July 12th, 2016 | Georgina Preston, Sustainability Journalist & Content Producer for Sustainable Kingston
I’ll be honest with you; I LOVE a good steak. The thought of chicken wings, bacon and sushi make my mouth water. I’m so serious about this infatuation that I actually have a shirt that proclaims me a “Carnivore” for all the world to see. This fatal attraction started early in my life, through being raised in a meat-and-potatoes household with strong ties to the farming industry. Because of this, I had always scoffed at those who chose to go meatless.
It wasn’t until I started my environmental science degree that I began to feel differently about my favourite food group. I had no idea that the global consumption of animal products had such a profound effect on the world around me. Whether you’re an avid meat-addict, an occasional carnivore, veggie lover or die-hard vegan, understanding the impact of your dietary choices is important if your goal is to tread lightly on the Earth.
Right now global meat consumption is on the rise, in direct correlation to the increase in population. With this growing demand for meat we see the need for more animals, more crops to feed them, and more space and transportation required to house and move them around. In this expanding world, the amount of meat we are eating and some of the ways it is farmed are no longer sustainable. Why is that? Let’s get to the beef of the issue:
Many people are unaware that a large portion of our water consumption comes from what we eat. When considering the amount of water that is used in the total production of beef, pork, and poultry, it’s hard to deny meat’s unsustainable qualities. The Virtual Water Project (http://virtualwater.eu/) has made it their aim to “show the world how freshwater is used to produce selected products,” and includes some of our favourite foods. If we use beef as an example, the project shows us that 4500 litres of water goes into the making of one (300g) steak. How much water goes into 1 kilogram of beef? The number goes up to 15400 litres, which could be instead used to produce 17 kilograms of corn or 62 kilograms of potatoes.
Another aspect of meat production that really struck me was the land we need to house and feed the animals. Right now there is enough grain being grown to feed every person in the world adequately, with some excess. Despite this, people still die of starvation or malnutrition every day. So many grain crops that we produce get diverted to feed animals that only a select group of people get to consume. The Sustainable Table is a non-profit organization that tries to educate people in order to support food systems that are “fair, humane, healthy and good for the environment” (https://sustainabletable.org.au/Hungryforinfo/Theenvironmentalimpactsofeatingmeat/tabid/105/Default.aspx). They state that a single hectare of land can produce 29 times more food in the form of vegetables than in the form of chicken meat. This number goes up to 78 times when compared to beef.
The land that cattle ranching and beef production takes up is not only in huge quantity, but also has high quality. The rainforests in Central and South America are being destroyed because of the demand for beef consumption. This means that less carbon is being sequestered. This means that we are losing one of the most important centres for biodiversity on this Earth. This means that undiscovered potential cures for illnesses will never be discovered. This means local and global climate change.
Climate change is affected by cattle in another way too. Everyone knows that carbon emissions are causing the global climate systems to change, but methane gas’s impact are 25 times greater than CO2. In Canada, there are 11960 thousand head of cattle, 6744.4 thousand of those being used for beef production. Cows produce approximately 70-120 kilograms of methane per year. With that amount of cattle, we are looking at a minimum of 840 million kilograms of methane per year being released into the atmosphere just from Canada.
So the question is, do we need this many animals for our consumption? Should meat really be a staple in our diets? What if everyone decided to cut back on their intake?
Therein lies the idea behind “Meatless Mondays,” a global movement that emphasizes the importance of reducing our meat intake for health, wallet and planet, if only for one day a week. In 2013, the City of Vancouver declared June 10th as Meatless Monday, the first municipality in Canada to endorse the initiative. Why? Because the city of Vancouver is dedicated to developing food systems that are sustainable and that support community well-being; and the city is committed to its Greenest City Action Plan encouraging citizens to make choices that will add to environmental health. Find out more at http://www.meatlessmonday.com/!
On top of cutting back, there are other sustainable ways to enjoy this savoury food group. Perhaps the biggest thing you could do is to get to know your meat. Try to buy from small, local, organic farms. These farms generally treat the animals better, care more about the preservation of their land, and are not adding steroids or unneeded antibiotics to the meat. It’s also great to support the people and businesses surrounding your community! A great resource is The Kingstonist’s Guide to Locally Sourced Food (http://www.kingstonist.com/2011/05/17/locally-sourced-food-in-kingston/). They have contact information for a lot of close-by farms that provide various types of animal products. You can also source local meat from markets like the Memorial Centre Farmers’ Market.
The process of understanding the impact of meat consumption and specific farming practices can be daunting. Even though the information I’ve detailed seems like a lot, there’s still lots to learn about the agriculture and fishing industries. I encourage you to go out and do your research about the food you’re buying, and more importantly eating.
As for me, I’m not sure if I’m ready to give up my favourite food group altogether, but I like the idea of trying to get to know where my food is coming from, and skipping out on a meat-centred meal most of the time. After all, as any self-proclaimed carnivore could tell you, a good steak is worth the wait.