By Erica Cheung
It’s no secret that Texans love their meat: at the 2015 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo alone, food selections included everything from chocolate-covered bacon to gargantuan turkey legs to, of course, barbecue. While meat in its very many forms is iconic of Texas cuisine, a recent article published in Science of the Total Environment by Brian Machovina et. al from Florida International University suggests that consumption of meat, along with other animal products, may very well be iconic of habitat destruction, climate change, and overall loss of biodiversity as well.
Consumption of animal products is nothing new, especially for developed nations. Some developed countries exhibit diets of about 40% animal product by mass, even though the global median clocks in at about 21%. Despite this gap, countries with lower consumption have been increasing their rates. China, for example, has quadrupled its animal product intake in the last fifty years. Demand for animal products is on the rise parallel to growing population sizes, especially considering that in many places, meat consumption is often equated with higher status and wealth1.
The implications of this are vast, as livestock production for the sake of consumption is a costly process. Support for livestock involves a number of factors: places for them to live, for their waste to go, and for their food to grow. As a result, lands all around the world have been converted solely for these purposes. Three-fourths of the deforested land in the Amazon, for example, has been manipulated to allow for livestock pastures and fields to grow feed1.
This focus on feed crop growth has led to the transformation of biodiverse landscapes into monoculture ones—ones that grow only one kind of crop1. This change results in habitat loss for organisms that once depended on distinct environments to thrive. This also results in the loss of ecosystem services—aspects of the environment that benefit people, like crop pollination.
Increased livestock production has also been linked with the release of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Altering land via aforementioned deforestation and feed crop expansion releases extensive amounts of carbon dioxide, whereas fertilizers in feed have become huge sources of waterway pollutants1.
So—what can be done? Combating this may seem like a daunting task, but, as Machovina states in his TedxFIU talk, “The force of meat consumption is powerful, but not inevitable.”2
Perhaps one of the most obvious answers is to lower consumption of animal products. Instead of growing crops to feed animals to then feed people, we should grow crops to feed people directly. Doing so could potentially feed an additional four billion people, as well as conserve resources. The area needed to produce 1 kg of protein from soybeans, for instance, is one-third the area needed to produce 1 kg of protein from chicken, one-ninth the area for pork, and one-thirty-second the area for beef1.
From this, we see that the kind of animal products we consume are important to consider as well—the ecological footprint of, say, beef is much higher than other meats such as poultry. Replacing more ecologically expensive animal products with less destructive ones could be a way of compromising our meat-eating habits with the health of the environment1. As the Chick-fil-A cows say: “Eat Mor Chikn.”
Lastly, livestock production can be integrated with the natural environment, bypassing the necessity of stripping lands solely for the purpose of raising animals. Livestock can be introduced as herbivores and omnivores in a natural ecosystem, eating a variety of naturally-occurring feeds that allow them to produce nutrient-rich waste that can be recycled back into the system1.
There are drawbacks to this suggested way of life, of course. Many people will be unwilling to give up meat, whether because they have grown accustomed to a certain way of living, or because it is engrained in their culture. What Machovina et. al suggest, however, is not that people quit cold turkey (no pun intended)—just that they scale back their portion sizes.
It’s doubtful that consumption of animal products will ever stop. What’s important, however, is that we be mindful of the extent to which we consume, and the effects doing so has on the environment. At the end of the day, Texans can still have their meat—just not quite as much as they may be used to—and eat it too.
- Machovina, Brian, Kenneth J. Feeley, and William J. Ripple. “Biodiversity Conservation: The Key Is Reducing Meat Consumption.” Science of The Total Environment 536 (2015): 419-31. ScienceDirect. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969715303697>.
- Machovina, Brian, and Eileen McHale. “Eat Healthier and save the Environment.” TEDxFIU. Florida International University, Miami. TEDx. Web. 15 Sept. 2015. <http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Eat-healthier-and-save-the-envi>.