Our addiction to meat may be killing us

  • Environment
  • Tuesday, 13 Jun 2017

Here's a trivia question: What is a leading cause of both climate change and the rise of superbugs?

Which, oh, is also linked to “ocean dead zones”, biodiversity loss, deforestation, human diseases and world hunger.

The answer? Meat.

Meat consumption and production is at the heart of some of the most serious environmental problems today. The very future of our planet hinges on this issue. As the British think tank Chatham House explains: “Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the ‘danger level’ of two degrees Celsius.”

The meat industry accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions which warm the planet, reports the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). That’s more than the emissions from all vehicles – on road, air or sea – combined. Cows and sheep pass methane, which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

One effort to redress this is World No Meat Day, which was marked on June 12 by people around the planet skipping meat for a day.

It may be surprising to know that Malaysians are the 10th biggest meat-eaters (per person) in the world and second biggest in Asia-Pacific. We Malaysians eat more meat than the Japanese, Koreans or Singaporeans per person!

We may not be as rich as those other countries, but we still eat as if we’re kings. In our country’s past, meat was eaten far less, or only on significant occasions.

The costs of cruelty

We are also champion chicken eaters. Malaysia’s chicken consumption has risen 10 times from 3.46kg per person in 1960 to 34.3kg in 2005, studies show. Every day, we eat an average of 1.8 million chickens, 2016 government figures show.

Care for chicken? Featherless hens are crammed inside a cage at a farm in western France. Photo: AFP

This takes a tremendous amount of resources because chicken feed is not “chicken feed” – it is primarily corn from Argentina and Brazil and we spend RM3bil per year importing it.

But there is another cost – to nature. Breeding animals for meat gobbles up 70% of all agricultural land and a third of the world’s fresh water, according to Wild Aid.

Beef in particular requires the most land, at 30sq m to produce one kilo while chicken and pork require about 20sq m. In contrast, it needs just 2sq m of land to produce one kilo of fruits, potatoes and vegetables.

ALSO READ: Eating beef is bad for Earth

Too often around the world, land for those who can pay for meat gets a priority over land for the poor to just survive. For example, because of our voracious appetite for meat, many forests, including the Amazon, are cleared to rear cattle.

To ensure high crop yields to feed animals, commercial farmers use fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. When rain washes these chemicals into rivers, they become major pollutants, causing biologically “dead zones” in seas, such as the Gulf of Mexico and China’s Bohai Sea.

This is what makes meat production so unsustainable – we are using most of our resources to feed animals while we’re running short of land and water.

There is another cost of cruelty too – conditions in intensive animal farms are simply horrific. Chickens are so fat they can barely stand and must have their beaks cut off to stop them pecking at each other in frustration; pregnant sows are kept in cages where they can’t move; and the young are separated from their mothers.

Danger to our health

Cruelty to animals hits us back in unexpected ways.

The crowded, unsanitary conditions in factory farms are rife with pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter and listeria – and are ripe for potential epidemics, such as bird flu.

Antibiotics and growth hormones are given to prevent diseases and fatten the animals up – it may surprise you to know that most of the world’s antibiotics are used in animals.

This antibiotic deluge has made bacteria develop super resistance and we’re now reaching an “antibiotics apocalypse” as “superbugs” loom.

Studies show these superbugs travel, including by wind and water, and stay on the skin of farmworkers for some time. Sahabat Alam Malaysia has already warned: “There is a risk that certain bacteria might become resistant to all forms of antibiotics.”

Our appetite for meat is harming our health and planet. Photo: AFP

We end up unknowingly eating a cocktail of chemicals such as growth hormones, antibiotics and residual pesticides and herbicides plus ammonia and nitrites (used to process meat). All this obviously raises risks to our health.

Much evidence links excess meat consumption, particularly red meat and processed meat, with obesity, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and type 2 diabetes. Conversely, diets high in vegetables, fruits and wholegrains (such as lentils, chickpeas or beans) promote health.

Animals which are treated more kindly as they graze naturally in green fields – rather than those factory fed an unnatural grain diet – produce healthier “organic meat” (not yet widely available in Malaysia).

But that doesn’t mean we should gorge on such free-range meats either. Regular red meat intake has been linked to diseases and premature death, as two decades-long studies at the Harvard School of Public Health have found. The researchers wryly said “healthy meat consumption” is an oxymoron. And a study in the journal Nature shows that one compound in red meat (called carnitine) causes arteriosclerosis, which leads to heart disease.

Most of us gobble far too much meat – the World Cancer Research Fund recommends a limit of 500g of meat a week (consider that a whole chicken weighs about 2kg).

Clearly then, even if we are not ready to become vegetarians, the time has come to really reduce our meat intake.

Happy World No Meat Day to everyone!

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