Looking back at human history, we have all been meat eaters for thousands of years and it is something that is linked closely with our ancestry. However, as the planet now holds an unprecedented amount of us, approximately 8 billion, it does not have the capacity to hold that many daily meat eaters as David Attenborough made clear in his recent documentary ‘A life on Our Planet‘.
Current statistics show that globally we consume around 350 million tons of meat a year, this number is continuously increasing with meat consumption since the 1980s doubling in 30 years. Providing space and resources for all the animals that we eat also has major damaging impacts on the environment. Additionally, one of the issues with meat consumption in developed countries is the desensitisation of killing and eating animals that we all have become comfortable with, automated factories which process dozens of animals each day take away the moral aspect which is an important factor as to why consumption is so high. Therefore, switching to a more vegetarian diet needs to become the new norm if we are going to give our planet the respite from all the damage we have caused it up to this point.
A report published by 37 scientists last year concluded that our current food systems are currently threating human health and environmental sustainability. They assessed that more than 820 million people have insufficient food and low-quality diets, urging that global transformation of the food system is needed now more than ever. Another report published in the same journal stated that we can no longer feed our population a healthy diet whilst balancing planetary resources for the first time in 200,000 years.
Another study found that the animals we use for food take up 83% of the world’s farmland, whilst only contributing to 18% of our calorie consumption. Also, contributing up to 58% of food’s emissions. Whereas, a vegetarian diet can help reduce the green house gas emissions produced by meat production, use less land to cultivate crops and provide healthier alternatives to many poor diet choices. Demonstrating that eating meat is somewhat an inefficient food source and with so many of us understandably eating meat due to our ancestry here the problem can start to become apparent.
Not only is eating meat inefficient as a food source but it also contributes to a host of other problems. For example, an conservation website found problems with meat consumption ranging from deforestation and loss of biodiversity to eutrophication and desertification.
Due to the large amount of space it takes to raise livestock for meat production and the lack of space we have left, natural areas which we rely on are beginning to suffer. For example, the Amazon rainforest is currently being destroyed, mostly illegally, for meat production, timber and minerals. The rate at which it is being destroyed is also alarming as it is one of the largest rainforests on our planet which we rely on for species diversity, minimising carbon emissions and protects indigenous communities. The image below demonstrates the extent of the clearing taking place for farmland.
Desertification is the process where fertile areas of soil become increasingly arid. Too much grazing livestock in one area can prohibit the land from replenishing and thus, cause the process of desertification. The IPCC report ‘Climate Change and Land‘ states that: ‘Asia and Africa are projected to have the highest number of people vulnerable to increased desertification‘. The report also states: ‘Projected increases in population and income, combined with changes in consumption patterns, result in increased demand for food, feed, and water in 2050‘. Reinforcing the need for a change toward a more vegetarian diet, as the population increases, so does the demand for lifestyles which are not sustainable at such as scale on a planet with finite capacity and resources.
However, scientists also recognise that changing people’s diets on a mass scale is a major challenge. As a 2018 publication in Science states:
‘Although meat is a concentrated source of nutrients for low-income families, it also enhances the risks of chronic ill health, such as from colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease. Changing meat consumption habits is a challenge that requires identifying the complex social factors associated with meat eating and developing policies for effective interventions‘.
It also suggests that governments need to shape food systems around environmental health and animal welfare and not just for contamination and economical priorities.
Referring back to the report ‘Climate Change and Land‘ – this report does offer some solutions to these issues:
‘A number of land management options, such as improved management of cropland and grazing lands, improved and sustainable forest management, and increased soil organic carbon content, do not require land use change and do not create demand for more land conversion‘
‘A wide range of adaptation and mitigation responses, e.g., preserving and restoring natural ecosystems such as peatland, coastal lands and forests, biodiversity conservation, reducing competition for land, fire management, soil management, and most risk management options (e.g., use of local seeds, disaster risk management, risk sharing instruments) have the potential to make positive contributions to sustainable development, enhancement of ecosystem functions and services and other societal goals‘
As you can see, these responses focus not just on meat production and agriculture but other issues as well. As is the nature of climate change, a problem is not exclusive to itself but often interlinks with a set of problems which all react collaterally with each other. Due to our rapid population expansion since the previous century, we are at a crucial point in human history where we not only need to make a renewable energy transformation but also a dietary transformation in order to continue to sustain human life on Earth and prevent a sixth mass extinction event from happening.