Food for thought: can Meatless Monday save the planet?

World-renowned researchers, physicians, government officials, and industry leaders are meeting today in Berlin to discuss the state of global health.  Amidst presentations and discussions about non-communicable diseases, global health security, and priority issues in conflict zones, the attendees of the World Health Summit will gather together to break bread.  The menu might look a little different this year, as the Summit will jump on the Meatless Monday bandwagon.

The brainchild of Sid Learner, in partnership with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Meatless Monday was established in 2003 to reduce reliance on red meat, improve chronic disease, and protect the environment.  Meatless Monday is now active in 44 countries – from Bhutan to Togo.

Could wider adoption of Meatless Monday or less reliance on meat as a diet staple prove a boon for food scarcity, health, and reduction of green house gases?  When so much of the world suffers from malnutrition, is this fad a luxury or a necessity?

The ills of large-scale factory farming are well established.  These facilities, known in the US as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), can each produce up to 1.6 million tons of manure a year, more waste than a U.S. city.  Unlike human waste infrastructure, there is no mandated system for the storage or sanitization of animal waste which can be rife with E. coli, antibiotics and other hormones, animal blood, and organic and inorganic compounds dangerous to human health.  Improper or overextended systems for storing untreated manure can cause run off or leaching into ground water.  Degrading animal waste can also affect local air quality and attract insects.

It isn’t just the immediate health effects of factory farming – such as increased incidence of childhood asthma in communities near CAFOs – but the cumulative effects that contribute to global warming.  A 2006 report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations found that CAFOs deleterious outputs could account for 18% of global emissions.  The list is literally and figuratively exhaustive: from the methane gas emitted from the aforementioned manure, the oil used to transport carcasses to processing plants and on to stores, the electricity used to keep the meat cool, and the emissions and energy needed to harvest the crops that feed the livestock and pumps for water.  Dig a little deeper and consider, as suggested by two World Bank Scientists, the following:

Should you include all the knock-on emissions from clearing forests? What about the fertiliser used to grow the crops to feed to the animals, or the emissions from the steel needed to build the boats that transport the cattle; or the “default” emissions – the greenhouse gases that would be released by substitute activities to grow food if we were to give up meat? And is it fair to count animals used for multiple purposes, as they mostly are in developing countries, from providing draught power to shoe leather or transport, and which only become meat once they reach the end of their economic lives?

All told, these activities add up to 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, or 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  Even at its lowest estimate of 15%, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are equal to exhaust emissions from every vehicle – plane, train, and automobile – in operation today.

How much less meat would we need to eat to keep rising temperatures below the 2-degree Celsius mark that could spell big trouble for life as we know it?  Industrialized countries currently consume more than twice the amount of meat considered healthy.  Americans eat three times as much.  While meat consumption in developing countries is a fraction of those listed above, an increased call for meat has been seen as countries become more urban.   Meat consumption in developing countries has tripled compared to developed nations in recent decades.

While the simple solution is to eat less meat, the type of meat might also be important.  Raising beef requires nearly 30 times more land and 11 times more water than pork, chicken, dairy or eggs.  Three staple crops – potatoes, wheat, and rice – require up to six times fewer resources than pork, chicken, dairy or eggs.

If industrialized countries were to consume less red meat, global malnutrition could be addressed. Only 55% of the world’s crops feed people, the rest are reserved to feed livestock or to make biofuel.  The conversion of calories from grain to meat leaves much to be desired.  One hundred calories of grain produce a mere 3 calories of beef.  Just switching from grain-fed beef to pasture-raised beef, chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy products could free up much more food to feed the world.

It may be that time is running out to make smarter food choice before climate change makes the decision for us.  Currently, 4% of global croplands experience drought each year but could reach as high as 18% by the year 2100.  Even at the current rate, droughts have the capacity to devastate regions and industries.  A recent study found that an extra 500,000 deaths will be attributable to a decrease in nutrient-rich food in 155 world regions by the year 2050.  Rather than malnutrition related to caloric intake, these deaths will be due to lack of vitamins from fruit and vegetables. The majority of these deaths will likely occur in already impoverished countries of Asia and Africa.

If you are reading this blog, you can probably afford to have some lentils or a nice vegetarian burrito for dinner.  While you sup, feel free to check out these great articles by Maryn McKenna.  The first imagines a world without antibiotics – a huge issue especially as it pertains to the food industries over-use. The second examines a Dutch company that is mass producing antibiotic-free boiler hens.

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