The Ethics Behind What We Eat: Environmental and Ethical Impacts of the Meat Industry and Possible Solutions

Humans have been consuming the meat of other animals since the beginning of time. Now millions of years later, the process we apply to the production of meat has changed drastically from just killing game and cooking it over a fire. The practice of meat production is different in every country, but no matter where in the world, the process has severe environmental impacts including climate change, overuse of water resources, and deforestation just to name a few. As these become even more pressing issues, changes must be made. Scientists have determined that the meat industry is one of the biggest factors in causing this detriment to our planet.
Two of the most popular ways livestock are raised are by grazing and factory farming, both of which are not entirely ethical nor sustainable. Since these practices are not sufficient in their current form, it’s up to us to change them. Some of the possible solutions I will discuss in my paper are a global switch to a vegan diet, the implementation of a rotational grazing method in place of the traditional grazing method, and the possibility of marketing meat grown in a lab rather than coming from a physical animal. There are many obstacles to overcome when deciding which of these solutions would be most feasible, and in what capacity. The question at hand is: where do we impose restrictions on meat production, especially in countries where it’s a nutritional staple? How do we abide by the values of autonomy and fairness while continuing to support the industry where it is a major part of the social and economic landscape? As humans living in a world that is constantly deteriorating because of our eating habits, we must make the choice of whether we value the status of the environment, or our comfort and convenience.


Introduction

When you go to the grocery store or to a restaurant, there is always meat available. It’s a staple in most households on the breakfast and dinner tables, in school lunchboxes, and all over the menu at any restaurant. Meat is something that people all over the world are rather obsessed with because of its protein content, and its taste. This obsession comes at a high price though, as the meat industry is one of the main contributors to global climate change, which is limiting our time on Earth.

It is widely known that the meat industry is very expansive. It’s estimated that the industry employs about 1.3 billion people worldwide, and produces roughly 285 million tons of meat each year. (Time) In recent years as climate change has become more of a pressing issue, scientists have searched for the source of these problems. One of the largest contributing sources they found were the production practices of the meat industry. Now that we know that this industry is having detrimental effects on our environment, what do we do about it?

In this paper I’ll begin by briefly exploring the environmental and ethical implications of the two most popular meat production methods: grazing and factory farming. You will quickly see that both of these methods are not entirely sustainable nor ethically sound. Therefore, it is essential to find possible solutions to these growing problems in order to try and reverse the detriment we have done to the environment before the changes become irreversible. The solutions I will further explore in this paper include the implementation of an altered grazing system referred to as rotational grazing, a large-scale switch to a vegan diet, and the possibility of mass-producing meat that is grown in a lab rather than from an animal. The question at hand is, which solution is most plausible for our world? Which solution is most ethical and environmentally friendly? I will consider the values of fairness, responsibility, and safety in order to determine an answer to these questions.  

Current Practices and Implications

As mentioned before, the meat industry is quite far reaching, employing around 1.3 billion people worldwide. The reason the meat industry is so popular is because meat is an excellent source of protein. It often comes at a higher price than fresh produce, but keeps the human body sustained for a longer period of time due to its protein content. Protein can be obtained from plant sources as well, but many people have the mentality that meat is the primary and “best” source of protein to keep the body functioning. (The Globe and Mail) Australia consumes the largest amount of meat each year, with the United States as a close second behind them. (World Atlas) The reason meat such a popular part of the human diet is because of our culture, our psychology, the way our minds work, and the advertising of the meat industry. Scientists have determined that because of our genetics, if about fifteen percent of our diet doesn’t come from protein, we begin to crave it. Though we could obtain this protein from plant sources, many people still see meat as the only true source of sustainable protein, and this is a myth, but people are so set in their beliefs that it can be difficult to convince them of the opposite. This is also how our meat consumption is influenced by our cultural background, when we grow up with a certain mentality that meat is good, and we’ve learned this sentiment from our parents, we continue to believe this and pass this on to other people and to future generations. Another reason that we are so attached to meat is because the industry spends insanely large amounts of money each year sponsoring research and advertising their product. Meat is truly all around us, which is why people are so obsessed with it. We also still consume meat because our hominid ancestors who lived thousands of years ago saw a correlation between meat and masculinity, power, and wealth. The reason that this correlation existed was because it was difficult to hunt livestock, so if someone was able to do so, they were praised for this accomplishment. Today there is still a mentality that sees meat as masculine and powerful, and vegetarians or vegans as weak or cowardly. (The Globe and Mail) Meat has always been a part of the human diet, so over time as the global population has grown, the consumption of this product has grown with it, as more and more people are in need of a protein source that has the ability to keep them full and also provide them with other necessary vitamins. The current practices of the meat industry are a large contributor to the excess amount of greenhouse gases that are present in our atmosphere. While greenhouse gases are necessary for us to live, having extreme levels of them is harmful to humans, to animals, and to the planet.

