Meat and Dairy Industry

By: Charlotte Miller

When discussing sustainability in the food industry, the production and consumption of meat and dairy are often put on blast. People have strong opinions on the meat and dairy industry, alluding to the immeasurable counts of animal cruelty and negative environmental effects.  As of 2014, the production of livestock (animals that produce meat, dairy, eggs, wool, and leather) accounts for the largest global land use, and this number has only increased over the last several years.  (Eshel et. al, 2014). As more livestock products are produced, farmers and distributors must be cognizant of the ways they are impacting the environment. Consumers, like me and you, must remain conscious of what we are putting into our bodies and realize how our individual food eating patterns have  global impacts. Referring to livestock, “it causes about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the key land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance” (Eshel et al., 2014).

What does this mean? 

The production of livestock, specifically meat and dairy, are not energy efficient and are large contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. With the increasing demand for these products and little regard to their effects on the environment, the path our Earth is headed down is worrisome.

Why do GHG emissions matter?

Greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and F-gases (fluorinated). They are released by a variety of sources and trap heat in the atmosphere, thus warming the planet.

Carbon Dioxide: “Fossil fuel use is the primary source of CO2.  CO2 can also be emitted from direct human-induced impacts on forestry and other land use, such as through deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, and degradation of soils”(EPA). 

Methane: “Agricultural activities, waste management, energy use, and biomass burning” (EPA).

Nitrous oxide: “Agricultural activities, such as fertilizer use, are the primary source of N2O emissions. Fossil fuel combustion also generates N2O” (EPA).

F-Gases:  “Industrial processes and refrigeration” (EPA).

Who is most affected by a warming planet?

Everyone. This is a public health issue. However, families living in poverty are at greater risk of being negatively affected by climate change (Winsemius et al., 2018). With more severe natural disasters and more frequent floods and droughts due to a warming planet, poorer people are disproportionately affected by this. This is due to the lower price of at-risk housing and the inability to bounce back from damages caused by natural hazards (Winsemius et al., 2018).

How is it being addressed?

Farmers and food producers are making technical changes in their agriculture practices to reduce GHG emissions. Some examples of this are inhibiting greenhouse gases from being released by soil and utilizing additives in livestock’s food to reduce the amount of methane released (Hedenus et al., 2014). 

What can you do about it?

“Deep cuts in emissions from food and agriculture do not seem plausible without large changes in consumption towards less GHG intensive food, in particular, less ruminant meat and dairy” (Hedenus et al., 2014). 

Limit the amount of meat, particularly beef, and dairy in your diet to reduce GHG emissions. Shopping locally contributes to the reduction of energy consumption and transportation emissions as well. The ‘farm to table’ style of eating with organic products eliminates the middle-man between farmers and consumers resulting in less transportation costs and emissions.

hol3health takeaway: Try to follow  ‘Meatless Mondays’

Diet Disclaimer: A pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan lifestyle is not for everyone. With that being said, moderation is key. What might work for one person may not work for another. Not everyone has to eradicate meat or dairy from their diet, but holding yourself accountable to eat sustainably is important! 

Industry Disclaimer: The goal is not to eradicate the meat and dairy industry; I am well aware there are countless jobs in this industry and they contribute to the economy. With that being said, shifting to more sustainable farming practices and investing in clean energy jobs is possible and necessary! 

Reference List:

Eshel, G., Shepon, A., Makov T., Milo R., (2014). Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 111(33), 11996–12001. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1402183111

Hedenus, F., Wirsenius, S., & Johansson, D. (2014). The importance of reduced meat and dairy consumption for meeting stringent climate change targets. Climatic Change, 124(1-2), 79–91. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5

Winsemius, H., Jongman, B., Veldkamp, T., Hallegatte, S., Bangalore, M., & Ward, P. (2018). Disaster risk, climate change, and poverty: assessing the global exposure of poor people to floods and droughts. Environment and Development Economics, 23(3), 328–348. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355770X17000444

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