Is our beef consumption destroying the planet? Should we be eating free range or commercially farmed? And what's the most 'sustainable' meat option, anyway? Turning his attention to the livestock industry, journalist Michael Mosley investigates these issues and more.
5 Jun 2015 - 5:00 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2016 - 4:38 PM

1. Holy cow!

One hundred years ago there were 400 million cows on earth. Today there are 1.5 billion. What’s the big deal? Well, cows are ruminants, so their digestive systems contain microbes that produce a greenhouse gas known as methane. It’s 25 times more potent than carbon monoxide and has now poses a major threat to the global climate. To put it in perspective, the average cow has the same effect on global warming as a family car.


2. So beef is off the menu?

Intensive commercial farming might seem like the antithesis to ‘green’ beliefs, but surprisingly, and perhaps uncomfortably, this method of rearing cattle – which raises the animals in pens and feeds them a mix of corn, antibiotics and hormones – produces up to 40 per cent less greenhouse emissions per kilogram of meat than grass-fed cattle.


3. Who you calling chicken?

We eat five times more chicken than we did 50 years ago and, as a result, the farming industry has revolutionised since then. Modern ‘broiler’ chickens grow to double the size of their 1950s ancestors in half the time, piling on muscle, particularly around the breast. While this fast-paced breeding cycle has a bad reputation, it is actually more environmentally friendly than the free range alternative.


4. Meaty issues

One way to compare the environmental effect of livestock is to consider the amount of protein they need to eat to produce meat. As ruminants, cows are rather inefficient in their digestion, requiring approximately 450 grams of protein to produce 100 grams of meat. Sheep need 200 grams to generate the same amount, while pigs, a member of the omnivore family, require only 110 grams. Chickens are the most efficient species, needing only 75 grams of protein in their diet.


5. Worst offenders

America is the world’s most carnivorous country. On average, every American eats 120 kilograms of meat per year. In Britain, and most of Europe, the consumption rate sits at 80 kilograms per person, per year. While Europe and North America have hit a ‘meat peak’, with consumption levels evening off or declining, meat eating in the developing world is on the rise.


6. One to watch                                                                        

During the 1950s, the average Chinese person consumed 11 grams of meat per day – that’s around 4 kilograms per year. Now, consumption (mainly of chicken and pork) stands at 55 kilograms per person, which is alarming considering the population. The meat demand in China has increased by 70 million kilograms annually over the past 50 years.


7. Put the agree(able) back into agriculture

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, one-third of the earth’s land mass is occupied by animals we either eat or milk. That’s 70 per cent more land than a century ago and with meat production expected to double in the next few decades, there’s a very real possibility we could run out of space.


8. One size does not fit all

The success and sustainability of farming relies heavily on the landscape in which it sits. For the lush green plains of Britain and Ireland, well-managed grazing comes at a relatively low-level impact on the environment. In other areas, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, overgrazing has the potential to permanently degrade land, creating manmade deserts. The demand for cattle-rearing plains in South America has led to the deforestation of millions of hectares – culling wildlife and releasing huge quantities of emissions.


9. Carbon breakdown

Methane from rumen (cattle and sheep) adds the equivalent of 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. The manure produced by farmed animals equates to 700 million tonnes, carbon stores lost by chopping down forests and degrading habitats adds 700 million tonnes, and the growing of crops to feed animals contributes 2.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide each year.


10. How can we eat meat but not wreck the planet?

The more meat and dairy we eat, the greater the impact we’re having on the environment. If the world took an eco-friendly approach to farming – feeding cattle and sheep on naturally growing grass, pigs with food waste and all livestock with residues and by-products of other food products – we could produce 190 million tonnes of meat each year with small environmental impact. That equates to 40 kilograms of meat per person, per year – half of what we currently consume, and the equivalent of 100 grams of meat per day.