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Does a New U.N. Study Show that Eating Meat Can be Eco-Friendly?

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Any conscious consumer knows that meat is not exactly eco-friendly, especially on an industrial agricultural scale in the form of factory farms. These farms often pollute the surrounding land and water and release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But, what if there was a way to reduce the impact of such farms?

A new study from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has discovered that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock can be cut by up to 30 percent through the use of better agricultural practices and technologies. So, does this mean meat can be eco-friendly? Well, let’s find out a bit more.

The FAO’s last report on livestock from 2006 discovered that farms with chickens, pigs and cows used for meat and dairy products produced 18 percent of global greenhouse (GHG) emissions, reports The Guardian.

According to FAO’s newest report (just released yesterday), greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from livestock add up to 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year, an equivalent of 14.5 percent of all human-caused GHG emissions–a slight reduction from 2006. Most of these emissions stem from feed production and processing (45 percent of the total), GHG emitted during cow digestion (39 percent) and manure decomposition (10 percent) while the rest come from the actual processing and transport of meat.

Beef and milk are responsible for the bulk of these emissions, contributing 41 percent and 20 percent respectively to the livestock sector’s overall GHG emissions, reports the FAO in their “Key Facts and Findings.”

None of this sounds eco-friendly, and it certainly isn’t. But the report continues, revealing how these emissions can be reduced through the use of more efficient practices and new technologies like biogas generators and energy-saving devices.

“These new findings show that the potential to improve the sector’s environmental performance is significant – and that realizing that potential is indeed do-able,” said Ren Wang, FAO Assistant Director-General for Agriculture and Consumer Protection. “These efficiency gains can be achieved by improving practices, and don’t necessitate changing production systems. But we need political will, better policies and most importantly, joint action.”

Political will and cooperation among industry leaders is definitely needed (and needed fast) to reduce emissions from industrialized farms and well, all industries across the board.

While it would be fantastic to see emissions significantly reduced, this improvement doesn’t mean meat will automatically become a “green” commodity. For one, the ways to reduce GHG emissions that the FAO lays out are realistically unachievable for years since, as was just mentioned, policies in both the public and private sectors would need to be enacted—a process that already takes forever for agricultural issues.

Furthermore, billions of animals are killed each year for meat—a number which is not environmentally sustainable in any way. Also, since meat production requires significant amounts of land to house these animals (who are often kept in deplorable conditions, despite the large acres allotted for farms), essential lands necessary for biodiversity are lost.

“Around 30% of global biodiversity loss can be attributed to livestock production, such as the spread of pasture land or turning over forests and savannahs…to feed production,” said Duncan Williamson, corporate stewardship manager at World Wildlife Fund-UK in response to the FAO study (via The Guardian).

So can meat be green? Well, not right now or in the foreseeable future, it seems. But, we shouldn’t completely disregard the FAO’s study. We should use it to back-up our insistence that both our government and our businesses adopt ways to reduce GHG emissions and become more sustainable overall.

Image source: Nick Saltmarsh / Flickr

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