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The Unsustainability of the Meat Industry: A Scientific Perspective

Introduction:

The meat industry is characterized by unsustainable practices and the unethical treatment of animals. All aspects of the meat production process, including the clearing of fields for factory farming, feed sourcing for thousands of animals, and waste and manure management, are environmentally damaging (Clean Water Action). Additionally, the fields created for the sole purpose of providing resources to meat farms create toxic fertilizer and chemical runoff that pollutes water supplies.

Factory farms focus on intensive animal farming, with the goal of producing the largest amount of meat at the lowest possible cost. Thus, animals in such farms live in horrific conditions and are treated with cruelty and indifference (Healy).

Despite these factors, the demand for meat and meat products is only rising. A recent estimate reported that over 300 million tons of meat are produced each year (Ritchie and Roser). Currently, the solutions available are extremely expensive and unsustainable in the long term.



The Meat Industry’s Perspective

Meat industry officials often go on the offensive during discussions of the meat industry’s connection to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (Jacquet). The current system is extremely cost-effective, and most meat industry employees have one goal: to maximize profits and minimize expenditures. The simplest way for meat industry officials to meet quotas and please investors is to continue with their current practices.

However, this business model has become unsustainable in the long term; these companies must consider public opinion. Consumers are becoming more eco-conscious (Latham 2021). Many people are cutting down their meat intake or becoming vegetarian. Thus, many meat corporations have begun prioritizing a reduction of water and electricity use, and in greenhouse gas emissions (JBS Foods). Even so, their idea of progress contrasts starkly with the reforms proposed by environmental activists, who believe that the meat industry’s power has allowed it to shirk the blame for environmental damage it rightfully deserves (Elgin). Meat industry officials countered this by stating that other industries should equally share the blame for methane emissions and by turning a blind eye to methane emissions (Baker). Many meat industry officials feel that activism should be directed towards the transportation industry, and have combated governmental programs that link meat production to climate change (Gustin). Their beliefs differ significantly from those of activists working towards significant reforms.


The Activists’ Perspective:

Environmentalists oppose the meat industry because of its high levels of methane emissions; methane is far more toxic to the environment than carbon dioxide, because it traps heat more easily (EPA). The meat industry is also a large contributor to deforestation, as feed consumed by cows, chickens, and pigs must be grown and sourced specially (WWF). Because of the rapidly increasing number of animals being raised for food, feed shortages have caused an increase in land clearing and the intentional burning of native prairie grasses to provide more space to grow feed. This worries and angers environmentalists (Plumer), who fear that the meat industry has enough power and funding to crush any opposition to its methods.

Similarly, animal activists are opposed to the meat industry because of its cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. Many activist groups, such as the Humane Society of the United States, have created campaigns with the goal of encouraging consumers to become vegetarian in protest of what they describe as the “suffering of billions of animals each year” in factory farms (Humane Society of the United States).

Some claims made by activist groups are unfounded, and governments worldwide have taken legal action against animal rights extremists (Understanding Animal Research). Meat industry officials believe these groups are radical threats to business and safety, and oppose them strongly. Consumers counter this opposition by noting that activists’ descriptions of cramped conditions and animal abuse are, unfortunately, often true (Harari). Some advocates for change even state that meat industry officials will save money in the long term by investing in sustainability (World Bank). It is important that any solution implemented by the meat production industry takes the claims of activists into account to ensure sustainability and the ethical treatment of animals.


Limitations of Current Solutions:

Current solutions to the emissions caused by the meat industry include direct air capture technology, bioenergy, and ‘clean meat’. Direct air capture technology involves the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air for storage underground (Budinis). However, it is extremely expensive- the higher end of the cost estimate is 600 dollars per tonne of CO2 removed from the atmosphere, which equates to trillions of dollars by 2025 in order to meet the goals of the Paris agreement (UNFCC), and more than that in subsequent years to fully offset CO2 emissions. Additionally, DAC only impacts CO2 emissions; in the meat industry, methane emissions are far more prevalent and dangerous (EPA).

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage involves the conversion of biological materials into fuel (McCarl). This technology is expensive, with some estimates placing it at $100-200 per ton (American University). Additionally, bioenergy could cause more environmental problems than it solves by negatively impacting (American University). Thus, it is not a feasible long term solution.

A widely publicized solution to unsustainable meat production is the manufacturing of ‘clean meat’, created by culturing animal cells. Challenges associated with clean meat are difficult to overcome. Consumers are not properly educated about clean meat, and are hesitant to consume anything that is “grown in a lab” (Pakseresht, Khaliji, and Canavari). Additionally, clean meat companies have had difficulties bringing their products to market due to protests from meat companies that believe clean meat should not be labeled as ‘meat’ in grocery stores (Balstad). If clean meat companies are unable to call their products meat, customers will be even more reluctant to consume them.


The Carnivore’s Perspective: Societal Pressures

People are inherently resistant to change, and countries in which people consume large amounts of meat will pose a particular challenge to sustainability initiatives. Americans, for example, consume 3 times as much meat annually as other citizens, and account for much of the global demand for meat (Johns Hopkins University). Some members of the American public fear that meat-based substitutes created in labs are unsafe, and that reforms will encroach upon their freedoms. Although scientists and activists have countered this statement by testing and proving the safety of clean meat and similar products, there is a general lack of education regarding the environmental impact of the meat industry and the viability of emerging solutions, which has made it difficult to sway public opinion. Additionally, some activists have taken an extreme approach, alienating much of the public, while meat officials have countered opposition by pivoting strategies and portraying their meat as ethically and sustainably sourced. These clashing perspectives have created confusion among consumers.


Recommendations: Where Do We Go From Here?

There are a number of cost-effective solutions that can curb the environmental impact of the meat industry. Zeolites are cheap materials derived from clay that can be used to convert methane into carbon dioxide (Chandler). Although it may seem counterintuitive to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, zeolites will result in a massive benefit for the environment, and could reduce atmospheric methane to pre-industrial levels (Chandler). This approach has the potential to remove 3.2 billion tons of methane from the atmosphere (Jackson, Solomon, and Canadell). It would eliminate one-sixth of all causes of global warming, vastly reducing the meat industry’s negative environmental impact (Chandler).

Reforestation campaigns and plant-based substitutes are cost-effective solutions. Investments in both clean meat production education campaigns are crucial as well; if the general public was convinced that paying a premium to consume clean meat would help the environment, that many would make the change. Legal resolutions focused on increasing the marketability of clean meat are also important. Lastly, government regulations regarding the ethical treatment of animals are necessary. Farm inspections for animal health and living conditions, along with required yearly transparency reports, will help ensure a healthy future for farm animals.




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