Environmental Impact of Our Food Choices

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Your burger is melting glaciers in Antarctica. Yes, you read that right. Your delicious, wonderfully affordable snack is wiping several animal species off the face of our little blue dot. As you read this article and go about your day, dozens, if not hundreds of plant and animal species are lost.

Now how does your little cheat meal contribute to the decline of civilization as we know it? It may sound alarmist and even seem like a blatant attempt at sensationalism but the fact remains, that our everyday choices, especially our dietary ones, contribute to global warming more than we’d like to admit.

I do not wish to vilify meat and animal product consumption entirely. They are undoubtedly viable, accessible and essential sources of protein for a large proportion of the global population. Most individuals will attest to eating meat almost every few days and almost everyone will have eaten animal products on a daily basis at some point in their lives.

However, the way they are produced has far-reaching effects on the environment – greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater utilisation, loss of forests for agricultural land, and also on our own bodies.

Here are a few hard facts about meat and dairy consumption globally:

           (Source: Our World in Data)

Now, one can argue that these are just figures about consumption. And you would not be remiss for asking how your food choices are connected to climate change, politics, health and the environment.

This writer must also concede that the environmental cost of livestock and animal farming for meat is wholly non-uniform. It varies according to the animal in question, the exact species, the type of feed used, the water source and above all, the organisation that engages in these businesses.

Ruminants and the Greenhouse effect

However, one thing is abundantly clear, that the cost of our food choices, the true cost, is borne by the environment.  For example, it is a well-known fact that cows produce methane, it is even a bit of a joke, but what we forget is that there are over 1 billion cattle across the world, tens of millions of which will find themselves headed to the slaughterhouse every year. This excludes bulls and calves that are killed for non-food purposes.

Enteric fermentation process in cows

Image Source: https://letstalkscience.ca/educational-resources/stem-in-context/cows-methane-and-climate-change

Bearing in mind that one cow produces 250-500 litres of methane every single day, which amounts to a little over 180,000 litres of methane per cow, per year. Let’s now calculate the tonnes of methane that one billion cows produce annually. Are you concerned now?

While ruminant methane is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, it produces a greenhouse effect that is 28 times stronger! Thus becoming a major contributing factor in global warming.

Humans are vastly outnumbered by farm animals. The combined total of chickens (19 billion), cows (1.5 billion), sheep (1 billion) and pigs (1 billion) living at any time is three times higher than the number of people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Those figures however are dwarfed by the number of animals we eat.

Approximately 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production.

The number of larger livestock, particularly pigs, slaughtered is on the rise globally.

Livestock Rearing and The Consumption of Freshwater

Animal rearing also affects global water supplies and utilises worryingly large amounts of water. It has been estimated that the livestock sector uses an equivalent of 11,900 km³ of freshwater annually – or approximately 10 per cent of the estimated annual global water flows (111,000 km³).

how much water animals use

Image source: https://www.ecopeanut.com/environmental-impact-of-meat/

Let us now put that in the context of a vast major of humanity not having access to clean potable water, let alone a nice cut of beef that uses around 15000 litres of water per kilogram. (Lamb takes around 8700 litres/kg, Pork – 6000L/kg, Chicken – 4300L/kg).

Whereas pulses use 4000L/kg, cereals 1644L/kg, fruits – 962L/kg, with vegetables and sugar crops using the least water at 322 and 197L/kg respectively.

Understanding the difference between a plant-based and meat-centric diet from an environmental viewpoint should not be difficult now.

Overfishing and Global Warming: A Vicious Cycle 

Image Source: https://sites.google.com/site/overfishingglobaldepletion/

Fishing, especially illegal or unsustainable fishing (which comprises most of the global fishing practices), has an unimaginable environmental footprint. 

Commercial fishing companies must supply certain fish species in thousands of tonnes to restaurants globally, and meeting those demands was never going to be possible with the traditional coastal sea, net-based fishing.

So the companies innovated and developed the ‘trawler’, a word that strikes fear in the heart of conservationists. Trawlers are boats with weighted nets cast off their backs, which fall all the way to the seabed. As the boats move forward they literally plough the seafloor, snaring anything that has the misfortune of lying in their paths. 

These hellish nets flatten coral reefs that took centuries, if not millennia to grow, in mere seconds. While they do fantastic jobs of snaring their desired catch and meeting company targets, they also trap hundreds of other ‘by-catches’ like sharks, octopuses and heaps of other endangered marine creatures.

