Although it may seem counterintuitive at first, there are many links that have been established between the amount of meat an individual eats and his or her carbon footprint. To understand why the carbon footprint is an important metric when discussing the issue of climate change. For the purposes of discussion about meat consumption and climate change, the concept of a carbon footprint can be understood as the amount of climate-changing gases emitted by an individual or group over a set time period (Nelson). This is a simplification of an incredibly complicated metric, but it encompasses the important parts of the definition. An individual interested in reducing his or her carbon footprint, then, is reducing the effect that he or she has on the environment over the course of his or her life.
The United Nations has estimated that approximately twenty percent of the greenhouse gases that are responsible for global climate change can be attributed to livestock production (Bittman). This suggests that an individual who eats a lot of meat over the course of his or her life is contributing heavily to the amount of livestock that must be raised and slaughtered; the more livestock that is raised and slaughtered for food, the higher the greenhouse gas emissions of the livestock industry.Carlsson-Kanyama, Gonzalez and Ro write, “Worldwide, agricultural activity, especially livestock production, accounts for about a fifth of total greenhouse-gas emissions, thus contributing to climate change and its adverse health consequences, including the threat to food yields in many regions Particular policy attention should be paid to the health risks posed by the rapid worldwide growth in meat consumption, both by exacerbating climate change and by directly contributing to certain diseases” (Carlsson-Kanyama and Gonzalez et al). The problems posed by the meat industry are often overlooked by the average layperson, but they must be addressed, particularly in the context of the overall reduction of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
The livestock industry, particularly the livestock industry that fuels industrialized countries that have strict controls on the type and qualities of meats that are sold at market, is varied and complex. Different meats from different industries have different impacts on the environment; however, every industry has a very specific set of problems. Livestock must be fed, which means that the animals consume crops. The crops that the animals consume are often misattributed to be foods that would otherwise have been fed to humans, but this is not the case; for the most part, grains and other types of food raised for livestock are separate strains than those grown for humans (Nelson). Nelson indicates that the crops grown for livestock sometimes, but not always take the place of crops that would have been grown for human consumption; this consideration is negligible when considering the other problems that the livestock industry faces. Notably, the livestock industry must import and move crops from all over the world to feed the large amounts of livestock that they are raising; transportation emissions are very significant, particularly for large farms that must feed large amounts of livestock (Nelson).
Carlsson-Kanyama researched the meat industry as a whole in comparison with the rest of the agricultural industry. Carlsson-Kanyama suggests, “The study shows that emissions are highest for pork and rice and lowest for potatoes, carrots and dry peas. The most important stages of emissions in the life-cycle are identified for each of the different food items. Crop farming is the most important stage for rice and tomatoes while rearing of animals is the most important stage for pork” (Carlsson-Kanyama). Carlsson-Kanyama’s research suggests that rearing animals is one of the most emission-heavy activities that is done within the food production business. The research goes on to state that family and organic farms do a significantly better job at reducing emissions that are created by rearing animals than large commercial slaughterhouses (Carlsson-Kanyama).
Once animals are raised to adulthood and slaughtered, there is still the problem of storage and transportation, both of which cause the emission of significant amounts of greenhouse gases. When perishables like meat must be transported over great distances, there is the additional problem of freshness and the imperative that the meat move quickly, to avoid spoilage (Nelson). This increases the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted by the process, as slower but lower-emission transportation strategies cannot be utilized for foods that are perishable and unfrozen (Nelson).
Much of the carbon dioxide that is produced by the livestock industry is produced by large-scale burning of forested land to make room for pastures for grazing (Canterbury). The fossil fuels used to house, feed, and otherwise care for the animals also make up a large chunk of the emissions created by the process (Canterbury). When an individual chooses to eat large quantities of meat, he or she is inadvertently creating a larger demand for meat, and therefore increasing the necessity for more livestock production and slaughter.
Clearly, food production is important, and without large-scale food production, a large majority of the world would die slowly of starvation. Indeed, food production is still heavily unbalanced, leaving some of the world slowly starving and other parts of the world bloated with too much production and an overabundance of stores (Nelson). With the growth of industrial-scale commercial farming, the small-scale family farms have largely fallen by the wayside, particularly in places like the United States; this change in the way livestock and even crops are raised has changed the amount of emissions that are produced by the farming industry.
If every American ate less meat on a daily or weekly basis, the overall demand for meat in the American market would fall. If the demand for meat were to fall, then the emissions created by the livestock industry would be significantly lessened. If everyone in the industrialized world chose to eat less meat, then emissions would be lessened to an extent that would slow the rate of global climate change (Nelson). This is not to suggest that eating meat should be avoided altogether, but other options should be explored whenever possible: for instance, Nelson suggests that eating locally-produced meat could lessen the effect of the livestock industry on the environment by reducing transportation emissions. However, in the long run, most scientists agree that the solution to the problem is to eat less meat overall, not to merely change the way the meat is obtained.
Making responsible choices in the face of global climate change should be a priority for everyone, but for some people changes that are suggested by experts are not feasible within their lives or financial ability. Luckily, eating less meat is one step that can be taken by everyone, regardless of their financial ability: meat is much more expensive than other foods, and can therefore be eaten as a supplement to a balanced diet, rather than as the focus of a balanced diet (Canterbury). This will allow for a reduction in emissions from the livestock industry, but may also lead to reductions in obesity rates in places like the United States, where obesity has been linked to the proliferation of cheap, calorie-dense fast foods.
Bittman, Mark. "Worried about climate change? Eat less meat.." Marketplace. July 30. 2012. Web. 9 Oct 2013.
Canterbury, Bill. "Less meat eaten, more planet saved." The Baltimore Sun. May 30. 2013. Web. 9 Oct 2013.
Carlsson-Kanyama, Annika, Alej Gonzalez and Ro D. "Potential contributions of food consumption patterns to climate change." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89. 5 (2009): 1704--1709. Online.
Carlsson-Kanyama, Annika. "Climate change and dietary choices—how can emissions of greenhouse gases from food consumption be reduced?." Food policy, 23. 3 (1998): 277--293. Online.
Laestadius, Linnea I, Roni A Neff, Colleen L Barry and Shannon Frattaroli. "Meat consumption and climate change: the role of non-governmental organizations." Climatic Change, (2013): 1--14. Online.
Nelson, Gerald C. Climate change. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2009. Online.