From climate change to forest fires to human rights abuses, the global industrial meat industry leaves a trail of destruction all over the world. Millions of people's lives depend on a dramatic reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy. And it’s not just red meat that’s the problem.
Meat – or more specifically, ‘industrial meat’ – is bad for the planet.
The vast majority of meat bought is produced in intensive factory farms. These farms are part of a destructive global system of mass-produced industrial meat and dairy.
This system is driven by supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda; as well as fast food chains like KFC, Burger King and McDonald’s. Many of these household names buy from companies owned by JBS – the largest meat processing company in the world. Through its meat production, JBS produces around half the carbon emissions of fossil fuel giants such as Shell or BP, and is driving deforestation in the Amazon.
The industrial meat system requires a huge amount of land to sustain itself. Forests, particularly in South America, are deliberately slashed and burned every year to graze cattle and grow enough crops to feed billions of farmed animals.
Here are a few startling facts about the damage overzealous meat-eating (what we’ve come to define as everyday quantities) has done to the environment:
Americans eat about 48 billion burgers every year. And that’s just talking about ground beef patties. Not to mention strip steak, chicken wings, sausage links, bacon; the list goes on.
Worldwide, we use 8 times as much land to feed cows (just cows) than to feed humans. (Imagine how much world hunger could be eliminated if we grew grains and vegetables for human consumption on that land.)
It takes about 1800 gallons of water to make a single pound of grain-fed beef.
Methane (which cows produce) has 21 times more climate-changing power than carbon dioxide.
In America, this translates to more greenhouse gas from America’s cows each year than from 22 million cars.
One conventionally produced burger patty can contain the DNA of more than 1000 cows. By the end of its production, a single quarter-pounder has created 6.5 pounds of greenhouse gases.
Here’s why industrial meat is so bad for people and the planet:
It causes deforestation and forest fires
Industrial meat is the single biggest cause of deforestation globally. In Brazil, farmers are deliberately setting forest fires – like the Amazon rainforest fires you may have seen in the news – to clear space for cattle ranching and to grow industrial animal feed.
It causes climate change
The climate impact of meat is enormous – roughly equivalent to all the driving and flying of every car, truck and plane in the world.
When forests are destroyed to produce industrial meat, billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. The fallen trees are often left to rot on the forest floor or are burned, creating further emissions.
Healthy trees are essential for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. If we cut them down, they can no longer help us in the fight against climate change.
It’s pushing the Amazon rainforest closer to a tipping point
Trees in the Amazon rainforest produce their own rainfall, which keeps the whole forest alive and healthy. If deforestation (for things like industrial meat) continues at the current rate, the Amazon could reach a ‘tipping point’, where it can no longer sustain itself as a rainforest.
This would have a devastating impact on the people and animals who live in, or depend on, the forest directly. It could also lead to less rainfall, affecting drinking water and irrigation across large parts of South America; and changes to climate patterns in other parts of the world too.
It’s responsible for human rights abuses and land-grabbing
Indigenous People and traditional communities – like the geraizeira communities in Brazil – are at the frontline in the fight to protect forests. An investigation by Greenpeace Brazil showed that security forces working for soya producer Agronegócio Estrondo harassed, detained, abducted and shot members of the traditional geraizeira communities.
Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro and his government tacitly encourage illegal loggers, miners and farmers to occupy Indigenous lands, by rolling back historic regulations and trying to legalise land-grabbing. Land invasions often become violent and loggers have killed Indigenous People in these conflicts. Mass meat producer, JBS, has been repeatedly linked to suppliers who operate illegally on protected Indigenous lands.
Cattle ranches and soya producers in Brazil have a history of profiting from modern day slavery. That includes suppliers to JBS (the meat processing giant). JBS’ abattoirs have been linked to terrible working conditions, mass outbreaks of Covid-19 and salmonella-ridden chicken exports.
It’s killing wildlife
By clearing forests, destroying habitats and using toxic pesticides to grow animal food, the industrial meat industry is contributing to the extinction of thousands of species, many of which haven’t even been discovered yet.
We depend on a healthy environment for our own survival. The huge abundance and variety of the natural world (sometimes called biodiversity) is essential for food, clean water and medicines. The rapid loss of biodiversity, largely driven by industrial farming, could be as big a threat to our existence as climate change.
It’s increasing the risk of future pandemics like coronavirus
Destroying forests and other wild areas for animal agriculture is a major cause of new infectious diseases. Three quarters of new diseases affecting humans come from animals. Cutting down and burning forests brings wildlife into closer contact with people, enabling deadly viruses to pass from animals to humans. The more forest that is destroyed, the greater the risk of a new pandemic.
But that’s not the only disease risk from industrial meat. Factory farms can also increase the spread of disease, both between animals and from animals to humans. The risk is higher for industrial meat farms because huge numbers of animals are crammed into small spaces, and the animals themselves have weaker immune systems. This means that viruses can develop more rapidly and have the potential to pass to humans.
It’s an inefficient way to eat
Companies sometimes argue that industrial meat is an efficient way to produce food, but this ignores its true costs. Over a quarter of the world’s entire land area is used to graze or grow food for farm animals – food that could have been eaten by people in the first place. Just 1kg of chicken meat takes 3.2kg of crops to produce.
If everyone ate a plant-based diet, we’d need 75% less farmland than we use today. That’s an area equivalent to the US, China, Europe and Australia combined. That’s because it takes less land to grow food directly for humans, than to feed animals, which humans then eat.
We need to be eating 70% less meat and dairy by 2030 to prevent climate breakdown. By eating mostly plant-based food, we could feed more people – with all the calories and nutrition needed for a healthy diet – without destroying forests.
But this isn’t just about people’s individual choices. Supermarkets, like Tesco, play a huge role in shaping customer demand through advertising, price cuts and special promotions. And despite committing to stop supporting forest destruction by 2020, they are still buying meat from suppliers linked to deforestation.