Can the Meat Industry Reduce its Environmental Impact?

The global meat industry is worth over $2 trillion, according to a report from IDTechEx.

In 2017, the U.S. alone produced about 100 billion-lbs. of meat, with production growing at a rate of 2-3% per year. The U.S. government heavily subsidizes the meat and dairy industry, spending $38 billion a year in subsidies and as such, meat ends up being fairly cheap, with 6.4% of consumer expenditure on meat-the lowest in the world.

With so much meat being produced, the question of how sustainable the industry is arises.

Sustainability concerns do impact meat and poultry choices for consumers, according to FMI’s the Power of Meat 2020 report. However, 49% believe, if done properly, animal agriculture does not have negative impacts on the planet. Meanwhile, 34% of consumers believe raising livestock has some or a lot of negative impact on the planet, with this belief much stronger among younger generations.

Shoppers want to see more information into how and where livestock was raised, giving the industry an opportunity to improve the availability of unbiased information in educating on steps to protect the planet.

Sustainability Efforts

Sustainable meat doesn’t have to mean going plant based. America’s pig farmers are committed to improving the environment and the communities they are in, according to We Care’s report, entitled Commit and Improve: Pig Farmers’ Approach to Sustainability.

As food needs rise, pig farmers are working to reduce farming’s impact on the environment, while also producing more food. “Farmers are in it for the long haul,” said James Lamb, a farmer who now raises 3,000 pigs on his family farm. “We depend on the air, the water, and the land to keep our animals healthy and our food safe.”

The National Pork Board developed the Pig Production Environmental Footprint Calculator to give farmers a tool to estimate the amount of land and water used and greenhouse gases released from their production site.

In addition, pig farmers increasingly use wind turbines, methane digesters, and solar panels to power their farms. Some farmers are now carbon neutral, and even carbon negative, which means they can provide energy back to the power grid.

Over the past 55 years, pig farms reduced their environmental impact by using 75.9% less land, 25.1% less water, 7% less energy, and 7.7% lower carbon emissions per lb. of pork produced.

Meanwhile, premium red meat producer Silver Fern Farms is making its own efforts to be sustainable, particularly when it comes to food waste. The company’s retail products are vacuum packed to seal in freshness, enabling 25 days of shelf life, giving retailers a longer selling window and allowing consumers more time to eat. The meat itself ages and tenderizes in the pack.

The retail packs are also trimmed and proportioned, allowing the home chef to simply take it from the packaging and cook it-with no further preparation or trimming needed that would create waste. Production planning and livestock procurement are carefully managed to ensure every part of each animal is utilized to avoid wastage.

Silver Fern Farms partners with distributors to maintain the quality at every step, using real-time temperature controls to ensure products remain shelf stable and therefore are not wasted.

Unsustainable Aspects of Meat

There are several major sustainability problems the meat industry is facing, according to IDTechEx. Animal livestock utilizes a disproportionally large amount of land. Seventy-seven percent of the 51 million km2 of agricultural land is used for feeding livestock, while only 1% of global caloric consumption comes from animals and 83% coming from plant-based foods. Just 33% of global protein intake comes from meat and dairy.

As the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, feeding this many people will require an increase in global food production of 70%. However, major crop yields have been plateauing over the last few decades.

Additionally, meat is not a very efficient source of nutrition. Chicken is the most efficient form of meat, yet still requires 9 calories of energy from animal feed to produce 1 calorie of meat and 5 grams of protein to produce 1 gram of protein. In comparison, pork requires 10 calories of feed to produce 1 calorie of meat.

The UN describes animal agriculture as “one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, with carbon dioxide from soil cultivation, methane from livestock, and nitrous oxide from fertilizer and manure being major contributors.

Expansion of livestock production is also a major factor in deforestation, particularly in Latin America, where 70% of previously forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures. Animal agriculture is also a major contributor to water stress, with livestock accounting for over 8% of global human water use.

Better Solution?

Food Print recommends pasture-raised meats as a better solution. Farmers who produce pasture-raised meat can use field, livestock, and waste management techniques that reduce the emissions from animals’ manure.

Maintaining good animal health is also important, according to Health for Animals. Healthy animals produce more, making the production process more efficient for the farmer. In 2013, FAO outlined that emissions from livestock could be reduced by 30% in part by adopting best practices in health and husbandry.

Poor animal health, lacking welfare, and mismanagement of livestock means animals are more susceptible to disease and may die before they reach lactation, reach an age ready to breed, or for slaughter. By overseeing good animal health, it reduces the number of unproductive animals that emit greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, good overall nutrition on the farm boosts the animals’ natural immune systems, helping to keep them at their optimum health. This helps animals produce more, which enables farmers to meet local demand with fewer animals, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions.