only 2 people.
Some land is unsuitable for arable farming, so in these cases grazing animals on the land puts it to good use. In the UK, organisations like the National Trust often uses grazing animals to maintain certain habitats such as grasslands. However, as meat production increases, more and more wild habitats are lost and intensive farming tends to increase.
Intensive farming systems & animal welfare
As demand for meat grows, so does the pressure to produce it in the most efficient way, so we are seeing a move towards intensive farming systems. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 56 billion animals are slaughtered each year for food worldwide. The FAO estimates that 80% of growth in the livestock sector comes from factory farming and that such farming accounts for 72% of poultry production, 43 % of egg production and 55% of pork production worldwide. There are obviously animal welfare issues surrounding these systems such as over-crowding and stress. There are also hygiene issues, like animals being forced to stand knee deep in their own excrement.
In intensive farming systems animals are given protein rich foods like soya, which make them grow more quickly and reach a larger size, rather than the foods they would naturally eat. For example, when cows have their grass-based diet replaced, they find alternative foods harder to digest and they remain in their system for longer, increasing the risk of infections in their digestive systems.
As a result of the increased infection risk, the animals are given antibiotics to keep them healthy. There are rising concerns that the extensive use of these medicines could lead to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which would make bacteria that also affect humans much harder to treat. Dr Ron Daniels, Consultant in Critical Care at the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, says: “Bacteria that we are creating through widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture are increasingly now impacting on human health." Antibiotics are not used in such quantities in traditional farming systems.
As an additional consequence of intensive farming, animals become commodities and are treated as such, rather than creatures. In the UK in 2011 two intensive systems were proposed. A “mega dairy” to house 3,770 cows and a mega pig farm to house 25,000 pigs. These were turned down but demonstrate how we are moving towards these systems. One advantage of an intensive farming system is that it uses less energy to produce an animal than if it were raised in a less intensive system. However, we could arguably achieve better energy reductions by eating less meat.
When land is used intensively to graze as many animals as possible, it doesn’t have time to recover. Overgrazing and the compaction and erosion of the soil degrades the land, particularly in hotter climates where about 70% of all grazing land is considered degraded. Overall, about 20% of the world’s grazing land for meat is degraded (FAO 2006) and every year the world’s farmers have to feed 77 million more people with 27 billion tons less topsoil.
According to the United Nations, by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water stressed countries. The demand for water is growing, be it for industry or demand from consumers to a point where it may be unsustainable.
Livestock is responsible for over 8% of water use around the world, mainly for the irrigation of feed crops. According to the Water Footprint Network, in an intensive farming system, to produce 1kg beef you need 15,500 litres of water, compared to 1kg of barley or wheat which needs only 1,300 litres.
1kg beef - 15,500 litres
1kg mutton/lamb - 6,100 litres
1kg pork - 4,800 litres
1kg chicken - 3,900 litres
1kg soybeans - 1,800 litres
1kg barley or wheat - 1,300 litres
Apart from using water, livestock production can pollute water with antibiotics, pesticides, nitrogen and phosphorus. As a balance to this, pesticides and fertilisers from growing crops can also be washed into lakes and rivers, polluting the water.
Livestock Farming and Climate Change
According to the UN’s think tank the Global Humanitarian Forum, climate change is already responsible for approximately 300,000 deaths a year and a further 300 million are affected by climate change. It is estimated that between 2030 and 2050 around 250,000 additional deaths will be caused as a result of climate change. The effects of climate change include rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, forest fires and the depletion of eco-systems, with many of the world’s species already under threat of extinction. In the past century temperatures have risen by 0.7 degrees. Experts believe that to avoid catastrophic consequences temperatures increases need to be kept below 2 degrees centigrade compared to industrial times.
Worldwide, it is estimated that about 25% of greenhouse gases are caused by animal agriculture, including the effects of deforestation and other land use changes. Due to more efficient systems, in the EU livestock production forms 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, whilst in the UK this is 8.5%. These figures include the methane animals emit, deforestation for land to raise animals or grow their food, and the fertilizers used to grow animal feed. Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide. This is produced by farm animals when they belch, fart and go to the toilet. More animals = more methane. Nitrous oxide which also comes from manure is 298 times stronger. Beef is the most energy intensive - producing 1kg generates the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the amount of CO2 emitted by a car driving 250km! Animal waste also contributes towards acid rain and accounts for 64 percent of ammonia emissions (FAO 2006).
