The hid­den costs of meat

Ev­ery day, Malaysians eat nearly two mil­lion chick­ens. And that’s just not good for the planet.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - [email protected]­tar.com.my Man­gai Balasegaram

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 plant­based “flex­i­tar­ian” (mainly vege­tar­ian with meat only oc­ca­sion­ally) diet 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.

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 [email protected] thes­tar.com.my.

We gob­ble down more meat per capita than peo­ple in Ja­pan or Sin­ga­pore and about as much as peo­ple in Ger­many

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