Did you know that if a meat eater gave up meat they could:
1. Compensate their reduction in water consumption showering 5 hours each day.
2. Live up to 10 extra years.
3. Save up to 2.200 square meters of forest.
4. Take a car trip of 12.000 km each summer and pollute as much as they would eating meat.
All this just giving up beef, pork and poultry.
Prepare yourself for a new way of considering our diets.
As we promised, we are going to talk about meat production. We want to avoid just listing all the bad things animal farming is responsible for; on the contrary, we asked ourselves which habits a vegetarian person could adopt in order to keep consuming and polluting the same as a meat eater.
Essentially, we gathered data on the environmental impact of the two diets, including water consumption, CO2 emissions, land use, deforestation… and look for bizarre behaviours one could adopt quitting meat but wanting to keep up with their previous polluting habits.
An example? Well, if we went vegetarian we could shower for something like 5 hours per day, consuming the same amount of water as we would, eating meat. Which means, considering the average time Europeans spend in their shower, about 40 showers a day.(1) (2) (3)
Basically, we could fill an Olympic swimming pool (50 meters long, 25 large and 2 meters deep) every 21 months with drinkable water, or… eat a meat-based meal everyday. 2,500,000 litres of fresh water. This is how much water we could save in less than two years.
A vegetarian diet is healthier, especially for rich countries
Before to get deeper into this episode we have to deal with a hot topic… Is a vegetarian diet healthy?
Most of the nutritionists agree that, not only a vegetarian diet can provide us with all the nutrients we need, but it can also improve our health as long as it is varied and well planned. Lately, researchers agree on the fact that vegetarian and vegan diets can reduce significantly the risk of contracting common chronic diseases including cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and chronic kidney diseases as well as diabetes. (4) (5) (6)
Health benefits are even greater in those regions where meat consumption is particularly high, like North America, Oceania and Europe. A vegetarian diet can also contribute to reaching our ideal body weight… and, great news for those who are seeking for longevity, becoming vegetarian in some cases could result in 6 to 10 years of extra life. (7)
The average Californian male, indeed, is likely to live 9.5 years less than a vegetarian. While, Californian ladies could gain an extra 6.1 years of retirement, being one… start planning your elderly activities! This study from the Loma Linda University in California, found a very interesting way to monitor for more than 6 years the health of almost 100.000 semi-vegetarians, vegetarians and vegans. They went looking for these people in the Seventh-day Adventist Californian community, because this religion encourage adopting a vegetarian diet to improve health and take care of the body. (8)
‘However, this is no big news for archeo-botanists who found out that 10.000 years ago, the most common meal in Babylon, where life expectancy scored the highest at the time, was a combination of cereals and pulses (9). Meat consumption was occasional and linked to festivities.’
But let’s go back to the 5 hours shower… it has been estimated that a meat abundant diet requires 5000 liters of water a day, while a vegetarian diet needs about a fifth of that amount. Meaning that water-wise, vegetarianism is far more sustainable.
The FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, tells us that the agricultural sector consumes 70% of the global freshwaters. (10)
This is putting pressure on the worldwide provision of water, especially on developing countries that are already facing scarcity of this precious element. Scientists are asking themselves where we could find more water, if the world population keeps growing and no change in food consumption occurs – on planet earth there’s not enough.
How much water to produce different types of meat?
Did you know how much water is needed for a single kilo of meat?
For what concerns beef (and get ready to acknowledge this, it is going to be our number one polluter) we need 15.500L of water. Pig 6.000L, chicken more than 4 000L.
On the other hand, Cereals only requires 1 500 L of water and veggies just 300 L on average. (11)
If we gave up just a 100g steak a week we could save 80 600 L per year. Which is equal to 900 showers… 2 and a half showers per day!
Let’s look at it in a big-mac perspective. A family of five, just giving up 5 big-macs a month can save almost as much water as the total amount of water the average citizen of the Democratic Republic of the Congo consumes in a year. All the water a Congolese needs in a year, to shower, cook, eat, clean their clothes, drink… any activity requiring water. (12) (13) (14) (15) (16)
As we mentioned in the opening, by giving up meat we could halven the land we need for the production of our meals. This could free up to 2.200 square meters of land per person, meaning that a family of 5 could basically save an hectare of land.
And if this hectare was converted into a forest it could absorb up to 10 tons of carbon per year (17), compensating for more than two times the yearly emission of CO2 that the average terrestrian is responsible for (18). Which in 2017 was 4.8 tonnes per person.
But how is this possible? Well, to get some inspiration for this episode we watched a documentary about food production and we came across an Arte broadcast titled ‘Manger autrement’, eating differently.
Austrian researchers prepared an experimental field in which they managed to grow all the food an European person eats in a year. The resulting surface was of 4.400 square meters, which is two times more what the average terrestrian currently needs (19). This is mostly due to the fact that in Europe we eat on average 60 kilograms of meat per year.
If everyone ate this much meat we wouldn’t have enough land to produce food for the whole population.
In fact, of these 4.400 squared meters – almost a soccer field – two thirds go in animal feed in order to produce cheese, eggs and mostly meat… But how much land can people save gathering the same amount of calories without compromising their health? Austrian scientists decided to go the empirical way, and to ask some families to try reducing the dimension of the field they need to feed themselves, explaining that this is achievable by limiting meat and dairy products consumption.
Indeed, in order to get the same amount of proteins, minerals and vitamins from pulses or cereals, it takes much less land than what it’s needed to gather the same nutrients from meat.
For instance, to produce 1 kg of pork it takes almost twice the land than to grow a kilogram of beans. (20)
Let’s focus on what happened during this experiment: after 3 months one family managed to reduce the surface of their food-land up to 2.700 square meters per person, almost half of the original 4.400.
