1 September 2009

The red meat footprint

Our diets revolve around meat. But rumours abound that being vegetarian is better for the environment. Could there be some truth to it? We investigate the evidence.
Meat lover

Credit: iStockphoto

Death row inmates put a lot of thought into their final meal choice. After all, it’s the last food they will eat on this Earth. And their choice is telling for overwhelmingly, in the United States at least, they want meat.

Pork chops, filet mignon, steak, hamburger, meatloaf, fried chicken, sausages… with not a lentil, slice of haloumi or vegetarian lasagne in sight. Prisoners on death row might not be the most representative of groups, but their choices give an inkling of the central role meat plays in our diet.

The very earliest fossil evidence of human eating habits bears the unmistakable signs of animal consumption, and our dental structure is designed for a diet that will tackle anything, whether animal or vegetable: canines and incisors for cutting and tearing, pre-molars and molars for grinding.

Today, the human diet, especially that of Westerners, revolves around meat. Livestock products provide one third of humanity’s protein intake. According to a 2005 report from Australian government research agency, the CSIRO, an average Australian eats 35 kg of beef, 21 kg of pork, 36 kg of chicken and 13 kg of lamb each year – roughly 290 g of meat per person, per day.

It takes 16 million sheep, 8 to 9 million head of cattle, 5.6 million pigs and nearly half a billion chickens just to meet the meat requirements of Australians. And there’s a reason we eat so much meat: it’s a great source of protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. But there are other, perhaps less well known, facts about meat.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation found that livestock are responsible for 18% of global greenhouse emissions – more than transport. Feeding and watering livestock accounts for over 8% of global human water use, and of the total combined weight of land-based animals, livestock makes up 20%.

Meat is extremely popular in Australia thanks to the barbeque, the meat pie, and the grand Aussie tradition of the sausage sizzle. The red meat industry alone is worth $15 billion annually, and we’re eating more meat than ever before. While beef consumption might be very slightly down and lamb consumption well down from the 1960s, these days we are eating two to four times more pork and chicken per person.

But how many of us have dared take a close look at what we eat, and wonder what impact changes to our diet might have on our environmental footprint?

Probably not too many of us – after all, as anyone who has ever tried to lose weight can attest, changing your diet is no easy task. But now is the time to do so, because meat is the one ingredient in our diet that does more harm to our environment than any other.

Meat is not really doing our health any favours, at least in the quantities we currently consume, says nutritionist and dietician Dr Rosemary Stanton, who is a member of the New South Wales Health Department’s Food Advisory Committee. Meat might contain plentiful amounts of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12, as well as protein, but those things are also found in dairy products, legumes, nuts, grains, seeds and vegetables.

Even if meat was your sole source of these essential nutrients, the National Health and Medical Research Healthy Eating guidelines say you need just 65 g to 100 g of meat a day. “That is really tiny portion and so the amount that people eat is far greater than that,” says Stanton – two to four times greater, in fact.

Unfortunately, this excessive meat intake can actually have a detrimental effect on our health, particularly when it comes to cancer.

“Australia has an extremely high incidence of colorectal cancer, one of the highest in the world,” Stanton says. Studies have found that people who eat greater amounts of red or processed meat have on average a 30% increased risk of colorectal cancer compared with those who eat the least.

The health argument in favour of eating less meat becomes even stronger when the health of vegetarians is examined. “Vegetarians have a lower incidence of heart disease, lower blood pressure, lower incidence of stroke, lower incidence of bowel cancer, gallstones and type 2 diabetes,” says Stanton.

This contradicts the stereotype of vegetarians as pale, anaemic and deficient in just about everything under the Sun, particularly (for women) iron.

Television executive Kate Pounder has been a vegetarian for 10 years. She leads a busy, active life, cooks when she can, eats out sometimes, exercises occasionally, but has not once been diagnosed as vitamin or iron deficient, even when she was donating blood on a regular basis.

Pounder runs a website called Veggie Friendly (www.veggiefriendly.com.au), which reviews restaurants from a vegetarian perspective. “I became vegetarian by accident when I was living overseas,” she says.

Although she had some initial concerns about the health impact and convenience of going vego, these were soon laid firmly to rest. “I realised that it was actually quite easy to be vegetarian and I felt much better, a lot healthier and I had a lot more energy.”

Stanton was so frustrated by the paranoia surrounding vegetarian diets that she wrote a book called Healthy Vegetarian Eating.

