There are many ways in which modern agricultural practices harm the environment. Clearing of native vegetation destroys biodiversity and deprives wildlife of habitat. Planting of monocultures requires the addition of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides that then leach into the water table. Both of these are harmful to the climate as well, releasing carbon that is sequestered in the soil, and reducing the plant cover that would take carbon dioxide from the air. One of the most harmful agricultural practices, on several levels, is the production of meat. As permaculturists, we should always be seeking to minimize our harmful effects on the planet, so taking a look at the meat we eat is art of that assessment. Here are some reasons why cutting down on the meat in your diet will benefit the earth.
Modern agricultural meat production is one of the worst contributors to man-made climate change. Indeed, a report produced in 2006 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization calculated that the global meat industry was responsible for as much as 18 percent of all man-made greenhouse gases. That is a greater proportion than the emissions produced by all the cars, trucks, and airplanes in the world combined. There are several ways in which the meat industry contributes to climate change.
Firstly, because most commercial livestock are produced in unnatural systems that depend upon processed feed, rather than natural plants, their feed is artificially produced. This tends to involve heavy use of inorganic fertilizers to grow crops that are then processed into food in combinations with inorganic materials such as antibiotics. These fertilizers are typically heavy in nitrogen and can cause the emission of nitrous oxide, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. Growing feed crops, for cattle and pigs, produces more nitrous oxide emissions than crops that go directly into the human food chain. These fertilizers also tend to remain in the soil and leach into water systems, having a far-reaching detrimental effect on natural ecosystems.
Producing livestock also means the emission of methane from the animals themselves. While some climate change deniers claim that animal emissions, because they are natural, cannot be a bad thing, but the continually rising demand for meat means that the animals are stocked in numbers far greater than that which could be considered ’natural’. It is not the animals’ fault, rather our demand for meat that causes this contribution.
Furthermore, the greenhouse gas emissions of transportation are increased by the meat industry in order to transport animals, finished meat products and animal feed. This transportation can be over very long distance, often across international borders.
It takes a much greater amount of energy to produce food for livestock than it does to produce plant-based food. These are, of course, plants that could be used to feed people in a much more efficient manner. It is also estimated that in the USA it take over fifteen times as much fossil fuel energy to produce livestock feed than to produce an equivalent quantity of plant-based foodstuffs. This is another way that modern meat production contributes to climate change, by perpetuating the reliance on fossil fuel technology that produces greenhouse gases.
Permaculturists know how precious an element water, which is why they try to find the most efficient ways of gardening that preserve as much of it as possible. On a larger scale, eating less meat would have a significant impact on minimizing water use. In modern agricultural systems it can take as much as 50,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef, when one factors in all the energy inputs. However, to produce the same amount of rice takes just 2,500 liters. To produce fruit and vegetables takes even less water. Increasing the amount of vegetables in your diet and decreasing the amount of meat, helps to preserve water.
The rising demand for meat means that more and more land is cleared for animal production. This means clearing of forests for grazing and growing crops for animal feed. This decreases biodiversity, exposes the soil to erosion and compaction, as well as affects the salinity of the soil be changing the way rainfall interacts with the soil. Once more, such activities also add to the climate change problem – by destroying forests, which are natural holders of carbon, we add to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Sadly, in many modern livestock production systems, the welfare of the animals is not a primary consideration, coming far down the list when profits are at a premium. Stocking levels are high, which raises the risk of disease meaning food is often laced with antibiotics. Natural behaviours can be denied to animals – consider the life of a battery chicken, spending its life in a cage with no stimulation, no straw under its feet, nowhere to scratch or roost – and many are transported long distances in crowded trucks to slaughter. Permaculture is centered on the notion that nature knows best, so in a permaculture system, animals are, as much as possible, allowed to express their natural instincts. Eating less meat from commercial producers
There are good sources of meat that are not as damaging to the environment and prioritize the welfare of the animals. Organic and free-range meats must meet certain standards in terms of the quality of the meat and the wellbeing of the livestock. At present, these meats cost a little more than the less stringent producers, but by eating less meat you can eat better meat without spending any more. Even better, try to source organic meat locally, so that you lessen the distance it has to travel (limiting transportation emissions) and support local producers. However, the simplest and healthiest way to make a difference is simply to eat less meat – less frequently and in smaller portion sizes. Reducing meat consumption also significantly reduces your risk of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. So eat less meat to make life better for you, the animals, and the planet