Meat the Issues – Enviro + Health Impacts of Our Food System.
The production and consumption of food in Australia and globally is linked to the environment at every turn – from on-farm production, food processing and packaging, distribution, storage and consumption. The processes within the food system not only produce food, but also other outputs such as greenhouse gases, waste water, packaging and food waste. Each of these contributes to environmental degradation. And at the same time, environmental degradation and climate change is altering the Australian food system, with implications for yield, quality and affordability. 
The food we choose to eat contributes more to our eco-footprint than our transport and home energy use combined  with meat, eggs and dairy products being the biggest contributors.
Samsara Food Sequence
View this sequence from Samsara for a stunning, yet terrifying recap of our current food system.
ENVIRONMENTAL INPUTS + OUTPUTS OF OUR FOOD SYSTEM
Infographic adapted from Food Systems and Environmental Sustainability: A review of the Australian Evidence, October 2011 (ANU)
Our Increasing Appetite for Meat
Australians chomp through more than their body weight in meat each year, which averages out to around 92kg per person – triple the amount of meat recommended by health guidelines and triple the average amount per person globally.
This is broken down into 7.4 kg of mutton and lamb per person, 20.3kg of pork, 22.8kg of beef and veal, and 42kg of chicken.
In Australia, from 1985 to 2008, beef production increased by around 65% and lamb production by 44%, with this increase also accounting for the large proportion of beef and lamb we export.
Chicken consumption has increased from 6kg per person in 1965 to an astonishing 42kg per person in 2015, which equates to over 500 million chickens slaughtered each year in Australia. That’s roughly 25 chickens per person per year!
The establishment of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in Australia, with its first store opening in 1968, had a major impact on the consumption of chicken. In the 12 months from 1970-1971 a total of 75 KFC stores opened and during the same period, total Australian chicken production increased by 38%.
The factory-like approach to farming animals has seen meat become more affordable and it is not unusual for people to eat meat two or three times a day.
Our increasing appetite for meat places enormous pressure on the environment and has been linked to health issues such as heart disease and some cancers.
This is not just an isolated issue to Australia, an increase in preference for animal products occur as people’s incomes increase.
As Julian Cribb stated in his book The Coming Famine:
“One of the first things people start to do when their incomes start to rise above poverty levels is to improve their diet, which usually means eating more meat, fish, oils, eggs and dairy products. After a time this hunger for protein eases off, but usually only after people start to eat far more than they need, and so become fat and sick. Illustrating this, meat consumption in the US (123kg per person) and Europe (74 kg per person) has risen slowly or not at all over the past generation, whereas in China it has tripled to 54kg per person and India has only just begun the ascent from a very low level indeed.” The Coming Famine, p. 163
To keep up with our current demand for meat and the expectation that it will be cheap and readily available, we now farm the majority of our animals here in Australia in factory farms. This often sees them suffer in unimaginable conditions (see Eating Animals), with over 500 million animals housed in factory farms each year in Australia alone – this includes chickens, pigs, ducks, rabbits, and turkeys. Would we be able to stomach such cruelty if it was on our doorstep? Would we stand by and let our beloved pets be housed in cages they couldn’t even turn around in?
OUR DIET IS KILLING US
Modern industrial food production techniques have been so successful they’re making us overweight and dangerously unhealthy . In Australia, more than half the population is overweight or obese and diet-related illnesses such as some cancers, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke are amongst our biggest killers.
For most of the last ten thousand years, food production was a simple affair – produce grown, or livestock raised, on small farms, orchards and market gardens, traded at local markets and cooked at home. Industrialisation changed all that, with more and more food now manufactured using increasingly efficient processes to make it tastier, quicker to prepare, higher in energy content, and cheaper …. But certainly not better for us.
Obesity is the major cause of Type 2 diabetes, which in turn causes chronic diseases that need expensive ongoing treatment – blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, and stroke.
The direct and indirect costs of obesity and obesity-related illnesses in Australia in 2008/09 were estimated to be $37.7 billion. Loss in productivity due to obesity is estimated to be $6.4 billion a year.
Although the health epidemic caused by our shift in diet cannot all be attributed to meat consumption (sugar and other cheap additives have a lot to answer for) the World Health Organisation has found strong links between the overconsumption of red and processed meat and some terminal illnesses such as heart disease and some cancers.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF ANIMAL INDUSTRIES + FOOD PRODUCTION
In 2006 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations highlighted the many harmful contributions of the livestock sector. Apart from greenhouse gas emissions (reported to be 18% of all emissions), the livestock industry is also a major source of land and water degradation, contributor to acid rain and the degeneration of coral reefs, and a driver of deforestation.
For instance, in Latin America some 70% of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. The 18% of all emissions figure has since been revised by two World Watch scientists who have estimated that the livestock sector is actually responsible for a minimum of 51% of all human caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Curbing the world’s huge and increasing appetite for meat is essential to avoid devastating climate change, according to a report released by Chatham House, Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector (2014). But according to this same report governments and other groups are doing nothing to tackle the issue due to fears of a consumer backlash.
Changing what we choose to put on our fork is central to reducing our impact on the environment.
A 2015 study concluded that a diet that is vegetarian 5 days a week and includes meat 2 days a week would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water and land use by about 45%.
