How much does meat really cost?

We generally assume that people who’ve taken the bold step to go vegetarian, have done so for reasons relating to animal cruelty; but there is a new wave of consciousness emerging and it concerns the impact eating meat has on the environment, on climate change and on the lives of millions of people living in food poverty in developing countries. Going meat free one or two days a week, is becoming a lifestyle choice for those who are concerned about the ethical as well as personal health issues related to eating meat.

We now eat five times more meat than we did in the 1950’s and whilst as a nation we have already cut down slightly over the last few years, many of us are still eating meat more than once a day. A main driver of our meat consumption is affordability. Meat is now cheaper than it’s ever been, but how much does our meat habit really cost?

It takes a tremendous amount of resources to produce meat. 40% of all the worlds’ grain harvest is now used to feed livestock, leaving those in developing countries who rely on grain and can afford nothing more, facing malnutrition or even starvation. It’s a sobering fact that around 80% of the starving children in the world, live in countries where grain is diverted to feed livestock in order to fuel the meat industry in countries such as the UK.

Water scarcity is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century with one fifth of the world’s population now living in areas of water scarcity and 1 in 9 people not having access to safe drinking water. Producing meat takes vast amounts of water. At the top of the table is beef requiring 15,000 litres to produce just 1kg. Compare that to 1kg of wheat which needs less than 4,000 litres or 1kg of potatoes which need just 287 litres of water.

Rearing livestock is considered to be the biggest industry specific source of water pollution. Some pollution comes from the intense amounts of fertilizer, namely nitrogen, that’s used to produce the animal feed, whilst the rest results from the storage and disposal of the animal waste.

Livestock production requires a lot of space and so vast areas of land around the world are cleared to make room for grazing. In fact, livestock production is the reason behind about 80% of the deforestation of the Amazonian region. The grazing of livestock then leads to top soil erosion which means water doesn’t soak into the land and the run off results in flooding in other areas. When the run off reaches streams or rivers, it dumps large amounts of pollution and sediment which then kills fish and other aquatic life.

The sheer scale of the livestock sector means it is one of the main causes of greenhouse gas production. The livestock sector is responsible for around 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, compared to 13% from the entire transport sector.

Finally, there is the impact on our own health. Cutting the amount of meat we eat reduces our risk of chronic preventable conditions such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

When it comes to eating meat, there’s a lot to think about. Whilst it may be cheaper to buy than it’s ever been, the hidden environmental and humanitarian costs are huge. Going meat free just one or two days a week is a great place to start.

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