Meat and the Environment

Before I kick-off this topic, I will say up front that I do eat meat and I am not trying to convince anyone to become a vegetarian! Rather I will discuss the impacts of meat production on the environment, and ways that we can all make our own ‘Local Impact’ while still enjoying meat, should you wish to do so. I am not going to delve into issues of animal rights in this article either. Although it is an important topic and animals should certainly be treated with respect and care, it is out of scope for now.


What are the impacts from meat?

Meat production is damaging to the environment in many ways including:

  • farming livestock contributes to 14% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions[1];
  • land clearing to create grazing land causes deforestation, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity. Land clearing also leads to the release of carbon dioxide from the trees and soil when they are uprooted;
  • the production of fertiliser to grow food for livestock is an energy intensive process and predominantly relies on fossil fuels, leading to greenhouse gas emissions;
  • the overuse of fertiliser leads to nitrogen run-off into our waterways. Excess nitrogen in waterways contributes to algal bloom and depletion of oxygen levels in our water systems. This is harmful to marine life;
  • operation of farms is energy intensive, including the need for fuel for tractors and trucks, and electricity for irrigation, which all lead to greenhouse gas emissions, unless using renewable energy sources; and
  • burping cows and other ruminant animals such as sheep and goats, produce methane emissions, which contribute to climate change.

This list provides an overview of just some of the major environmental impacts of meat production.


What can we do?

While at university I became a vegetarian and continued for seven years. I moved to eating meat again when pregnant to ensure bub and I had sufficient iron. I have never gone back to being fully vegetarian, as I find it challenging to find the time to cook separate meat and vegetarian meals for the family. However, as a compromise, my family eats vegetarian meals two to three times per week. When we do eat meat, we only eat small portions, and we limit red meat to twice per week.

With the current meat supply issues across Australia due to the pandemic, now is a brilliant opportunity to sample some vegetarian cuisine! Think eggs, lentils, legumes, nuts and even tofu for the more adventurous. There are an array of tasty dishes waiting for you to try. Some of my favourites are:

  • Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni;
  • Vegetarian Lasagna;
  • Chickpea Curry;
  • Black Bean Chilli Con Carne;
  • Burritos; and
  • Zucchini Slice.

Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni

Chickpea Curry with Rice

Once you find a few favourites, a simple way to reduce your meat consumption is to dedicate one (or more) day per week to eat a vegetarian meal. This still allows ample opportunity to eat meat throughout the week with the knowledge that you are making your own ‘Local Impact’ by eating less meat.

If you are not keen on having a regular vegetarian night, another great option is to commit to reducing the serving sizes of meat you consume. As well as positively impacting on the environment, you will also save money!

Beef and lamb have the largest footprint compared to other types of meat. Therefore, another great option is to substitute red meat with chicken, pork, fish, or even kangaroo instead.

There is also an increasing range of plant-based meat substitute products, which are improving all the time. We have tried plant-based lamb and chicken toppings from a couple of local pizza take-away shops recently, which we found tasted close enough to the real deal to be a viable alternative.


Conclusion

The environmental impacts of meat on the environment are substantial. Reducing your consumption of meat, in particular red meat, is a fantastic way to make your meal-times more sustainable. Pick and choose ideas to reduce your reliance on meat that work for your family and taste preferences and you will make your own ‘Local Impact’!   


References

  1. Gaillac, R and Marbach S 2021, The carbon footprint of meat and dairy proteins: A practical perspective to guide low carbon footprint dietary choices, Journal of Cleaner Production, vol 321

Further Reading

These reports are quite heavy, but for anyone interested in the finer details and statistics, they may be of interest:

  1. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow, Rome, available: https://www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e00.htm
  2. IPCC 2019, Special Report: Climate Change and Land, available: https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/

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