A big reason why some people go vegetarian or vegan is to reduce their environmental impact caused by eating meat. What about those who do not want to or are unable to stop consuming meat entirely? Does this mean that they have no choice but to contribute to environmental destruction?
Fortunately, it is possible to consume meat in a sustainable manner. Sustainable consumption is about reducing our personal impact on the environment not just to ensure that there are enough resources for our generation, but also so that future generations can enjoy having enough resources to meet their needs. In sustainable consumption, the goal is to minimize the resources that we consume and the waste that we produce. This can be achieved through various means, such as using renewable resources, recycling and conserving our usage of finite resources.
The dodo bird is often quoted as an example of how careless human interference caused a species to rapidly go extinct. Discovered in the 16th century on the island of Mauritius, the dodo went extinct around only a hundred years later. The bird was flightless and lived solely on the island, effectively hemming it in to its doom once it was faced with a world of new threats.
Three main reasons for the bird’s extinction were identified. Firstly, the sailors who arrived on the island frequently hunted the birds for their meat and eggs. Secondly, the animals brought by the sailors, namely rats, cats, pigs and dogs, were invasive and settled down on the island, reproducing in large numbers and hunting food for their own. A prime food source was the eggs of the dodo, which were laid on the ground and easy to find. Lastly, Mauritius was an important source of ebony wood. Humans later attempted to convert the island to an agricultural plant, destroying many native plants and replacing them with sugarcane plants. As such, much of the island’s natural habitat was destroyed, leaving the dodo defenseless against human and animal predators alike. Eventually, faced with these three threats and the added threat of natural disasters, the dodo went extinct by the mid-17th century.
The extinction of the dodo could have been prevented if humans had been more aware of their impact on the species. Instead of hunting the birds and scavenging their eggs without restraint, the people could have looked toward mixing in other food sources in an effort to conserve the dodo. They could also have brought some birds off the island and introduced them to other parts of the world, thus ensuring that the whole species would not be wiped out in one concentrated area. Additionally, the people could have been more diligent in conserving the natural wildlife of the island, trying not to introduce too many foreign animals and plant life to it.
Unfortunately, the dodo is not the only species that has suffered extinction at human hands. While the chickens, cows, fish and sheep the world consumes today may not be at the same risk of going extinct, we still pose a serious threat to the environment if we consume unsustainably.
Meat consumption is at an all-time high especially in developed countries, where people are wealthier and more able to afford meat. In the United States alone, more than nine billion farm animals are slaughtered each year for the meat industry.
Meat consumption takes up large amounts of water, much more than what is used to grow vegetables and fruits. When eating vegetables, we consume crops directly. However, when eating meat, we are effectively consuming an animal’s lifetime of crops in addition to its meat. Crops are grown to feed the animals, which then feed people. This leads to increased waste, water and land required for the whole farming process. Beef has the highest water usage of around 15,400 liters per kilogram of edible meat produced, while pork is at 6,000 liters per kilogram and chicken is at 4,300 liters per kilogram. As for crops, vegetables use only 300 liters per kilogram and fruits use 1,000 liters per kilogram.
Animals that eat grass, particularly cows and sheep, are also contributing to the greenhouse effect when they belch methane. Methane has about thirty times the effect of carbon dioxide on the environment. While cows and sheep in nature will still release methane, consuming them regularly only makes the effect worse as these animals will need to be bred in bulk to meet market demands.
It is not just cows and sheep that release methane, but also freshwater fish – although in a different way. Fish do not directly produce methane, but they are often reared in farms where fecal matter and unconsumed feed is left in the water, eventually sinking to the bottom and causing a drop in the oxygen levels. This creates a perfect environment for methane production, resulting in levels of methane almost equal to that of poultry and pork farms.
As for saltwater fish, commercial methods of catching them from the ocean are also posing a threat to the ecosystem. Many ocean-caught fish species are at risk of becoming endangered or extinct, including the Atlantic salmon, bluefin tuna, orange roughy, Atlantic halibut and all species of sharks. Many of these species are slow to grow and mature, owing to their long lifespans. They are often caught before they have had a chance to reproduce, resulting in overfishing and a dwindling number of fish left.
Additionally, the methods of fishing can endanger other species and damage the ocean floor. Fishes that commonly move in groups, such as the tuna, are often caught using long-lining methods, which can result in by-catches of other unintended targets. These may be endangered sharks, turtles and seabirds. The fishing method of trawling involves dragging a net across the ocean floor to catch low-dwelling fish, which can inadvertently damage sea corals and other benthic species as by-catches.
Going vegetarian or vegan is undeniably the most positive way to cut down on individual environmental effect. After all, consuming the most environmentally friendly meat still causes more damage than consuming the most environmentally unfriendly plant-based product. However, cutting out meat entirely may not be feasible for some people due to cultural, religious, health or personal reasons.
It is still possible to cut down on one’s individual consumption of meat products and opt for more environmentally friendly meat. Even going without meat on just one day each week can reduce an individual’s consumption by over 14 percent. When consuming meat, one can aim to cut down on their portion size and choose poultry over beef, mutton or pork due to its reduced resource use. Going for pasture-fed or grass-fed beef is also a step in the right direction, as these cows are free-grazing, provide natural fertilizer through their excrement, are less likely to be treated with antibiotics or chemicals and likely also experience less stress. On top of that, free-grazing livestock are less dependent on farmed crops for their feed, thus reducing the water, fertilizer, energy and land needed to grow additional crops.
There are also more sustainable fish sources. Look for fish farms that clean their ponds regularly and provide a healthy environment for the fishes. Many saltwater species are also reared in commercial farms, which are generally accepted as more sustainable sources of fish.
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