How we are slowly killing the planet with our love of meat

Brahma Chellaney says the mounting health and environmental costs of our meat-heavy diets must push us to change course, or risk our survival

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 11:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 June, 2015, 11:28am

This December, world leaders will meet in Paris for the UN Climate Change Conference, where they will hammer out a comprehensive agreement to reduce carbon emissions and stem global warming. In the meantime, governments worldwide should note that the single biggest driver of environmental degradation today is our changing diet - a diet that is not particularly conducive to a healthy life, either.

In recent decades, rising incomes have catalysed a major shift in people's eating habits, with meat, in particular, becoming an increasingly important feature. Given that livestock require much more food, land, water and energy to raise and transport than plants, increased demand for meat depletes resources, places pressure on food-production systems, damages ecosystems, and fuels climate change.

Meat production is about 10 times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins, with 1kg of beef, for example, requiring 15,415 litres of water.

At any given time, the global livestock population amounts to more than 150 billion, compared with just 7.2 billion humans - meaning that livestock have a larger direct ecological footprint than we do. And livestock production uses 30 per cent of the earth's land surface that once was home to wildlife, thereby playing a critical role in biodiversity loss and species extinction.

It took more than a century for the European diet to reach the point at which meat is consumed at every meal. But, in large parts of Asia, a similar shift has occurred in just one generation.

Globally, the signs are worrying. The demand for meat is projected to increase by 50 per cent from 2013 to 2025.

To meet this demand, meat producers have had to adopt an extremely problematic approach to raising livestock. To ensure their animals gain weight rapidly, meat producers feed them grain, rather than the grass they would naturally consume, putting pressure on grain production.

Though the environmental and health costs of our diets have been widely documented, the message has gone largely unheard. This must change - and fast.

For starters, livestock producers should switch to water-saving technologies. At the same time, governments and civil society groups should promote healthier diets.

This is not to say that everyone must become vegetarian. But even a partial shift could have a far-reaching impact.

Just as governments have used laws, regulations and other tools with great success to discourage smoking, so must they encourage citizens to eat a balanced diet - for the sake of their health and that of our planet.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. Copyright: Project Syndicate