Animals and Environment
The Environmental Impact of Meat
Have you ever eaten a ‘Beyond Meat’ burger? Is it better for the environment than the meat it replaces?
Livestock production for meat consumption is a huge topic, and the best choice for the environment depends a lot on the context: where the livestock was raised, how it was raised, and what it was fed.
Livestock that is naturally grass-fed and raised in free-range conditions appropriate for the land use (like grazing lands in Alberta that previously sustained bison) provides meat with a low environmental impact.  Unfortunately, we know that most animals for meat production are not raised under these conditions. We also know that as the standard of living for much of the world’s population rises, so does the consumption of meat.
Sustainability is the organizing principle for meeting human development goals while simultaneously maintaining the ability of natural systems to provide the natural resources and ecosystem services upon which the economy and society depend. The global increase in meat consumption is not sustainable. Part of the problem is the social and environmental impacts of industrial scale agriculture; part of the problem is the inefficient conversion of plant crops to meat; and part of the problem is the environmental impact of intensive livestock operations.
Much of our meat is raised on soybeans, corn, and barley as feed. The global increase in meat consumption has been accompanied by large increases in grain and soybean production for intensive livestock operations. One-third of the world’s arable land grows industrial-scale crop monocultures dedicated to feed animals raised intensively for meat consumption. The conversion of rainforests and natural grasslands and the application of fertilizer and pesticides for animal feed is not environmentally friendly – it releases massive quantities of sequestered carbon to the atmosphere and it is wasteful of land, energy, water and clean air.  
Meat consumption is mainly driven by culture, tradition and taste. The intermediate step of feeding plant crops to animals intended for human consumption is unnecessary and wasteful. Crops grown for meat production should instead be used to feed humans directly.
Based on calories, 6 units of feed will convert to 1 unit of pork, and 12 units of feed will convert to 1 unit of beef. For poultry, the conversion is 2:1 which makes it a lower-impact source of protein, in general. 
On August 8, 2019, over a hundred leading researchers released a summary report on climate change and land through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and includes policy recommendations to reduce meat consumption. The report states with high confidence that balanced diets featuring plant-based and sustainably produced sources of meat “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”
In the last decade, plant-based foods have been developed to create alternatives for those accustomed to the taste of meat. A ‘Beyond Meat’ burger has 18 ingredients, including: pea protein isolate, canola and coconut oil, rice protein, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract (to give the burger its meat-like ‘blood’).
Is this an environmentally friendly substitute for meat? Can we make better choices with our meat consumption?
1. An Environmentalist’s Case for Beef
Kevin Van Tighem, Alberta Views.
1 July 2020
2. Chart Shows What the World’s Land Is Used For
Natasha Brooks, One Green Planet
Accessed 31 July 2020
3. How much of the world's cropland is actually used to grow food?
Brad Plumer, VOX
16 Dec 2014
4. Feed to Meat; Conversion Inefficiency Ratios
A Well Fed World; Plant Based Hunger Solutions
Other Sources of Interest.
What’s the beef with red meat?
Harvard Men's Health Watch
Thinking With Animals
In thoughtful times, what Canadian doesn’t turn to Leonard Cohen? Consider one of his most famous songs. Suzanne, the lyrics go, takes you down to her place by the river and ‘feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China’.
Oolala, Leonard - all the way from China? But this was written in 1966 when China might reasonably be seen as far away, both in imagination and geography. Now goods cross international borders, span what we once thought of as vast oceans, fly the (pre-pandemic) crowded skies and arrive in our stores at a fraction of the price of mandarin oranges in Cohen’s era.
But at what cost? What does it cost us to curtail production here and take advantage of cheaper labour costs in other lands, to fly fresh produce around the world, to truck pigs, cattle and poultry across borders as though they were no more sentient than crates of oranges?
If the world seems close and perhaps claustrophobic to us now, we are left to imagine how the walls of civilization are closing in on the biosphere of other life forms with whom we share this blue and green planet. Other species who once had the luxury of space separate from human inquiry & exploitation.
Charismatic fauna like tigers, elephants and mountain goats have long felt the impact of human encroachment both territorially and as objects of cultural significance. Animals that are hunted not for meat but for what it means to have their hides or heads adorning our spaces. Others, like the pangolin are less famously centred in our awareness but are of increasing importance as the most heavily trafficked wild mammal across the world today.
Famously studied by Mary Douglas working with the Lele of Central Africa (circa 1964) pangolins are described as a scaly anteater with the body and tail of a fish yet with four legs used to climb in trees. Pangolins (Manis tricuspis) do not fear people and reproduce like us, usually having only one live child at a time. These anomalies suggested to the Lele a special link between humans and animals – a creature that could spiritually mediate between the two. Killing a pangolin, they said, brings animals to hunters and babies to women - both of which were highly desired.
For all the curiosity of pangolins, neither their threatened status nor their presumed medicinal qualities are unique - many animals perform a similar role as anomalous creatures believed to bridge the worlds of spiritual and secular. Many believe we can incorporate the special qualities of an animal in a number of ways but most usually by hunting and eating. All the science in the world can prove otherwise, that pangolin meat has no liver enhancing qualities, for example – yet humans persist in making the animal a way to think about or gain favour for ourselves within the cosmosphere.
Origins of the current pandemic are not settled, but certainly viral diseases have long leaped from animals to human. Spanish flu was an HIN1 virus from presumed avian source, AIDS resided in primates and seems to have jumped to humans via consuming monkeys or apes. Our modest pangolin may have been an intermediate host for bat to human transmission of Coronavirus. In fact 60% of infectious diseases that affect us are zoonotic, having originated in animals. More than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife.
Many of us are anxious to get back to normal after the lockdown lifts but what version of ‘normal’? Can we develop a more harmonious relationship with the natural world? Admire animals not for the way they help us think about us – but for what they intrinsically are? Can we set aside tracts of land for them, lands like Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) where we tread lightly, sacrificing some of our freedom for their very survivability? Can we begin to think of our relationships on earth not only in terms of sustainability but 'abundability' as Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge carrier Joe Martin relates. 
Cohen has passed on to whatever lies beyond, but his songs remain for us to ponder and enjoy. Like animals in traditional Lele cosmology, his music is good to think with. Like animals worldwide, life is not only analogies and poetry, but the reality of a warm beating heart – good to think and good to respect.
1. Douglas, Mary
2003 Routledge (original 1975)
2. Robbins, Jim
The Ecology of Disease
14 July 14 2012
New York Times Article Link.
3. Gilpin, Emillee
COVID-19 not the first pandemic Indigenous Peoples have quarantined from
2 April 2020
National Observor Link.
Coronavirus: China’s farmers offered buy-out to grow plants instead of breeding wild species in clampdown.
COVID-19, Brought to You by Globalization.
Don't blame the bats for the Coronavirus | Dr. Jane Goodall | SVT/TV 2/Skavlan.
'Tip of the iceberg': is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?
Zoonotic transfer study fuels call for ban of wildlife trade, markets and medicinal use.