The Meat Industry

As our population continues to grow, the question arises on whether or not we can supply everyone enough meat and dairy to consume. And the larger our meat industry grows to accommodate this, what kind of impact does that make on the enviroment?


Our meat culture

Meat is a traditional food for many of us Pagans. The Sabbats are sometimes even bigger celebrations for us than the Christianized calendar holidays- complete with feasts and potlucks. Roast on Imbolc for Western European Pagans, chicken used on Diwali for Hindu Pagans, venison in Aztec Pagan rain festivals, pork on a Makahiki for Hawaiian Pagans, sheep as Svið for Heathens, and so on. Indeed, the meat is many times the center of all of our feasts for whatever Pagan occasion, as well as a staple throughout our cultural history.

But how much meat do we actually consume, be it for an occasion or not? That answer depends on lifestyle, culture, and availability of meat within that region. However, the average American consumes 216 pounds of land meat (beef, poultry, pork, and sheep) per year, and 92.5 pounds per year on a global average. This number continues to rise every year; synonymous with our growth. With all of this meat consumption, the animals obviously have to come from somewhere. As of 2018, there were 773 million pigs in the world, 19 billion chickens, 1.1 billion cows, and 1 billion sheep. And in 2013,  there were 6,278 federally inspected meat and poultry slaughtering and processing plants in the United States; America being the fourth largest beef exporter in the world.

Environmental impact

When considering the environmental impact of the meat industry, it comes down to two sources: land and gas emissions. Land is not just for the animal to physically be on, but also the space for feed or fodder to grow on, as well as a space for manure and its share of water. For cattle, it takes 2 acres to supply a single cow mostly its fodder, but also its space and water supply. For pigs, it's much less: one acre per 25 pigs and for chickens, one acre per 80 chickens. Right now, one-third of Earth's arable land is used for livestock feed crop cultivation; half of the world's habitable land is devoted to agriculture. Because so much space is threatened to provide food for these animals, we have to begin "creating" space- 80% of Brazil's Amazon rain forest is deforested for cattle and feed crop cultivation, and one-third of the world's forests. And in the United States, livestock is responsible for 55% of unusable soil erosion and 37% of applied pesticides. 95% of our oat production and 80% of our corn goes to livestock. It also takes a lot of water. One-third of global freshwater goes to livestock (50% is used by humans). It takes 1,799 gallons of water for just a single pound of beef, 576 for one pound of pork, and 53 gallons of water for a single chicken egg (that's 636 gallons for a dozen eggs at the grocery store). For comparison, it takes 302 gallons of water to produce one pound of tofu.

For gas emissions, some of these factories release carbon dioxide; true, but methane is the real problem with meat and dairy production. Methane is 30 times more heat-trapping for our atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and methane is released from livestock waste. Livestock is responsible for contributing to 18% of total global gas emissions.

sustainable livestock

The current trending belief on remedying the problems associated with the meat and dairy industry is purchasing meat and dairy that is organic, grass-fed and free-range. On the surface, it appears as a win-win: animals are happier in life and we can rotate crops for grazing on grass pastures. Guilt-free filet mignon. Unfortunately, the reality is not all that different. Grass-fed livestock still release the same amount of methane unless well-managed carbon sequestration is performed during grazing with better vegetation. However, the estimates it saves is never agreeable and grain-fed cows release less methane anyway. Also, free-range means the animals exert more energy and so they require more feed and water which means more land and forests are threatened, because the crops for livestock are unfortunately not of the same quality as human food. And 26% of Earth's terrestrial land is used for livestock grazing on pastures. Though the organic quality of the meat is better as it does not contribute to pesticides, but it does prevent antibiotics to be given to animals that are wounded.

So, the consensus is that the best way to lower the carbon footprint when choosing your meat or dairy is to simply eat less of it and not where the animals come from or their diet. So, perhaps saving the venison or pork for a Sabbat or a special occasion rather than every day.