You can reduce your own “carbon footprint” (the amount of carbon each person is responsible for producing though their daily activities) simply by reducing meat in your diet. A third of our personal carbon footprint comes from the food we eat (how it is produced, where its transported from, how it’s processed) and half of that is from eating meat, so we can make a real difference in reducing our consumption. If the average household in the UK halved its consumption of meat, it would reduce emissions more than if car use was halved.
Over half of the world’s forests have been destroyed. Tropical rainforests used to cover 15% of the earth’s land, now they only cover 5%. They are vital eco-systems containing half of all the world’s plant and animal species, about 5 billion, possibly more, with many of these plants possessing medicinal properties. 25% of all modern medicines contain an active ingredient first discovered from a rainforest plant. Some have already been used to treat malaria and cancers. Yet only 1% of tropical rainforest plants have been studied. Rainforests are also home to many indigenous people and many people are reliant on them for their livelihoods.
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the trees provide us with oxygen (rainforests are known as the “lungs of the world”) and act as giant carbon sinks. However, when they are burned down to clear the land, they release huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere and sometimes methane from the ground as well. In fact, deforestation releases more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transport systems put together!
In the Amazon, cattle ranching accounts for as much as 80% of deforestation. In Brazil, between 1995 and 2006 cattle herds have increased by nearly 80% and cropland more than tripled. The other 30% is to grow soya which used to feed farm animals, particularly in intensive systems. 97% of the soya that is grown world wide is used as animal fodder. In the UK most soya beans come from Brazil, although it currently only forms a small part of sheep and beef diets.
What about Farmers?
Reducing our meat intake does not have to have negative consequences for farmers. After all, the population is rising, so the demand will still be there, even if we all do eat less. But hopefully we can reduce our reliance on large scale industrial farming systems and instead give our support to the farmers who are operating on a less industrial scale. If we all eat less meat, but choose better quality meat when we do buy it, rather than cheap imported meat, we will be supporting our own farmers and helping to promote good animal welfare. In Britain, you can look for the Red Tractor symbol to know that it is British, as well as labels which tell you more about the production of it, such as whether it is outdoor reared, free range and/or organic.
In developing nations, livestock rearing is often the only option for earning a livelihood and provides food and income for a billion of the world’s poorest people, especially in Africa and Asia. But this is very different from intensive farming. The question is whether the way faming is intensifying is a sustainable option and whether the environmental consequences will push people further into poverty?
Does it have to be on a Monday?
No! You might just want to reduce your meat intake overall, or choose a different day of the week. After all, some people like to eat their left overs from Sunday dinner on a Monday! However, it can be helpful to stick to a particular day especially if you are doing it with others at school or at work, to help to keep the momentum going! And perhaps if we all make that effort, one day really can make a world of difference!
Taking it Further - Ideas for Action!
Hold a debate at school to decide whether or not to encourage embrace Meat Free Monday at school, in the canteen, etc.
Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook?! - Have a Meat Free Monday vegetarian cooking competition!
Make posters to advertise one of the benefits of a Meat Free Monday.
Write a persuasive article to your local newspaper.
Write to your MP about what you are doing and ask what the government are doing to help stem the trend towards more intensive farming systems.
Support an organisation which helps to protect areas against deforestation.
Image: Bacon by Kim Ahlström
Information sourced from:
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Harvard School of Public Health (2015), Eating more red meat may increase risk of type 2 diabetes [online], Available from: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/eating-more-red-meat-may-increase-risk-of-type-2-diabetes/ [accessed 02/07/2015].
Worldwatch Institute (2015), Meat Production Continues to Rise [online], Available from: http://www.worldwatch.org/node/5443 [accessed 02/07/2015].
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Mongabay.com (2014), TROPICAL RAINFORESTS OF THE WORLD [online], Available from: http://rainforests.mongabay.com/0101.htm [accessed 02/07/2015].
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Friends of the Earth (2008), What's feeding our food? [online], Available from: http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/livestock_impacts.pdf [accessed 02/07/2015].