“I wrote it because I was so sick of parents coming to me saying, ‘My teenage daughter won’t eat meat and she’s about to die’.” People are particularly concerned about iron intake, but Stanton says there are no studies showing that vegetarians have a higher incidence of anaemia.

But few vegetarians choose their path for health reasons. For most, like Voiceless co-director Brian Sherman – who is also the president of Sydney’s Australian Museum – it’s about the rights of the creatures that unwillingly lay down their lives for our dinner. Voiceless is an Australian organisation dedicated to promoting respect and compassion for animals, raising awareness of their living conditions and protecting them from suffering.

“We have about a half a billion animals that are raised in Australia every year for food, and the vast majority of them are raised in industrialised intensive factory farms,” says Sherman. The conditions in which chickens are bred are of particular concern to Voiceless – 50,000 to 60,000 chickens raised to a shed, packed as many as 20 per square metre and never allowed outside to see the Sun.

Unfortunately, Sherman says, Australia is lagging behind Europe in its treatment of animals. “Several countries in the EU have banned battery cages altogether and sow crates for pigs have been banned in other areas,” he says.

The management of cattle in Australia is also changing, moving away from the classic image of herds roaming free across vast swathes of rolling green hills towards more intensive feedlotting. “Feedlotting is increasing in Australia and so cattle are slowly going the way of other animals in terms of intensive practices,” he says.

This practice of feedlotting or ‘grain finishing’, according to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), accounts for about 11% of total beef production in the nation.

Ian Johnsson, general manager of livestock production innovation for MLA, says grain finishing is important to ensure the quality of the meat in a country where the supply of other feed such as grass is subject to the whims of the weather. “The quality of grass varies from summer to winter so this is a way of just finishing the animals on high quality ration to make sure,” he says.

While Australia is far less reliant on feedlotting than many other countries, it is still one of the more controversial practices in farming because it dramatically increases the amount of water use associated with beef production, and flies in the face of current concerns about global grain shortages.

Patrice Newell has been a biodynamic beef producer for 22 years, and is strongly opposed to grain-feeding cattle. “Grain-feeding a ruminant, when they do not naturally eat grain and are forced into those horrific intensive sheds, should not be part of the sustainable protein future,” she says.

She argues that grass-fed is the way of the future for beef, and believes carefully managed, sustainable grazing is actually extremely important to maintain the health of Australia’s soil and grasslands.

“An organic farm relies on animals’ manures to build the compost and humus to build soil,” Newell says. “To take the animal out of the equation is to me against nature.”

Which brings us back to the question of the environment. MLA estimates about 11% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock.

According to the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Elle Morell, it takes around 200 L of water – mostly to grow grain and to wash out abattoirs – and creates around five kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions to get a small, 150 g steak onto your plate.

“There are a number of factors that go into it,” says Morell, research coordinator for the ACF’s GreenHome program. “The growing of the feed for the meat. And particularly with red meat where you have the methane produced from when the cows are grazing, that’s very significant. And then there’s the transport of meat from paddock to plate and the refrigeration.”

Methane is of particular concern because it is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Cows and other ruminants produce it as a by-product of their digestion and belch it out into the atmosphere.

To put these figures into context, a Japanese study found that a kilogram of beef produced in Japan was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

But there’s more to it than greenhouse gases. The United Nations found that 30 per cent of land once home to wildlife is now occupied by livestock and 70 per cent of deforested land is converted into pasture.

Even if we were all vegetarian, there would still be land-clearing for food, but Australian government research agency, the CSIRO, points out that for every dollar earned by cattle farming, 232 times more land is disturbed than for growing fruit and veg.

The livestock industry is also “probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution”, says the U.N.. Part of the problem is that most of the water used by livestock flows back into river and creeks.

But post-animal it carries an enormous amount of pollutants.Many of these come from livestock manure, which contains a large amount of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and other unwanted by-products including drug residues, heavy metals and bacteria and viruses.

Because of this foul water, the U.N. report blames livestock for the degradation of coral reefs and the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

The livestock industry is doing its bit to reduce its environmental footprint though.

Johnsson from MLA says a lot of research is now focussing on ways to reduce the amount of methane produced by livestock. Meanwhile, scientists in New Zealand are exploring the idea of a vaccine that might reduce methane emissions.

Different feeds also mean different emissions – grain is more digestible than grass thus leading to less methane, but there is also a significant greenhouse gas cost associated with production of grain.

But, try getting the average red-blooded Australian male to give up his nightly steak to save the environment and you’d better be ready for a fight.

