Human Writes: Be kind to the planet, pledge to eat less meat


  • Environment
  • Sunday, 13 Jan 2019

If there’s one thing you can do for the planet (and your health) this year, it’s giving up meat, or at least cutting down on meat drastically.

Meat production produces damaging greenhouse gases and is a culprit behind water pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss. The planet simply cannot sustain our current meat intake levels; moreover, consumption is rising and the global population is growing.

Our planet is actually like a giant meat farm now. Seriously. There’s us people, 7.7 billion of us, and a ton of livestock animals, 70 billion or so, being fattened for our plates. Plus, most of the world’s agricultural land is being used for livestock, for grazing or to grow feed.

Wildlife? The numbers just don’t compare. Only 4% of all mammals are in the wild. Consider: there are perhaps 300 tigers left in Malaysia, but the number of broiler chickens (chicken for meat) raised in Malaysia in 2018 was estimated at 770 million birds.

Reducing meat for a more plant-based “flexitarian” diet (mostly vegetarian with the occasional bit of meat) is critical to prevent climate breakdown, concluded top scientists in the most comprehensive study on meat’s environmental impact.

The study, published last October in the journal Nature, said people need to eat 75% less beef on a global average; but in industrialised countries, beef intake needs to be cut by 90% and replaced by five times more pulses and beans. Halving food waste and improving farming is also important.

Only then can we contain global warming under the agreed 2°C, the researchers said.

In climate terms, 2°C is colossal. Last year, climate scientists warned we have a dozen or so years to prevent a 1.5°C rise, which could cause extreme heat, droughts, floods and the loss of coral reefs. It could make the tropics unliveable.

Livestock farming produces considerable greenhouse gas emissions – more than transport – from production processes, including from fertilisers used to grow feed. Also, methane – which is 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas – is emitted by ruminants such as cattle and sheep from belching and flatulence. Scientists are trying to combat this. In New Zealand, where agriculture accounts for about half of greenhouse gas emissions, researchers are breeding low-methane sheep.

Growing crops to feed animals involves huge amounts of land and water resources. Producing 500gm of beef requires 7,000 litres of water, the Nature study noted. Forests are being cleared to grow more crops to feed animals. Some 75% of soya beans grown worldwide are fed to animals. Conversely, feeding crops directly to people would require only a 10th as much land.

The fertilisers and pesticides used for crops also pollute waterways, causing “dead zones” in seas. Then there is the faecal matter. In the United States, this amounts to 500 million tonnes a year. Mostly stored in “lagoons”, this ends up contaminating waterways and groundwater. Some factory farms get rid of animal excrement by spraying it untreated into the air. These mists are carried away for miles by the wind. As factory farms use high numbers of antibiotics, there have been reports of antibiotic-resistant infections among people living near farms.

In Johor in 2017, water treatment plants had to shut down after ammonia pollution from a poultry farm producing fertiliser. Two million people were affected. This is the hidden cost of meat. Nobody considers the clean-up of the mess, such as water suppliers requiring filtration systems to remove nitrates.

We need proactive governments. But politicians are often lax with local meat industries and avoid challenging diets. Britain’s Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MP who has proposed a meat tax, is an exception.

Ordinary people are leading the way. Vegetarianism is a growing movement, especially among millennials in industrialised countries. In Britain, one in eight Britons are vegetarian or vegan. Veganism has skyrocketed there, fired by campaigns such as “Veganuary” (go Vegan in January).

In Hong Kong, which had the world’s highest meat and fish intake per capita in 2015, one person began a sea-change.

David Yeung got restaurants and schools to offer vegetarian options on Monday in his “Green Monday” campaign.

Such trends haven’t happened here. (Hi vegetarians, can you come out and campaign?)

We really need to address the issue. Malaysians devour a LOT of meat. We gobble down more meat per capita than people in Japan or Singapore and about as much as people in Germany, Euromonitor figures show.

We are the fourth largest chicken-consuming country per capita in the world, 2016 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) data show. Every day, we eat nearly two million chickens.

Last year, the National Heart Institute campaigned for people to cut out meat for veggies and fruit. This year, let’s make that happen. Make flexitarianism a buzzword, for the sake of our bodies and the planet.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my. Make flexitarianism a buzzword, for the sake of our bodies and the planet.


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