The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently announced that processed and cured meats (including bacon, sausages and ham) are major causes of cancer. While this news highlights the potential health problems linked to over consumption of meat, the environmental impacts of an omnivorous diet are often ignored.
As someone that eats very little meat, I often find myself feeling guilty when I do occasionally (but inevitably!) eat some bacon. This isn’t so much because I’m worried about my health, but because I’m concerned about the environmental damage caused by meat production; whether it’s deforestation as a result of growing feed for livestock or the soaring methane emissions from cows contributing to global warming.
However, for many people in the UK, eating meat is an established part of their culture and daily routine, whether this is a Sunday roast with the family, a Friday night kebab or a full English breakfast. The decision not to eat meat is often criticized and usually met with the “How can you live without bacon?!” reaction.
It seems that many people are unaware (or choose not to think) about the problems we face from meat production, such as deforestation, freshwater pollution and climate change. 70 billion farm animals are reared annually worldwide and with the demand for meat growing rapidly, especially in developing countries, this is only going to increase in years to come.
So can we truly care about the environment while still consuming meat, fish and dairy products? As someone that eats a (mostly) vegetarian diet, I wanted to find out whether UK adults understand the way their food is produced, the environmental damage that is caused by eating meat and whether our current diets are sustainable. OnePoll carried out a nationally representative survey of 1000 UK adults aged 18+.
OnePoll’s research revealed that the UK is a nation of animal lovers, with 9 out of 10 surveyed saying they care about animals and 57% owning a pet. This love and concern for animals extends outside the home for many of us, with almost two thirds of Brits (65%) wanting to see a ban on battery farming of poultry and 55% on factory farming of livestock, due to the cruelty and bad conditions associated with them.
10% of those surveyed said they were vegetarian with a dislike for factory/battery farming being the most common reason (70%). The second most common reason was being against killing animals for food (68%). Three tenths said their vegetarianism was due to health reasons, while almost a quarter (24%) are aiming to reduce their carbon footprint by adopting this diet.
However the vast majority of respondents (90%) do eat meat/fish, with almost a quarter or them eating meat once a day or more. Over three fifths (62%) of meat eaters said that they don’t fully understand the way it is produced. Could a better understanding of meat and fish production drive more people to become vegetarian?
When asked what would prevent them from going vegetarian, 68% of non-vegetarians said that it was simply because they ‘really enjoy eating meat’. Two fifths said they’d be worried about getting enough protein and over a quarter said the fact that their family eats meat would make it hard to give it up. 21% of meat eaters also stated that they think veggie food is bland/boring, with men 10% more likely to think this than women.
Gender also appeared affect how guilty eating meat made you feel with 35% of women feeling guilty about their carnivorous diet compared to only 22% of men. Three fifths said that the guilt was due to a dislike of the conditions in factory farms. 36% felt guilty because they disagree with the killing of animals for food and a third (34%) said that they worry about the health effects of eating meat. A quarter (26%) were concerned about the environmental impacts of consuming meat and/or fish. But what are the environmental impacts of a carnivorous diet?
The environmental impacts of our appetite for meat are far-reaching, and not often discussed. One of the biggest impacts that a meaty diet has is deforestation due to the need for land. The panelists were asked to estimate the percentage of the world’s ice-free land area that they think is used either directly or indirectly to support livestock. The average they gave was 19%, when in fact approximately 30% of the world’s ice-free surface (FAO) is used. This shows the sheer scale of animal agriculture, with land required for grazing, growing feed and storing waste.
In the Brazilian Amazon region, cattle farming has been responsible for approximately four fifths of all deforestation in that area (that’s 14% of the world’s total yearly deforestation).This deforestation is not solely down to producing soy for feed; As of 1995, 70% of previously forested land in the Amazon had been converted to cattle ranching. This has a huge impact on our global environment as deforestation is one of the major causes of species loss and a significant cause of climate change.
It is estimated that if all the soy and other grains fed to livestock were instead fed to humans, we could feed 800 million more people (Cornell Chronicle). This begins to show how switching from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet – or at least cutting down on the amount of meat we consume – could not only reduce deforestation, but could increase the amount of food we can produce without needing to use more land.
It is estimated that we already produce enough food to feed around 10 billion people, but despite this 795 million people are undernourished in the world today (World Food Programme). This shows that the problem isn’t so much about human population, but about the types of foods we choose to eat.
When asked which they think releases more greenhouse gases: animal agriculture or transportation (planes, cars, trains, etc.), only 36% of Brits correctly chose animal agriculture. In fact, according to a report by the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) livestock farming contributes to 18% of global greenhouse emissions, compared to 13% from transportation.
These emissions come in a number of forms, including methane released by cows as they digest food:
- carbon dioxide released through animal feed production and processing;
- release of nitrous oxide through excretion from animals or nitrogen fertilizers,
- some emissions come indirectly through land use change and deforestation.
Methane is a particular problem, with animal agriculture responsible for around 35% of overall human emissions (FAO.org). Considering that methane has around 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, this is a serious problem when it comes to climate change.
The panelists were asked to estimate what percentage of freshwater consumed globally is used for animal agriculture. The respondent guessed an average of 17%, when in reality approximately 27% of global water consumption is through animal agriculture (waterfootprint.org).
UK adults estimated that the average amount of water a meat-eaters’ diet requires was 3,983 litres per day. In fact, the average meat-eater’s needs 5,000 litres of water a day (Water Footprint Network). Respondents were closer with their guess for a vegetarian’s diet, guessing 2806 litres of water, over estimating by only 306 litres.
Very large quantities of water are required in order to produce meat, from growing feed crops, to producing fertilisers and of course the water actually consumed by the animals themselves. Scientists have worked out that it takes around 15,400 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. This water use is known as the ‘water footprint’ (or ‘virtual water’) of a product.
Respondents were asked to guess the number of animals they think are removed by humans from the ocean every year. Only 5% correctly guessed that around 1-3 trillion animals are taken out of the sea annually (Fish Count). According to the WWF, the amount of fish caught by the global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than our oceans can sustainably support . The research states that over half of the world’s fisheries are completely exploited and almost a third are over exploited, depleted, or in the process of recovering from depletion. Not only that but approximately 650,000 whales, dolphins and seals that are killed by fishing vessels every year. Only 5% of our respondents guessed this number correctly.
Two thirds of Brits surveyed (66%) think that UK adults need to reduce their meat intake in order to make their diets healthier and more sustainable. Our research shows that some UK adults are already attempting to make this change to their diets, with 47% of non-vegetarians saying they are eating less red meat now than they were 5 years ago. Similarly, 37% of British meat eating families and households are making an effort to reduce their meat consumption, using methods such as Meat Free Mondays or cooking vegetarian versions of meaty classics.
Although the research did show that some respondents are concerned for the environmental issues associated with eating meat and fish,it is clear that more people need to start paying more attention to the environment when choosing what they eat.