Our demands for certain kinds of fish have drastically reduced their numbers globally. For example, the World Wildlife Fund reports that populations of Yellowfin Tuna, are now classified as endangered thanks to overfishing in the Eastern Pacific region and the Indian Ocean.

This, in turn, allows other species of fish and squid to populate the seas in the absence of natural predators. Compounded with rising global temperatures that are warming the oceans, and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving into the seas that acidifies the oceans, bleaching corals and finally killing entire reefs and all the animals that depend upon them. It isn’t long before we feel the heat from these changes that are wholly and unequivocally our fault. 

Sustainable agricultural practices and sustainable environmental practices will only ever be undertaken by corporations when consumers make conscious, sustainable choices with regard to what they buy and eat. Such behavioural changes, however, require an enormous reassessment of our individual priorities and perception of the environment.

It is easy to imagine ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’ as faraway concepts, emerald havens ensconced in trees, as sanctuaries for tigers and birds, that are unaffected by the vicissitudes of the modern world.

Such thinking will never allow us to comprehend and fully acknowledge the true cost our environment pays for our fast, accessible, cheap and tasty food. It has been established by now, in no uncertain terms, that meat and animal product-based diets wreak havoc on the natural environment.

Meat Consumption and The (Internal) Environment

How often do we stop to ponder their effects on our internal, bodily environment?

Most of us are vaguely aware that heavily meat-based diets are unhealthy, or that we should cut down our red and fatty meat consumption, but we must truly reduce the consumption of meat for both the natural and our internal environments.

Several large prospective American and European cohort studies and meta-analyses of epidemiological data have indicated that the long-term consumption of red meat and particularly processed meat is associated with an increased risk of total mortality, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes mellitus, in both men and women. 

The association persists after the inclusion of known confounding factors, such as age, race, BMI, history, smoking, blood pressure, lipids, physical activity and multiple nutritional parameters in multivariate analysis. The association has not always been noted with red meat, and it has been absent with white meat.

This association with a pro-inflammatory, atherogenic, pre-diabetic state is not just found in the depths of scientific journals and medical conferences but is also felt rather strikingly by individuals who transition from non-vegetarian to plant-based diets in search of a healthier lifestyle. 

Of course, most of these individuals have already suffered the consequences of an unhealthy existence, and are usually recovering from myocardial infarctions, strokes or uncontrolled diabetes and their complications. But that only serves to reinforce the feeling of wellbeing, clarity and freshness that they report after a few months of this dietary overhaul.

This can raise a very valid criticism that vegetarians are most definitely not immune to coronary artery disease or diabetes and do not necessarily have ‘healthier’ diets. Sugary foods, carbonated beverages loaded with sugar and other overly processed foods are antonyms of the world ‘health’.

Importance of a Plant-Based Diet

That’s precisely why we use the term ‘plant-based diet’. Which means consuming mostly fruits and vegetables, including beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. A plant-based diet is well associated with a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and death from any cause.

An estimated 90% of the population of the United States is omnivorous, and the vast majority of people aren’t going to give up meat. The good news is, they don’t need to. A 2017 study published in JAMA showed that consuming just 3% less animal protein and replacing it with plant protein was associated with up to a 19% lower risk of death from any cause.

A study conducted jointly by the World Economic Forum and the Oxford Martin School found that reducing meat and introducing protein alternatives can reduce diet-related mortality by 5-7%.

Meat heavy diets have the added disadvantage of inducing a mild pro-inflammatory state that might not be clinically significant for young and healthy individuals but might lead to generalised lethargy, a feeling of heaviness, vague joint pains and unexplained aches. This can worsen the symptoms for patients with rheumatoid arthritis and can exacerbate fibromyalgia.

The above-mentioned issues are inherent to meat, but there’s an added cause for concern when we consider the antibiotics that are added to cattle and livestock fodder and the inhumane conditions in which animals are reared and bred. One need not look as far as foie gras to detect cruelty in the way animals are reared for consumption. It’s an open secret that chicken bred for their meat are usually of a variety different from those grown for eggs and that they might be subject to a variety of hormonal and drug exposures, many of which make their way into our plates of food.

Food standard regulatory bodies globally have been reluctant or at the very least, lazy when it comes to enforcing dietary standards and reviewing the way meat is produced commercially. For a variety of reasons, each darker than the last.

