Despite a recent increase in vegetarianism and veganism, the demand for red meat seems higher than ever. Many scientists and conservationists continue to campaign against the red meat consumption due to the detrimental effects on the environment production has. Not only is there serious cause for concern from an ecological point of view, but from a health perspective, too – red meat is classified as a Group 2A carcinogen and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that processed red meat is linked to the development of bowel and stomach cancer.
Using data supplied by Ourworldindata.org, we found that the farming of red meat livestock such as cows and sheep is responsible for releasing approximately 221g of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere for every gram of protein produced. When compared to the likes of poultry at 31.75g, the differences are quite obvious.It was also found that over a metre2 of land is required for every gram of protein produced from red meat – a real hair-raising stat when the same amount of protein can be obtained from pulses with just 0.01m2 of land.
Meat Consumption is a Global Problem
Over-consumption of red meat is a global problem, with the average amount of meat being eaten each day far outweighing the recommended daily amount for an individual. It may come as no surprise that the wealthier countries are the ones eating the most meat – and as a country gets richer, so does the diet of those that live in it, but how sustainable is this?
How Red Meat Affects Your Physical Health
Red meat has long been linked to heart disease and other serious health conditions. But perhaps most importantly, it is ranked as a Group 2A carcinogen. Red meat has been linked to various types of cancer including bowel cancer and colorectal cancer.
For what it’s worth, red meat is high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A 3.5oz steak will have a quarter of your recommended daily amount of Vitamin B3 and nearly 40% of your daily amount of Vitamin B12.
However, there are some profoundly negative effects on your health from red meat. This is particularly when you include processed red meat e.g bacon, sausages, salami, jerky etc. An unprocessed red meat would be something like a lamb shank or a steak.
Processed red meat is as likely to give you cancer as smoking tobacco. Processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the most lethal group. This means there is sufficient evidence to suggest that consumption causes cancer. Processed red meats are also heavily linked to heart disease, diabetes and death.
Unprocessed red meats aren’t as prolifically bad for your health. A review of 20 studies that included over 1.2 million people found that whilst the awful health effects of processed red meats are pretty much clear as day, the same effect wasn’t found in unprocessed red meat.
There are issues with how the studies are conducted however and a pattern doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the cause. But there’s enough evidence out there to suggest that we really need to think about how much of it we are eating.
One thing is for sure, and that’s processed red meats should really be avoided. Bacon is a cherished food, but really we need to start ditching it. Let’s reiterate that eating bacon and other processed meats is as likely to cause cancer than smoking tobacco. But people still smoke, so people will still eat bacon. Just make sure you’re eating it in moderation.
The best thing to do with red meat, that isn’t scrapping it altogether, is to adopt the Mediterranean diet approach to red meat. Which is to have unprocessed red meat as a treat, about twice a month. This is a healthy approach to red meat if you really can’t bear the thought of scrapping it altogether.
The Environmental Impact of Red Meat
A lot of noise has been made recently about our meat consumption and how it relates to the environment. With the existence of man-made climate change beyond any form of reasonable doubt, we need to be frank about how our demand for meat is playing into that.
The scientific consensus on climate change being man made is at 97%. That means, of all the scientists whose job it is to look at the effects of climate change, 97% of those people have reached the conclusion it’s man-made. It’s very hard to find that level of consensus in the scientific community, where there is a strong culture of trying to disprove anything anyone says. It’s only when you can find no possible way to disprove it that you agree. This means we have to assess our own human habits.
The problem with meat consumption is that it takes an awful lot of resources to cultivate, especially red meat, and especially beef. Beef produces seven times more carbon dioxide per gram of protein than poultry, for example. Producing 100g of protein of beef emits 105kg of greenhouse gases. 100g of protein from nuts emits 2.4kg.
If you’re trying to be environmentally minded then you can still enjoy red meat. However, for the biggest impact on the environment, you need to go vegan. Eliminating any animal products from your diet drastically reduces your carbon footprint. However, even just going flexitarian can reduce your carbon footprint by nearly 60%.
‘Flexitarianism’ is the name given to a diet that consists mostly of plant based foods, with meat eaten in moderation. People do this by not eating meat every other day, only eating meat at the weekend etc. It’s a really good way to not only reduce your carbon footprint, but to eat healthier!
Lots of people are seriously turned off by veganism. And to be honest, there are some bad vegans out there that are giving it a bad name but by and large, vegans want to reduce their environmental impact, eat healthier, and they feel great compassion for animals. Compassion for animals and health aside, when you actually contextualise the environmental cost of meat, it becomes very hard to ignore.
Consider this. You plan on having a single beef burger for your lunch. Did you know that the amount of greenhouse gas that has been emitted to put that single beef burger on your plate is as much as if you were to drive a petrol car for 200 miles? Nearly 1,700 litres of water has been used to bring that single burger to your plate. That’s more than a month’s worth of daily showers. That’s as much water as you use flushing the toilet for SIX months.
This is why beef should only be eaten as a rare treat, if at all.
If the health effects of eating red meat aren’t enough to get you to reassess how much you’re eating, then at least consider the environmental cost of it. Can we really afford to keep our meat consumption this high? Will there be a world left for our future generations if we do?