Greenhouse gases are gases that absorb and emit radiant energy within the thermal infrared range. They are naturally occurring and are necessary to regulate Earth’s temperature. Some common greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The presence of greenhouse gases ultimately causes the greenhouse effect, which is a phenomenon in which the sun’s light warms Earth’s surface to a temperature much higher than it would be if the atmosphere that protects the planet did not exist. While greenhouse gases are essential for our survival, human activity has caused an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases present in our atmosphere. More greenhouse gases means a more intense greenhouse effect. As the greenhouse effect intensifies, the surface of our Earth becomes gradually warmer, and this phenomenon is known as climate change. This is different from routine warming of Earth’s surface because human activity has sped up the process, making the change in climate harmful to our health and to the Earth’s health. Scientists have discovered that meat production is one of the human activities that has caused the greenhouse effect, and subsequently climate change, to be sped up. Both of the processes I will be further explaining, grazing and factory farming, emit excess amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in different ways.

Grazing is popular in many economically underdeveloped countries, as well as in areas that do not produce meat on a large scale for giant corporations such as Tyson or Perdue. Farmers who operate grazing farms tend to sell their product locally. On grazing farms, livestock are fed only grass. They consume the grass directly from the land on which they roam and this is where they obtain all of their nutrients from. The sizes of these patches of land can vary depending on how much money the farmer has and how many animals the farmer owns, which determines how much space is necessary on the farm. Since the grass is the only food the animals are consuming, they often need to consume it in excess in order to feel full and sustained. While when animals are fed grain, it usually contains additives that might allow the animal to consume less, but still feel full. More food consumption can equate to more flatulence and belching, both of which emit excess amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

In the grazing system, livestock are given a large plot of land to live on and feed off of. This means that these livestock receive all of their nutrients from the grass they live on. Research done at Oxford University has determined that grass-fed meat, while consumers may believe they are purchasing a more sustainable product, still contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based food (The Guardian). This is because livestock, specifically cows, emit methane, a greenhouse gas, through their flatulence and belching. This is an especially large issue because beef is the most popular kind of meat among consumers in most countries. Cows raised by this system may need to consume up to 10 times as much feed, in this case grass, in order to feel full and sustained to the same caliber as an animal raised on grain on a factory farm (Time). This means that consuming more grass equates to more flatulence and belching, which of course means more methane emissions that can harm our atmosphere and speed up the climate change process.

The other system that is most widely used around the globe is factory farming. Factory farming is a practice that is more popular in economically developed countries such as the United States. The ideology of the process is maximum production at minimal cost. On factory farms, animals are often put into cramped quarters, therefore not enabling them to move around as livestock do on grazing farms. When animals are raised on factory farms, sometimes their bodies do not function properly because they are not given ample space to move around. In this system animals are fed corn or grain that is purchased in bulk by the farmer. Sometimes the feed is engineered to contain antibiotics, nutrients and vitamins to help keep the animals healthy as disease can spread quickly on factory farms since the animals are kept so close together. (Time) The amount of antibiotics added to the animals’ food is relatively low, and there is no evidence that the presence of these antibiotics is harmful to humans’ health. However, if these antibiotics are overused, they can increase resistant bacteria. This makes the antibiotics less effective at killing harmful bacteria. Resistant bacteria can spread to humans through undercooked meat or by consuming food that was sprayed with fertilizer that contained excessive amounts of antibiotics. If the resistant bacteria does spread to humans, it can cause infections or increased severity of infections. Approximately two million people in the United States are affected by resistant bacteria each year. This either causes their preexisting infections to worsen, or for them to contract new infections that could possibly be life threatening in extreme cases. (Healthline)

