Rethinking your Beef Burger: Why animal agriculture is unsustainable for our planet
Updated: May 12
The world's population is growing, and rapidly so.
The number of world citizens currently stands at around 7.7 billion, but scientists have estimated this figure will reach 10 billion by 2050. This speedy population growth comes with a number of challenges, the most urgent being finding the resources to feed everyone. According to The Economist, we may need up to 60% more food to provide for these extra numbers.
As it stands, our food system accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with animal agriculture accounting for more emissions than the combined exhaust fumes from all worldwide transport. With the planet becoming ever-more crowded, we need to ask the question as to where we can sustainably source food from in the future?
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The Human Impact on Global Warming.
In 2014, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded there’s a 95% probability that human activities from the past 50 years have warmed our planet. This warming has predominantly been caused by an increase in greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases are essential in regulating the planet's temperature by trapping the heat from the sun. However, human activity has intensified this 'greenhouse' effect, leading to a significant rise in global temperatures. Carbon dioxide is the biggest greenhouse gas, but methane is in second position, and accounts for a quarter of global warming.
Climate change is no joke, with the damaging effects of these rising temperatures predicted as being catastrophic. An increase in flooding, droughts, heatwaves, and rising sea levels are just a few examples of the extreme weather events occurring in recent years. Even the Arctic has been predicted to likely be ice-free by 2050.
Discover how you can reduce your carbon footprint, here.
The link between animal agriculture and global warming
Now, this human activity contributing to the current climate crisis is multi-faceted and includes the burning of fossil fuels, electricity production, general industry and transport.
However, the role of animal agriculture cannot be overlooked, with the UN branding meat the 'world's most urgent problem.'
65 billion animals are killed for meat every year. This figure is unsustainable, considering 70% of all fresh water and 40% of the land’s surface is consumed by systems we have in place to rear these animals. When factoring in the run-off of pesticides and chemicals into our fresh water-ways, and the levels of pollution as a by-product of farming, the meat industry's impact on our natural world is serious.
Now cows might seem pretty harmless, but believe it or not, our favourite farmyard friends possess a deadly weapon. Cows produce A LOT of methane - between 70 and 120kg each per year. With 1.5 billion of them on the planet, it's no wonder scientists have concluded that methane could possess global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 over 20 years. If cows were a country, they would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, sitting just behind China and the USA.
It's not just methane that's the issue. Take The Amazon, for instance. The rainforest is the world's largest carbon dioxide sink, and the importance of its survival for our planet cannot be understated. Cattle ranches and farming account for 80% of deforestation across the rainforest. The raging fires currently burning across The Amazon as a result of this deforestation are causing widespread destruction to one of the planet's most diverse and crucial ecosystems.
Water usage is another strong contender in the list of environmental complications surrounding the meat industry. Meat requires vast quantities of water to complete its journey from farm to plate. To produce the average beef burger patty, 3000 litres of water is required.
To put this into perspective, the average US household uses only 445 litres per day. This means that one beef burger equates to 15 days worth of household water usage.
This is an alarming statistic, especially considering water is necessary for our survival.
Beef is not.
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The Rise of Animal Agriculture Worldwide
So surely, we should all just reduce our meat intake and our carbon footprint will decrease by proxy? It’s really not that simple.
We are eating more meat than ever before – consumption levels are growing at an annual rate of 3% since 1960. Yes, vegetarianism is rising in the wealthy world, but elsewhere, especially in developing countries, meat is a booming industry, and emissions for agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050.
Take China, for example. In the early 1980s, the Chinese consumed about 13kg of meat annually. Today, this has reached an average of 64kg and the country now consumes 21% of the world’s meat. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, this does not bode well for the environment.
Even in the UK, 90% of people consume meat and poultry products. This continuing demand has seen a sharp rise in cruel methods of agricultural practice. Around 70% of the UK's farm animals are kept in factory farms. Such farms hold animals in claustrophobic, confined spaces and subject the animal to an entire life spent indoors, perhaps undergoing mutilation, or being fed antibiotics to unnaturally speed their growth. All of this cruelty is inflicted to ensure production is maximised. An egg-laying battery cafe hen might spend her whole life in a space smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.
The shocking standards of living for many animals, paired with the damaging environmental impact of this sort of farming, raises ethical questions as to whether as a society we can continue these practices going forward.
What does the future look like?
As it stands, 80% of the world’s farmland is used for animals, but they only account for 18% of the world’s calories. The huge disparity in this statistic cannot be ignored.
We need to revolutionise our food production and harness the least impactful way of providing for the world's future population, especially considering the targets we must reach to avoid disastrous consequences from climate change.
So what are the solutions?
One resolution includes drastically reducing your meat intake by consuming alternative protein sources or switching completely to a vegetarian or vegan diet. In switching away from animal-based food we could increase the global food supply by 49%, without expanding agricultural land. However, with meat being such a highly valued commodity worldwide, this is an idealistic, yet unlikely possibility in the near future.
A perhaps more feasible solution, acting as a 'half-way house,' between that beef burger, and a vegan diet, could be a meal-plan in which insects act as the primary protein source. What makes insects the winning solution, is they are far more eco-friendly than traditional livestock.
Insect farming is 75% more sustainable than chicken farming, and also requires 50% less water and food than livestock to be reared. Another bonus is cockroaches, termites and scrag beetles are the only insects that produce methane, so with an insect-based diet, there will be far less of that dangerous greenhouse gas warming our atmosphere.
Not only this, but insects are a great nutritional source - they are comprised of 55% protein, contain all 9 essential amino acids, and are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and antioxidants. So, it's a solution that inflicts far less harm on the environment, and makes for a delicious and healthy meal.
Find out why edible insects are the perfect sustainable diet, here.
If a country like China reduced its consumption of meat by switching to insects, greenhouse gas emissions could be drastically reduced and the issues surrounding global food shortages would simultaneously be addressed.
Ultimately, people will choose what suits them, but if the alternatives are just as tasty, are convenient, and guilt-free, saying no to that Big-Mac will be as natural as cow munching on some grass.
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by Erin Banks