The average American is predicted to consume 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this is the highest yearly average ever. And to accommodate this, meat production is expected to surpass 100 billion pounds in the United States.
Meat consumption and production is a natural part of current society. Classic American meals include cheeseburgers, steak, fried chicken and barbecue; all of these contain meat. And much of the fast food industry relies on the availability of cheap, easy meals such as chicken nuggets, hamburgers and breakfast sandwiches with eggs, cheese and sausage patties.
In the US, meat can be cheap and easily accessible. Because of this, people often fail to stop and consider how much energy, time and space is required to produce, package and deliver meat. How many people have actually butchered a cow or killed a chicken themselves? How many consumers have even visited a feedlot or calculated how much energy is expended to bring that sizzling steak to their home grill?
In fact, the production of one serving of meat is an energy-intensive and extensive process. The creation of a single quarter pound hamburger requires 6.7 pounds of grain, 52.8 gallons of water, 74.5 square feet of land and 1,036 BTUs of energy from fossil fuels. In total, the livestock industry produces 15 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. This is about the same amount as the entire transportation industry.
In addition to taking up so much energy, the production of meat takes up a great deal of agricultural land. By the numbers, about 36 percent of the calories made globally on agricultural land is never available for human consumption. Instead, these calories are expended to feed animals and produce biofuels. In the U.S., this spikes to 67 percent. If all U.S. cropland was repurposed to only grow crops fit for human consumption, the industry could feed over 1.5 billion people. If U.S. citizens switched entirely from eating beef to eating beans, the U.S. would almost reach the 2020 greenhouse gas emission pledge enacted by former-President Obama. Nothing else would have to change in the country’s livestock or transportation industries. People could still even eat poultry, pork, eggs and cheese.
On paper, these numbers are shocking and suggest a need for people to change the ways they consume meat. However, it is hard to remember to apply these numbers in daily diet considerations. The ways in which the meat industry is now run remove the consumer from the actual production of the final good and mean we don’t have to confront the ways that meat affects the environment.
Before feedlots, people had local butchers. You could go into a butcher shop and select the portion of the animal you wanted to bring home for dinner. The butcher could tell you what farm the meat came from and how long ago it was killed. Meat was considered a luxury good rather than a daily commodity or cheap fast food meal. Prior to the establishment of local butchers, people were responsible for hunting for their own meat or raising their own livestock. This acquisition of meat was a much more intimate experience.
A friend recently told me that if he thought about where his meat came from — the process where cattle are sent from fields or feedlots into slaughterhouses and then in some cases combined with varying parts of different cows — he would probably consume a lot less meat. The experience today of picking a vacuum-sealed package off a grocery shelf is drastically different than being the person responsible for taking that animal’s life, of knowing where exactly your meat originated because you were responsible for its production.
Aside from the desire to dissociate with the details and processes of the meat industry because they are simply unsavory, there is also a general unawareness of the aforementioned impacts of livestock industry on the environment. People always express shock when I tell them that the simple switch from beef to beans would have such a large impact.
Despite the detrimental impact of the meat industry on the environment, I am not arguing here for the total end of the livestock industry. Honestly, that is not realistic. However, meat consumption does not have to be quite so extreme either. If people consumed meat, especially beef, only two or three times a week, that would make a huge difference. There are other changes, such as trying to buy local meat to reduce the carbon emissions from transportation or buying natural or free-range products that are healthier for the environment and the human body, that could lessen the impacts of meat.
However, we should have increased awareness of the processes behind meat. Know where your meat comes from (this goes for all types of food), how the animals were treated and your food’s impact on the environment. If these details disgust you, maybe you should reconsider what you are putting into your body. It can be easy to dissociate from the ways that food reaches our refrigerators, but consumer education and awareness is essential for improved health and environmental regulation. It is the duty of people to re-associate with what they are consuming.