People have had a very difficult time determining which system is better for the environment and for the consumer; grain-fed or grass-fed? The many studies and reports that have been published have had opposing conclusions. Judith Capper, a researcher from Washington State University, concluded that grain-fed beef is better for the environment on the grounds that it takes less time, uses less land, produces less methane, and requires less water. On the contrary, the Environmental Workings Group has concluded the opposite, determining that grass-fed beef is better because Capper wrongly accounted for water use in the grass-fed system, and that grass-fed meat is better for the humans that consume it, it is also healthier for the livestock to consume grass because that is what they are engineered to consume, grain is not natural for their bodies. (OPB)

Livestock raised on factory farms of course have the same bodily processes as those raised by grazing, so flatulence and belching are still an issue. In the case of factory farms, there are usually more livestock than there are on grazing farms, usually because farmers who implement this system are trying to meet a higher demand from consumers. Animals on these farms are fed grain, however, they do not have to consume as much in order to feel full because the grain provides more nutrients. Emissions are still an issue though, more animals on these farms means more flatulence and more belching, so more methane emissions, and an even larger impact on climate change than grass-fed livestock.

As mentioned before, disease is common among animals in this system because they are kept in close quarters. In order to prevent the spread of disease, farmers often feed their livestock grain that is genetically engineered to contain antibiotics. The antibiotics are passed through an animal’s digestive system, and when they are released back into the air, they can pollute our air as well as bodies of water. This is an issue because it contaminates our environment and can lead to climate change when pH levels in water are drastically changed. Another ethical issue that this system raises is whether or not it is fair to the livestock since they are kept very close to each other. They are not given ample room to roam, and this oftentimes results in the livestock not developing properly. In the long run this is not a huge issue because the animals will be slaughtered for meat, but in the time they are alive, this practice can be seen as unfair.

Possible Solutions

Switching to a Vegan Diet

Veganism refers to a diet that excludes all animal products and byproducts, including meat, dairy, and eggs. People who follow this diet also tend not to consume processed foods that contain animal byproducts, such as marshmallows or candies that contain pork gelatin. Meat, dairy, and eggs are very widely consumed around the globe. For most people, switching to a vegan diet would constitute a huge lifestyle change that many people are just not ready to make.

Oxford University researchers found that if everyone around the world stopped eating these products, global farmland space could be reduced by about 75 percent (The Independent). This shows a huge discrepancy in the amount of space used for animals products versus plant-based products. If the entire population were to switch to a vegan diet though, we would still need to be fed. More farmland would need to be devoted to growing plant-based foods in order to feed the population. Greenhouse gas emissions would definitely be reduced, but of course there is no way for them to completely go away as long as there are humans on Earth who need to be fed.

A very important stakeholder to consider in the conversation of veganism is the consumer. As mentioned before, a vegan diet can be expensive to sustain because meat alternatives are costly since they are produced in smaller quantities (because the market for these products is smaller). It is commonly thought that meat is more expensive than produce. However, meat grown through factory farming, like the processed meat sold by big corporations like Tyson, Perdue, and others, is usually cheaper than vegan meat alternatives such as veggie burgers, tofu, and others, which are produced in smaller quantities since these companies are catering to a smaller market. Consumers have to determine what makes the most sense for them financially but also personally, because a lot of times people choose to continue eating meat because the rest of their family does, or vice versa.