Furthermore, plant-based diets with an abundance of fruits and vegetables are bursting with antioxidants, which as their names state, reduce oxidative stress, keep us feeling and looking fresher. Antioxidants also, very importantly, neutralise the pro-inflammatory effects of high-fat, meat-rich meals.

If your main concern is protein, then rest easy for, it is now easier to get one’s hands-on meat substitutes and ‘impossible meats’ made from plant-based proteins which can make the transition to plant-based diets marginally less jarring for habitual omnivores. Also, many pulses and varieties of lentils have sufficient amounts of proteins to cover our required daily allowance.

Bearing in mind all these facts, a greater number of individuals are shifting to a plant-based diet both for the environment and themselves. Here’s a quick look into how you can reduce environmental impact by shifting to a vegan diet (Source: https://twitter.com/goveganbevegan/status/646664699640172544/photo/1):

 

It’s time we choose wisely not only for ourselves and our health but as individuals who acknowledge that with every act of excess consumption, we steal food from the plates of our children and their children who will inherit this earth, we rob them of the opportunity to see the wonders of nature as they exist today.

References:

  1. https://green.harvard.edu/news/red-meat-and-environment
  2. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/
  3. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat?country=~OWID_WRL
  4. https://faunalytics.org/global-cow-slaughter-statistics-and-charts/
  5. https://www.ucdavis.edu/food/news/making-cattle-more-sustainable
  6. http://www.fao.org/3/ca6649en/ca6649en.pdf
  7. https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/
  8. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/yellowfin-tuna
  9. https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production
  10. https://interactive.carbonbrief.org/what-is-the-climate-impact-of-eating-meat-and-dairy/
  11. https://now.tufts.edu/articles/extinction-crisis
  12. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/
  13. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA
  14. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eat-more-plants-fewer-animals-2018112915198
  15. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326176#overview
  16. Battaglia Richi E, Baumer B, Conrad B, Darioli R, Schmid A, Keller U. Health Risks Associated with Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2015;85(1-2):70-8. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000224. PMID: 26780279.
  17. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/43/2/265
  18. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/whats-the-beef-with-red-meat
  19. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/eating-less-beef-will-and-more-beans-will-cut-global-deaths
  20. https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/antibiotic-use-in-livestock
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About the author

Dr Mahin Bhatt is a medical intern from Mumbai. He has a keen interest in clinical medicine, medical research and education, especially in the fields of Internal medicine and Haemato-oncology. He is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including research grants from ICMR, Oncology Scholarships at Tata Memorial Hospital and King’s College London, and has secured multiple academic prizes including a Gold Medal & First rank in all of Maharashtra in his Final Year MBBS. Community engagement and affecting social change at a grassroots level is one of his many passions. His hobbies include writing, wildlife photography and Hindustani classical music.

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Comments

  • Sushila Daga June 30, 2021 at 2:29 pm
    1+

    Great proud of you 👏👏👏

    Reply
  • Shefali Bhuta June 30, 2021 at 2:50 pm
    1+

    Well written. Informative. It is good to know that plant protein is a healthier option especially for vegetarians

    Reply
  • Paritosh Trivedi June 30, 2021 at 4:48 pm
    1+

    Good informative article

    Reply
  • Dr Rahul Joshi June 30, 2021 at 5:21 pm
    1+

    Excellent article Dr Mahin Bhatt

    Reply
  • Vinaya Joshi June 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm
    1+

    Very True Doctor,when heard about fire in Amazon Jungle, And Bush fire in Australia .That was alarm for Covid 19 which we never expected..Our Beloved Mother Earth is sinking.Very Sad.

    Reply
  • Vinaya Joshi June 30, 2021 at 11:31 pm
    1+

    Yes It is very true. When I heard Amazon Forest was on Fire,And Bush fire in Australia felt very bad.That was the alarm for Covid 19 .Will see our Beloved Mother is sinking.

    Reply
  • Harshad Joshi July 1, 2021 at 6:29 am
    1+

    It’s indeed a well carved out article Mahin.
    Kudos!

    Reply
  • सुरेश पुरोहित (सु_हित) July 1, 2021 at 3:37 pm
    1+

    अति उत्तम

    Reply
  • Dr Santosh Karmarkar July 4, 2021 at 6:40 pm
    1+

    I found the article very informative, well researched and nicely written. It has made me rethink about my food choices!

    Reply

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