Thankfully for both sides of this debate, no one’s asking for extreme actions.

“At the ACF we’re not saying don’t eat any meat, but to reduce your red meat consumption… by two to three serves a week,” says Morell.

Choosing a vegetarian alternative would be ideal, but for cooks who dissolve into a blubbering mess in the face of lentils, Morell suggests substituting free-range chicken or sustainable seafood.

Reducing your meat consumption by just one meal every week – roughly a 150 g serve of meat – and over a year you can slash your greenhouse pollution by up to 300 kg and reduce your water use by up to 10,000 litres.

And for those meals where you do include meat, Patrice Newell says consumers should make the effort to find out more about where their meat comes from, and choose grass-fed over grain-fed beef.

With just two per cent of the Australian population declaring themselves to be vegetarian, it’s unlikely we’re going to see a rush on vegetarianism in the near future, but it’s clear that the days of blissful ignorance about the true cost of our food choices are well and truly over.

Mark Berriman, director of the Australian Vegetarian Society, says while the choice to be vegetarian has traditionally been about health and ethical arguments, the environmental arguments are becoming more powerful. But he doesn’t expect everyone to suddenly drop their steaks and charge the health food section.

“If you’re conscious and aware of it that’s all we ask because people find their own comfort zone.”


Want to save the planet but can’t stomach the idea of a world without red meat? Don’t stress, there are a few options.

Red meat for the green person: Kangaroo

Environmentally speaking kangaroo meat leaps over lamb, beef and pork on so many sustainable levels. Let’s start with greenhouse gas. Firstly kangaroos don’t produce methane, unlike sheep and cattle which do. If Australia’s rangeland cattle industry (free range cattle grazing in interior Australia) were replaced by harvesting kangaroos, Australia would produce 16 megatonnes less greenhouse gas annually. In addition kangaroos don’t compact and erode our fragile soils nor do they destroy our waterways when they go to drink.

Even our top scientists back the idea of putting roo on the menu. Tim Flannery, author and professor of environmental and life sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney, says that grazing cattle has “caused huge damage to our fragile grazing lands. It’s only in recent times that the concept of utilising this land with the animals that belong here has emerged,” says he. “Doing so has the potential to deliver enormous environmental benefits.”

Kangaroos are harvested in the wild from species that are considered overpopulated. Roos only breed when there is good access to fresh water, and these days with dams dotting the countryside for sheep and cattle, there’s always plenty on hand. The animals are killed by a single shot to the head by professional roo-shooters. Animal activists, however, have expressed concerns over the way joeys may be orphaned or dispatched during the cull.

The main commercial cuts of roo taste best when served rare and so reduce the amount of fuel one uses in the kitchen. Kangaroo is available in our major supermarkets and is recommended by health nutritionists for its low fat content. Kangaroo has a light gamey flavour that marries well with both Asian flavours and more traditional European spices such as juniper.

Red meat for the green person: Rabbit

Another consideration for the green-minded meat eater is wild rabbit. Since their introduction into mainland Australia in 1859 rabbits have devastated huge swathes of native bush and agricultural land. They are also instrumental in destroying native species because not only do they eat up their food supply, but rabbits are a constant food source for feral cats and foxes which in turn eat our numbats, bandicoots, little birds and reptiles.

Wild rabbit is shot in the field. Along with poisons and biological measures this type of hunting is part of a nationwide eradication program. Unlike farmed rabbit, wild rabbit is quite flavoursome and because of the breed of animal and its wild lifestyle, is rather toothsome and does require some periods of slow cooking. Because of this wild rabbit makes quite a wonderful braise when cooked with red wine and garlic.

Red meat for the green person: Beef and pork

For dedicated beefeaters that can’t go without the odd T-bone there are a few greener options. Grass-fed beef is better choice than grain-fed beef as the energy used to produce and transport the grains, soybeans and corn used to feed cattle is far greater than the energy used to maintain pastures for grass-fed cattle.

About 40 like-minded environmental farmers across Gippsland, Victoria, have banded together to produce beef under the Enviromeat label. Under their charter farmers must protect their waterways by fencing creeks off from cattle and minimise the use of fertilisers. They also replant areas of their farms with indigenous trees.

Some free-range pig farmers, such as Gippsland’s Gypsy Pig, are going a step further and planting great swathes of forest to offset their carbon emissions. – Richard Cornish

Bianca Nogrady is a carnivore married to a vegetarian, which makes for some interesting dinner-time discussions.

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