When deciding if this solution is feasible, I looked to the value of fairness. Creating change on a global level can be very difficult, especially because people all over the planet come from very different cultural, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds that must be taken into consideration. Varying upbringings and cultural backgrounds create divides in society because people think differently. Some people grow up being fed meat constantly, while others are told to avoid it due to religious beliefs. It is near impossible to convince the entire population of any one thing because of peoples’ preconceived notions about any topic, especially what they eat, because people are fed information from all different sources that they become set in what they’ve read or seen on television. Comparisons of meat products to plant-based products have shown that a vegan diet is more expensive to sustain if the consumer purchases pre-made foods such as veggie burgers or other frozen vegan foods. However, if the consumer purchases separate ingredients and makes a meal themselves, the cost goes down, as vegetarian and vegan staples such as pasta, rice, tofu, and beans are cheaper to purchase than meat. (PETA) If the entire world were forced to stop consuming meat, how would people with less money get the nutrients they need to survive? As for cultural and religious considerations, many people choose their diets based off of norms in the societies they live in, it would be unfair for them to have to change their diet if it was based in their culture or religion, which are very important to people and should always be respected. This possible solution also brings about the value of autonomy because every person has a right to choose their own diet. They should be given all the facts about how their food consumption affects the environment, and should make an informed decision. But ultimately at the end of the day, each person gets to choose for themself whether they choose their dietary choice or the health of the environment. At the same time though, we remember the harmful effects our meat consumption has on the environment. As mentioned before, global farmland space would be greatly reduced if we all switched to a vegan diet, meaning that greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced. Researchers at Oxford University set the economic value of the emissions savings around 440 billion British pounds, which is roughly $575 billion US dollars. (BBC Good Food)

Rotational Grazing

Also known as cell grazing, this grazing system operates by moving livestock around among different plots, usually called paddocks, on a regular basis or as needed. As mentioned before, in a traditional grazing system, animals consume all of the grass on the land they live on. In this system, since the animals are regularly moved to different plots, the grass is given ample time to regrow and regenerate nutrients.

Most of the environmental implications of this system would be considered benefits. This system can help with soil compaction and fertility, help with reseeding because the animals feet or hooves help drive seeds back into the ground. (Premier 1 Supplies) However, this is still a grazing system in which the animals only obtain nutrients from the grass. Though the grass may be more nutritious than in a traditional factory farming system, animals likely still have to consume more than those raised on grain in order to feel full and yield the same nutritious meat and byproducts.

With this possible solution, I looked to the value of responsibility  to guide my ultimate decision. The implementation of this system comes with a lot of responsibility on the farmer’s end, because it requires much more work than a traditional grazing system, farmers may not want to take on such a task if they do not think they are capable of sustaining this system properly. Farmers also may not want to pay extra money to implement this system, because it often requires them to purchase electric fence systems to train animals to stay in the correct plot at a given time. To get all farmers in a certain community to switch to this grazing system, local government may need to get involved to loan money or supplies to farmers who are currently unable to make the switch to this system.

Nonetheless, this system helps the environment because it keeps the grass healthier than on a traditional grazing farm. And many people do believe that grass-fed meat is healthier for the consumer and for the animal. Greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to be reduced because the grass is healthier since the animals are rotated among different plots. When the grass is healthier and possesses all of the necessary nutrients, the livestock do not have to consume as much in order to feel full and sustained. In conclusion this system could potentially be a viable solution to the problem as it could possibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and would also keep large areas of grass in much healthier condition. However, we are unsure if a more widespread implementation of this strategy (because it does already exist on certain farms) would have a lasting positive impact on the environment, because livestock will always emit methane through flatulence and belching as previously mentioned.

Lab-Grown Meat

Growing meat in labs is a fairly new technology. In recent years, scientists have begun trying to grow meat in laboratories from animal cells without ever having come from a physical animal; only the meat is produced. The technology involves using tissue engineering techniques borrowed from regenerative medicine practices. The technology has worked, but is still in the process of being perfected. Some of the newer meat alternatives on the market include the Impossible Burger, and Beyond Meat. The Impossible Burger is made from soy, wheat, corn, and other common crops. The company prides itself on making it’s products not only more environmentally friendly, but also taste like meat, “beefiness”, they call it. This comes from heme, which is a molecule present in most living things, specifically animals, that makes meat taste the way it does.

