Meat is horrible
By Rachel Premack
June 30, 2016
Correction: This story has been significantly revised to address several
inaccurate and incomplete statements about meat production's contribution to
greenhouse gas emissions.
It may be delicious, but the evidence is
accumulating that meat, particularly red meat, is just a disaster for the
environment - and not so great for human beings, either.
today accounts for for one-third of
global greenhouse gas emissions - posing one of the biggest challenges to
countries desperately trying to curb the emissions that promote global
warming. And half of those agriculture emissions come from livestock,
which produce large amounts of methane, a short-lived but powerful
The environmental impact is the driving reason
why members of a United Nations panel last month urged its environmental
assembly to consider recommending a tax on meat producers and sellers.
Raising the cost of buying meat, the argument goes, would reduce demand, and
ultimately, production of it.
the "clean cow" technology that could help fight climate change]
Maarten Hajer, professor at the Netherlands's Utrecht University, led the
environment and food report that recommended the meat tax.
the harmful effects on the environment and on health needs to be priced into
food products," said Hajer, who is a member of U.N.'s International Resource
Panel, which comprises 34 top scientists and 30 governments. "I think it is
But, he added, "Food is very political."
Taxing specific bits of the American diet can be a touch matter. In June, a
successful proposal to tax sugary drinks in Philadelphia caused an uproar
among lobbyists, some groups representing the poor and even Bernie Sanders,
who argued that the tax was regressive.
The response to limiting
meat, which is certainly
more beneficial to a diet than soda, could be mutinous.
we're still so incredibly confused about methane's role in global warming]
But Hajer argued that governments must soon move to limit the major
greenhouse gas producer. The idea of a meat tax has developed over the past
25 years as a "completely obvious" measure to economists and
environmentalists, Hajer said, as knowledge of the environmental toll of
By no means is meat the only element of agriculture that contributes
greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation of land for agricultural purposes --
to grow crops or grasses for cattle to graze -- also adds to the amount of
carbon dioxide in the air, partly because trees absorb CO2. Rice fields are
a also huge source of methane emissions. And applying fertilizer also
produces substantial amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, in the form of
But in multiple ways, meat is one of the worst offenders. For example,
agriculture consumes 80 percent of water in the United States. These two
charts show that meat is particularly thirsty. For a kilogram of red meat,
you need considerably more water than for plant products.
The beyond burger from Beyond Meat aims to replicate the texture,
color and taste of a beef burger. (Jayne
Orenstein, Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)
Governments are starting to take notice. China, which consumes half of the
world's pork and more than a quarter of its overall meat, announced new
dietary guidelines last
advises people to their reduce their average meat consumption by half. That
country's meat consumption has increased by nearly five-fold since 1982,
even though its population has only increased by 30 percent during that
Meanwhile, Denmark is
considering a recommendation from
its ethics council that all red meats should be taxed. The council argued in
May that Danes were "ethically obliged" to reduce their consumption to curb
greenhouse gas emissions.
"For a response to climate-damaging
food to be effective, while also contributing to raise awareness of the
challenge of climate change, it must be shared," council spokesman Mickey
This graph shows that phasing out meat and simply eating less would knock
down greenhouse gas emissions considerably — particularly in developed,
Laura Wellesley, a
research associate at international policy institute Chatham House, said she
thinks a global tax could be achieved in the next 20 years. She has studied
attitudes about meat consumption among the four most carnivorous countries:
China; the United States; Britain and Brazil.
as the Czech Republic and Poland have dramatically reduced their
agricultural emissions output, as much as a half. But countries that are
expanding their meat-lovers' impulses are doing so at much larger jumps.
Brazil's greenhouse gas output from food production has increased by 47
percent from 2000 to 2012. In China, a 35-percent jump from 1994 to 2005
means 220 million more tons of greenhouse gas emission. So, Estonia's
58-percent cut from 2000 to 2012, while commendable, is less than
Overall, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions have hardly decreased since
1990, despite growing awareness of the threat they pose to the planet. Food
and meat production is typically not targeted by civilians and governments
as a way to whittle global warming.
Global livestock contributes
an estimated 14.5 percent to annual greenhouse gas emissions. In raw
numbers, that's more than emissions from every car, train, ship and airplane
combined. (However, methane doesn't live in the atmosphere anywhere near as
long as carbon dioxide, produced by transportation, so its contribution to
the planet's warming is more of a short-term phenomenon.)
Of meat's contribution to greenhouse gas
emissions, 65 percent is enteric fermentation (or, cow, sheep and goat
belching and farting) and manure, according to a 2014
Chatham House analysis. Feed
constitutes one-fifth of that, followed by land-use change, energy use and
The methane produced by cattle digestion alone is what leads many
researchers to call for focusing on the impact of red meat, rather than
poultry or pigs. Pigs and poultry contribute only 10 percent of total
But Wellesley said
reducing meat consumption in rich countries was equally important to
boosting meat access for the world's poorest. Americans
ate an average of 120 pounds of meat in
2009, compared with an average of four
pounds in Bangladesh. The planet could be in trouble if populous, economic
centers in China and Brazil acted like the West.
China is a "grave concern" to experts, Hajer said.
Along with a tax, a
meat cutback could be achieved by making plant-based diets more appealing
and less expensive. People in the West often think that vegetarianism is a
diet for wealthier folks, Wellesley said.
This chart shows the considerable health benefits that could be reaped from
reducing meat consumption as part of a more nutritious diet. The United
States could slash its health-care spending the most by phasing out meat for
But until tariffs
are levied, experts worry about how to make people realize that meat is
harmful for the environment. Wellesley said people globally are more apt to
wring their hands over cranking the air conditioner. That cheeseburger is
largely seen as disastrous to heart health or their thighs, not global
"Government is wary of introducing taxes on food products," Wellesley said.
"Civil society and industry may say the tax would would harm or limit the
poorer members of society. Those concerns were raised in the focus group."
How Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, tricked
Americans into eating bacon for breakfast. (Daron
Taylor, Dani Johnson/The Washington Post)