MAIN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT AREAS
|Although conserving water at home is important, it represents just a tiny portion of the actual water needed to sustain us. A 2004 Melbourne University study concluded that, ‘water use through food consumption is 90% of a household’s water use‘. See the chart for a comparison of water use per day.|
|The Australian Government’s Water Consumption by Sector Report 2006 states that agriculture consumed the largest volume of water with 16,660 GL, representing 67% of water consumption in Australia in 2000-01 (households accounted for 9%). Just over half of total agricultural water consumption was attributed to livestock, pasture, grains and dairy farming. Other sub-sectors using large amounts of water were cotton (17.5%), rice (11.7%) and sugar (7.9%) farms, with fruit and vegetables requiring far less.|
|The food items in a typical shopping basket in Victoria have travelled a total of 70,803km to reach your table, which is almost the equivalent of travelling twice around the circumference of the earth. This is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global climate change.|
|Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes in the world combined.|
|According to World Watch 51% of global human-caused greenhouse gases can be attributed to livestock and their by-products.|
|A June 2010 report by the United Nations, Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production, identified animal agriculture and food consumption as one of the most significant drivers of environmental pressures and climate change, stating that ‘a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a worldwide diet change away from animal products.|
|The most climate-friendly meats comes from pigs and poultry, which account for only 10% of total livestock greenhouse-gas emissions while contributing more than three times as much meat globally as cattle. Pork and poultry are also more efficient for feed, requiring up to five times less feed to produce a kg of protein than a cow, a sheep or a goat.|
|Agriculture is Australia’s most extensive form of land use, occupying 60% of total land area or 461 million hectares (cities and towns take up less than 1% of total land area, or 7.6 million hectares) – most of this is for production of livestock. When agricultural practices are not environmentally and ecologically sound, the potential for widespread and wide scale damage is vast.|
|75% of Australia’s rainforests and nearly 50% of all forests have been lost during the past 200 years due to land clearing  – much of this is for animal agriculture.|
|If you factor in the amount of grain needed to produce meat, a single hectare of land can produce 29 times more food in the form of vegetables than in the form of chicken meat, 73 times more than pork and 78 times more than beef.|
Every year urban sprawl is eating into arable land close to our cities and towns, pushing farming operations further and further away. The further our food has to travel to reach our cities, the greater the implication for transport-related emissions. [i]
|1.3 billion tonnes of grain are consumed by farm animals each year — and nearly all of it is fed to livestock, mostly pork and poultry, in the developed world and in China and Latin America.|
|Past and current agricultural activities have led to huge losses in biodiversity across Australia, with many of our birds, land mammals and insects becoming endangered, rare or threatened.|
Of the world’s mammals to become extinct in the last 100 years, half were Australian. Approximately 280 of our species are listed as endangered, rare or threatened. Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing. Nearly half our mammal species, including some wombats, wallabies and bandicoots, are either extinct or threatened with extinction as a result of land clearing, habitat destruction and other threats  – much of this can be attributed to land clearing for animal agriculture.
|Biodiversity is important to us as humans because living organisms play a vital role in replenishing oxygen, removing carbon dioxide and recycling essential nutrients. They also play an essential role in pollinating the crops we rely on for food – one third of our food comes from crops that are dependent on pollination by bees alone.|
The research is in and there is undeniable evidence supporting a global shift towards a diet higher in plant-based foods. This isn’t to say we need to abandon meat, eggs and dairy altogether, but we need to reduce our consumption of it – by at least half (especially in developed countries).
The best way to support a climate friendly diet is to make meat and dairy a treat (which includes seafood) and consume mainly unpackaged wholefoods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, pulses and grains. Go easy on high-energy foods that have been highly processed, have a heap of sugar in them or lots of numbers as ingredients that you don’t recognise.
It doesn’t have to be tricky and your waistline will thank you. The best way to start is by avoiding packaging, then all the highly processed food that takes up most aisles in the supermarket are immediately off limits. Or you could ditch the supermarket altogether and check out your local farmers’ market or organic box delivery service (see Ethical Shopping Pyramid).
Don’t delay, start today!
-  Bradbear, C. and Friel, S., Australian National University, Food Systems and Environmental Sustainability: A review of the Australian Evidence October 2011, p. 1
-  http://www.epa.vic.gov.au/~/media/Publications/1267.pdf, page 8
-  National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council, https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/n55_australian_dietary_guidelines_130530.pdf
-  Fletcher, S, Buetre, B and Morey, K 2009, The value of the red meat industry to Australia, ABARE research report 09.13 for the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Canberra.
-  http://www.abc.net.au/health/thepulse/stories/2006/08/24/1722828.htm
-  http://www.abc.net.au/health/thepulse/stories/2006/08/24/1722828.htm
-  Obesity in Australia: financial impacts and cost benefits of intervention, 2010, Medibank Health Solutions, http://www.medibank.com.au/client/documents/pdfs/obesity_report_2010.pdf
-  Ruini LF, Ciati R, Pratesi CA, Marino M, Principato L and Vannuzzi E (2015) Working toward healthy and sustainable diets: the “Double Pyramid Model” developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition to raise awareness about the environmental and nutritional impact of foods. Front. Nutr. 2:9. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2015.00009 http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnut.2015.00009/full
-  Abraham, A.B & Gaballa, S, 2008, ‘Food Miles in Australia: A preliminary study of Melbourne Victoria’ CERES Community Environment Park, East Brunswick, Victoria.
-  UNFAO, 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
-  Department of the Environment, Australian Government, Australian Actions to Combat Desertification and Land Degradation, https://www.environment.gov.au/resource/australian-actions-combat-desertification-and-land-degradation, viewed 12/11/2015
-  http://australianmuseum.net.au/whats-happening-to-australias-biodiversity
-  Cribb, J, 2010, The Coming Famine: The global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it, CSIRO Publishing 2010, p. 190
-  http://www.bushheritage.org.au/about/our-challenge/natural_world_land_clearing