Studies done by Impossible Burger show drastic differences in the amount of resources needed to create their product versus a traditional burger made of ground beef. The production of this burger reduces aquatic eutrophication potential (water pollution), global warming potential, land occupation, and water consumption. (Impossible Burger ELCA Study) The main objection their product raises though, is whether or not it is truly safe. Heme, the molecule previously mentioned, is found naturally in the roots of soy plants via the protein myoglobin. Digging up these roots is a very expensive and destructive process. Impossible Burger has found a way to engineer a protein that is genetically similar to myoglobin, called leghemoglobin. This is why the product is referred to as “lab-grown meat” even though most of its ingredients are natural. Since there is genetic engineering involved in the process, and this is a fairly new technology, we are unable to determine the long term impact that consumption of the protein leghemoglobin has on human health. (Medium)

The biggest environmental implication of this solution would be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Consuming lab-grown meat would specifically reduce the number of methane emissions, because those come from the bodily processes of cows, and cows are not even involved in this process except for their cells. However, researchers at the Oxford Martin School have found that methane is not the problem because it only stays in our atmosphere for about twelve years, while carbon dioxide can exist for multiple millenia. (BBC) Carbon dioxide would still be a problem because energy usage in labs emit this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

To guide my decision on this solution I considered the value of safety. This process is very new and is still developing, it may not be ethical to bring these products to consumers if we are unsure of how they will affect their health. Especially because these meats often contain growth hormones, which may harm the human body. We also have to consider the safety of the environment since we are aware that carbon dioxide may have even worse effects on the environment than methane does, and methane is the greenhouse gas directly addressed with this solution. As we are considering the safety of the environment, we have to address whether or not it is ethical to solve one problem by creating another. The Impossible Burger for example, solves some of our problems relating to water consumption and global warming potential, but could potentially create problems with our soil, since it is being destroyed so that the roots of soy plants may be harvested. Another value to consider is autonomy. Since this is a newer product with a small consumer base, and because genetically engineering proteins can require a lot of money, the price of these products may not make them accessible to all customers. It is important to keep in mind that for this reason, this solution may not be a possibility everywhere, depending on the amount of money the consumers in a given area are used to spending on food.

My Perspective

From this paper, I’m sure it is clear that the meat industry has a lot of issues associated with it. In my opinion, I don’t think change is possible on a global scale if we want to respect the cultures, religions, and socioeconomic statuses of people all over the globe. Instead, I feel that local change may inspire a more global movement. Since there are pros and cons to each possible solution, I think smaller communities such as cities and towns should implement what feels the most feasible for them. If a community wanted to test out whether lab-grown meat could be sold in their town and reduce meat consumption, companies like Impossible Burger could offer supermarkets a small sample size of their product, and send an employee to explain to citizens exactly what is in their product, and then consumers can determine whether or not they would purchase it. To implement the rotational grazing system in communities, local governments could provide loans of materials or money to farmers so that they’d be able to sustain the system. Once their output has increased they would be able to pay back the loan. As for the switch to a vegan diet, there isn’t necessarily a best way to make this change since it really depends on every person as an individual. The best way to promote this switch is for people to know that even just one person switching to this diet has an impact, and this impact becomes greater as more people switch as well of course. As I further my research I’m sure I will come across other various solutions that may be more or less possible on a global level, but I do have hope that different countries and communities will begin to take necessary measures in order to change this industry in a way that works for them specifically.

As I continue my research and scientists also continue their research, I hope that the true environmental impact of these possible solutions can be determined so that consumers can make a more informed decision regarding which solution would fit the best in their life, but is also environmentally friendly and also ethical.

By Priya Gulati

Works Cited

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