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The elephants in the room, or a direct way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

By Monika Merkes - posted Thursday, 27 January 2011

Since the recent floods in southeast Australia, there are many recommendations, opinions and discussions in the media on action we should take to avoid similar disasters. Global warming has been widely acknowledged to be responsible for more extreme weather, and while many worthy suggestions have been made, the elephants in the room are rarely mentioned. The elephants in the room are the pigs, cows, chickens and other farmed animals whose production results in more greenhouse gas emissions than all modes of transport combined – all cars, tractors, trucks, planes and ships in the world added together emit fewer greenhouse gases than livestock farming.

In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations published a report in which it outlined the many harmful contributions of the livestock sector. Apart from greenhouse gas emissions (reported to be 18% of all emissions, with transport accounting for 13%), the livestock industry is also a major source of land and water degradation, contributor to acid rain and the degeneration of coral reefs, and a driver of deforestation, particularly in Latin America where, for example, some 70% of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing. The 18% figure was revised in 2009 by two World Bank scientists and estimated to be a minimum of 51%. Whatever the exact figure, the contribution of livestock farming, in particular industrial livestock farming, to greenhouse gas emissions is enormous.

The FAO in its 2006 report warned that the environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening. However, this has not occurred and the demand for meat is growing. People in developed countries have not reduced their meat consumption and rising incomes, population growth, urbanisation and changing lifestyles have led to a shift in the diets of people living in developing countries. For example, traditionally carbohydrate-based Asian diets are becoming richer in fat and protein with rice consumption declining in southeast and east Asia since 1995, while meat consumption has more than doubled.


The harmful effect of industrial livestock farming has been known for some time, and various research programs are under way investigating how to reduce emissions from livestock for example yet there is little discussion or suggestion in the mainstream media that a reduction of our meat consumption would make a significant contribution to the health of the planet.

Why is this so? Eating meat is a big part of our culture and social life – but so was smoking tobacco some 20 years ago. There is also the myth that a healthy diet has to include meat. However, research shows that vegetarians tend to be healthier than meat eaters and have a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

While the price of meat in Australia is low compared to other countries, it does not reflect its true cost. Apart from its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, industrial livestock farming results in, for example, air and water pollution from manure, public health costs from overuse of antibiotics in livestock (antibiotic resistance in animal-associated pathogens is likely due to the overuse of antibiotics in factory farmed animals), and food-borne diseases in humans caused by the bacteria found on meat (such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli and Campylobacter).

Although the average citizen has little direct and immediate control over government policy changes aimed at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, there is something we all can do right now: reduce our consumption of meat and other factory farmed animal products.

What difference would even a small reduction of meat consumption make to the environment? Animals Australia suggested the following: if all Australians reduced meat intake by one day a week, the savings in greenhouse gas emissions would be the equivalent to the greenhouse gases emitted from seven million plane trips between Brisbane and Perth. No meat on two days per week would be the equivalent to replacing every single household appliance (fridges, freezers, microwaves, dishwashers, dryers, washing machines etc.) with energy efficient ones. A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home. Reducing meat consumption, especially red meat, is one of the most effective actions for individuals to reduce their greenhouse gas pollution.

Stopping the progress of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change requires action in many areas by individuals, industry and governments. Excessive meat consumption is a threat to the planet. We can’t continue to ignore the elephants in the room. Reducing meat consumption is a lifestyle change we’ll have to embrace. At government level, the introduction of policies such as carbon pricing would – I hope – adjust the price of meat closer to its true cost, leading us to food choices healthier for us and the planet.

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About the Author

Monika Merkes is a social researcher and policy consultant who has worked in state and local governments, the community sector and academia.

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