Eye-opening article by The Ecologist on the impact of meat-heavy diets. Bring on the veg! – 

Health risk or not, thanks to their success as a dietary quick fix, high protein diets aren’t going away and so popular have they become, supermarkets are seeing a spike in sales of steak and chicken – in some cases of as much as 50 per cent. But this is where the new high protein diets become environmentally problematic. Whereas 80s favourites such as the cabbage soup diet were largely based on vegetables, the increased demand for red meat puts pressure on the planet in ways that no amount of cabbages could match.

According to a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation [FAO] report, meat production accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, with a sizeable chunk produced while the animal is still alive. Livestock consume more than half of all wheat and barley grown in the UK and around 90 per cent of the world’s soya harvest. Growing these crops requires a vast amount of energy and also takes up a considerable amount of land. 

Most of what farmland is left is dedicated to the animals themselves – currently 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface is used for rearing domestic stock. Along with land use, comes the impact of animal rearing on water resources. It takes thousands more litres of water to produce a kilo of beef than to grow a kilo of grains, vegetables or pulses while local water supplies have been known to become polluted by manure, antibiotics and hormones that run into streams and rivers. Then there’s the subject of the methane, a greenhouse gas that has 25 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide. It is naturally produced by bacteria that breakdown organic matter and is mainly found in the stomachs of animals. But while methane is naturally occurring, intensive farming has seen an increase in the amount released into the atmosphere, and cows and sheep are responsible for 37 per cent of the total methane generated by human activity. This is due to the fact that cows are intensively reared in cramped conditions and fed on cheap corn and soy-based products instead of being allowed to roam and graze in grassy pastures as they are naturally meant to do. 

The UN regards our current appetite for animal products as unsustainable and a study by the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP] found that by replacing 40 per cent of our red meat intake with chicken, seafood and cereals, we would be able to reduce global emissions by around eight per cent. But even seafood has concerns associated with it too, not least the impact of over fishing and the pollution caused by aquaculture. Deep sea trawling, where the nets are dragged over the ocean floor, is destroying the fragile underwater eco-system and there are also innocent causalities, with the Vegetarian Society estimating that 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed every year as ‘by-catch’ from fishing industries. Most researchers agree that a vegetarian diet creates the least environmental damage. However, it’s not everyone’s preferred choice.

Shocking facts about protein diets

• Over two million farm animals are slaughtered for food every day in the UK alone
• 70 per cent of Amazon deforestation is caused by local farmers in search of new grazing pastures for cattle
• An estimated 3,500 seals are killed in Scotland alone each year as they are considered a threat to farmed salmon
Click theecologist.org to read the full article.