Meat, Environment, Impact, and Action
Many animal advocates are well aware of recent and emerging research about industrial animal production and its environmental impacts. The resources required for animal farming and production are a fraction of what comes out of it. In fact, one study notes that “75-90% of the energy consumed by livestock is needed for body maintenance or lost in manure and by-products such as skin and bones.” This is an indirect (and slightly gruesome) way of saying that the amount of energy that’s put into animal agriculture does not come back to us in the form of protein. It’s all incredibly inefficient, which is to say nothing of the animal (and human) suffering caused by the meat industry.
There is a variety of ways to evaluate the “environmental performance” of the meat industry, from the overall system of meat production to the manufacturing process to the actual meat product itself. The system-based perspective looks at the overall rationale for environmental management in meat companies (including EMS – environmental management systems). The process-based perspective analyzes specific environmental aspects connected with the chain of production, and tries to quantify them. The product-based perspective is mainly focused on the environmental impact of a particular product described as a measurable unit. For example, one pound of meat will result in a certain amount of emissions.
In this paper, researchers “present the main research streams for analyzing environmental performance in the meat industry” and explain each in detail, including how measurements are made. In the meat product-based perspective, they identify life-cycle assessments as the central tool to evaluate various aspects of production. Results of this approach show that “the main meat chain impacts are global warming potential, acidification, eutrophication and use of resources.” In the process-based perspective, they note that water consumption and waste water are major concerns for meat production. In the system-based perspective, the researchers note that implementing an EMS depends on an environmental awareness that may be lacking. They say that “two types of companies” emerge from the data: the first is only competent at fulfilling legal requirements. The second, however, considers their environmental performance in all decision-making processes, in order to “increase their share in markets for environmentally friendly products.”
For advocates making an environmental case against meat production, this study shows the importance of a holistic view of the systems and processes behind meat, not just the product itself. The researchers note that their work reveals two further areas of potential research. First, they say “the calculation of various generic environmental indicators” would help in benchmarking and comparing various meat production approaches on a global scale. The second potential research area is “the analysis of existing environmental practices in meat companies throughout the meat chain and exploration of improvement techniques regarding water and energy.”
Farmed animal advocates may find the latter suggestion a bit dubious. While most of us would agree with the general goal of reducing water and energy consumption, there is already clear evidence that current meat production processes can never be improved enough to become net-positive with respect to energy usage. Cultured meat may one day change that, but in the meantime, meat consumption is quickly draining the world’s resources. While further research is necessary, it shouldn’t prevent people from taking action now to change their diets as a means of both helping the environment and reducing animal suffering.