All they needed to do was to eat less meat, buy local, and reduce their consumption of transformed products and frozen food.
Knowing that In the European Union we are 445 millions people, if we all managed to free 2 200 square meters of the land we need for our food, we would save up to 98 millions hectares…
If this much land was converted to tropical forest (cause yes, we mostly are deforesting the tropics to feed us) those 98 millions hectares of forest could absorb, almost 1 billion tons of CO2 every year…. Which is almost a third of the total 3.5 billions tons of CO2 we emit every year in EU. (21)
Not mentioning the already saved CO2 emissions we would by quitting meat.
Now let’s talk about efficiency. What makes meat the least efficient meal -requiring more inputs to produce the same amount of nutrients- than any other food?
The short answer is that animals are not perfect machines transforming all the feed they ingest in ready-to-eat meals for us. Most of what they eat goes lost in their vital functions. This phenomenon is known as livestock inefficiency. (22)
But how much do we lose?
1. In order to produce a kilogram of beef, it takes 25, yes 25 kilograms, of feed
2. Beef has a protein efficiency of slightly less than 4%, which means that the steak we eat lost 96% of the protein the cow had to ingest to produce that very steak. This 96% loss is what the animal needs to breath, grow and move.
3. Moreover, 98% of the energy intake of a cattle is also lost, with an efficiency of just 2%. Of all the calories the animal eats only 2 out of 100 are effectively converted into the meat we eat.
What is the most efficient animal product environmentally speaking? Eggs, here the data are a bit more comforting:
1. with just 2.3 kg of feed we can produce a kg of eggs
2. 25% of the proteins remain in the final product with a loss of 75%
3. and 19% of the calories passes from the feed that hens eat to the egg they produce.
Along with dairy products, eggs remain more sustainable than meat. (23)
Is meat production the first cause of CO2 emission globally?
According to the FAO (24), the average citizen of an industrialised country – or what we call developed country- eats 96 kilos of meat a year. This 96-kilograms-portion represents the same amount of CO2 they would emit taking a car drive for a 12.000 kilometers trip. This is the distance between Miami and Seattle back and forth, which basically means crossing the entire United States territory diagonally two times…
But if their car is more efficient than the one we took as reference, being the world-wide best seller, they might have to take the countryside roads.
How did we get to this result? We collected FAO’s datas on meat consumption per type, and computed, with a certain approximation, the amount of CO2 emissions generated in the production of the meat the average “industrialised” person consumes. We got to a total CO2 emission of almost 2.000kg per person per year.
Which can be represented as driving for about 11 870 km (Toyota Corolla is the car of reference, being the best seller worldwide and knowing that its CO2 emission is 0,168kg/km).
To make it clearer on an European scale, this is the same amount of CO2 we would emit driving 4 times between Paris and Moscow.
Basically, a family of five emits as much CO2 eating meat as they would taking a road trip around the world each year.
Quitting meat could positively impact land use and halven GHG emissions in the food production process.
Some researchers from the University of Lund, Sweden, wanted to estimate the potential environmental effects of dietary change. In order to do this they collected datas from the most reliable studies that have been conducted on the topic.
Each of this studies analyzed a few dietary scenarios and their potential impact on the environment. The final result shows that in the best case scenario, if the reference diet (or the average diet recorded from the 90s to 2010) shifted towards a plant-based one, we could halven food-related Greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce by almost 60% the surface of land needed to produce that food (25).
Let’s repeat it, avoiding all animal products could result in reducing to a half all the GHG emissions and the land use of the whole agricultural sector.
Another study conducted by the University of Groningen, Netherlands, confirms this same trend. Taking as reference group young Dutch women, they noticed that in all the scenarios analysed, substituting meat with plant-based food, resulted in decreasing substantially the land needed to produce food.
But what is the added value of this study? Well, researchers crossed land use datas, with health requirements. Basically, they ensured that the plant-based diet was bringing the recommended quantity of nutrients of a healthy diet. What did they find out? Land use decreased importantly, iron intake remained in the recommended limits while a slight reduction in saturated fats was recorded, with positive impact on Dutch girls’ health. (28)
If you want to check out if your country is using more agricultural land to feed its people than what’s currently available on earth you can check out the link we included in the script of this episode. Ourworldindata.org provides us with a map of all the countries showing where unsustainable diets are located worldwide (29). It’s a great website, check it out!
A quick observation on deforestation :
Animal farming has a real long shadow -as the Food and Agriculture Organisation would say. If you thought that we managed to list all the downsides of meat-abundant diets you are wrong. Unfortunately there’s more on the subject, including the fact that the portion of agriculture dedicated to meat production is also the leading cause of deforestation and habitat loss worldwide.
This is due to the ever increasing need of land for grazing and feedstock (30). It is estimated that a surface equivalent to 27 soccer fields of forest is lost every minute (31). This means that since the beginning of this episode we lost some x soccer fields of pristine forest. But we will talk more about this another time.
The end :
Developing this episode we realised that there is a huge amount of data on the topic. Even if numbers are not always the same, all the articles we found stress the same pattern. Large scale animal farming is the least efficient and the most energy-consuming way of producing food. And it’s draining our last ressources.
For these reasons, our computations are not unequivocal. The aim of this episode was to provide you with a visual image and a concrete example of the impact of livestock farming.
What we found was even more striking than what we expected. If on the one hand, the drawbacks of meat production are alarming and terrifying, on the other hand, the positive effects that a vegetarian diet could have are astonishing.
Thank you for listening to this second episode. Stay tuned for our next podcast on Biodiversity loss and its impact on our daily life. Keep following us for much more towards sustainability.
-Everything that is Sustainable –