Will Being a Vegetarian Save the Planet - Part III: Is Meat Bad for the Planet?

Humans, as a whole, appear to gravitate towards eating more meat if the option is available. With industrialisation and increasing wealth across the world we seem to be making the choice to eat meat more and more, but at what cost?

Land and Meat

One of the biggest criticisms of meat production is its use of land. In terms of land-use the biggest culprits are cattle. Pastures cover approximately a quarter of the Earth’s surface and uses two thirds of all the land used in agriculture[3](1). That’s a lot. To put that in context that’s more than 4 times the size of the continental US, or 1,600 times the size of Wales if you’re of a more spiffing persuasion.

Statistics from the FAO[2]

Why do cattle require so much land? Well, they’re big animals and they eat grass, which is not especially fattening, so they need a lot of it. If you take a small cow that’s around 300kg, it will require half a kilo of grain and 6.9kg of dry matter(2), every single day[4]. There’s a reason that you always see cows chewing the cud, they’ve got a lot of work cut out for them. Bear in mind that 300kg is small for a cow too, in the US the average weight for cattle when they’re sent to slaughter is 544-635kg[5].

But so what? Sure, they use a lot of land, but there are plenty of wild grazers around, some of them much bigger, and we’re not worried about them. Are we? This is an easy trap to fall into, and I covered it in part with a previous blog post, but a false one. Cows are not natural grazers and neither is the land they graze on, both have had human intervention. Whilst it’s sometimes hard to consider, given how much of a normal part of the landscape they are (especially in Europe), pastures are anything but natural, they are managed.

In many cases this management can result in lack of biodiversity[3,6,7], i.e. fewer species of plants and animals. It’s almost a golden rule of agriculture, if you want things to be highly productive then you need to simplify their environment[8,9]. Get rid of all their competition and pests and nothing will stop the plant or animal from growing! I don’t think anyone would deny that this is an effective strategy, monocultures dominate much of the planet, but it is likely quite short-termist[10,11].