How diet impacts climate change and global social justice issues

There are things we do on a daily basis – sleeping, drinking and for sure eating are among those things. The average German, let’s call him Horst, on average eats 96 kg of vegetables, 55 kg of potatoes and 88 kg of meat each year. His diet influences not only his health and how much money he spends on groceries, it also affects the environment, social injustice and the climate. Here is why:

How our diet fuels crises: The fight about land…

To produce food, the first thing that comes to mind also for us hobby gardeners is that you need land. When you drive through the countryside, you can see endless fields where farmers grow their produce. About 11 % of the surface of the earth is used for agriculture – and with our ever-growing society more and more people need to be fed from this land. Therefore it is important that this resource is used efficiently to feed the growing population, which is spreading on this land.

Once we take a closer look on what is growing on the fields, a problem becomes apparent: Rarely do you see vegetables growing, instead it is often grains, corn or potatoes to feed farm animals. In the European Union, about 60 % of the grains produced are fed to animals [1]. Looking at the global use of agricultural land, about 80 % is used exclusively for production of animal food or as pasture!

The problem with this is the low efficiency of this land usage: From 100 calories of plants used to feed animals, only 17-30 calories can be gained again from the meat. Most of the energy of the plant is lost because animals, like humans, need a lot more energy to build up muscle which is then available for us as meat. If we directly eat the plants, all 100 calories can be used to feed us. This means that from the same square of land that is necessary to produce Horst’s 88 kg consumption of meat per year, 2-6 persons can be fed on a plant-based diet!

If we look at the data [2], the image is very clear: To produce 1000 kilo calories of beef, almost 74 times as much land is needed compared to the same energy from wheat:

The consequence of high consumption of meat in rich industrial countries is a worldwide scarcity of land. Animal feed is often imported from countries like Brazil producing them on cleared rain forest land or land from which indigenous peoples have been expelled. Land scarcity fuels conflicts in lands far away from the consumer, so that it is difficult to see this correlation.

… and water

The story of the water use of our diet is a very similar one: Most of the water used to produce meat is not the water an animal drinks during its lifetime. It is the water used to produce its feed. This leads to almost unbelievably high numbers when looking at how much water is used to produce a kilogram of meat or other animal products [3]:

The water use for production of animal products is much higher than those for wheat or rice. Looking at Horst’s meat consumption of 88 kg per year, this usually splits up to 41 kg of pork, 18 kg of poultry and 12 kg of beef. That results in an enormous water use of 455.000 liters per year from meat consumption only!

Living on the blue planet, water seems to be of abundant availability. During primary school they even taught us that the water circle recovers all used water, so why is the high water use a problem?

Well, in reality things are as always not that simple. Agriculture and its high water use pollutes groundwater – a big problem also here in Germany [4]. Water processing – to be able to reuse it – leads to high energy use which often is not produced environmentally-friendly. And the water cycle is global, not local: With production and export of e.g. animal feed, water gets lost from the ecosystem of areas where it is not regained. This causes water shortages locally. Climate change and pollution worsens the situation even further. The World Economic Forum therefore declared water scarcity to the biggest thread of the coming decade.

And what about the climate?

The bad eco footprint of meat is all over the media, but where does it come from? Well, it basically is what the low efficiency of meat production sums up to: To build up muscle, animals have to eat a lot of feed, which again is produced under greenhouse gas emissions. I grew up on a farm and remember well how often we would drive over the land to prepare it, seed the produce, remove weeds and harvest the crop. This sums up to quite some diesel use for farm machines, which ends up in the atmosphere as greenhouse gas.

In addition to this, beef produce their own greenhouse gases during digestion. This is one of the reasons (beside their slow muscle growth) as to why beef is especially bad in terms of climate efficiency. Looking at the sum of climate gases produced to make a kilogram of meat, this adds up to drastic numbers:

For the same amount of produced climate gas you can grow 1 kg of beef, 6 kg of pork or 14 kg of poultry – or even 113 kg of wheat.

Looking back at our average German Horst, this leads to an average of 440 kg of CO2 equivalent produced only for his meat consumption. The same amount is generated if he drives with his own car for 2300 kilometers, heats his 45 m² flat for half a year or powers a house with 5 rooms for the same amount of time.

We all have the power to change things

For me personally, climate change and the growing conflicts all over the world are good reasons to question my own behavior. Still, I am not a strict vegan. I am having trouble replacing all animal products with plant-based ones. But for me animal products have a high value: I know how hard a farmer’s life is, but also I know how little efficient the production of animal products is. And this is why I value them highly, whenever I tread myself to them.

Thread is the key word here. If we all respect animal products and meat again and know for their value, we can enjoy them in moderation. This is what my grandma back in the day knew and why she prepared the sunday roast as something very special each week. Nowadays, meat is produced on large-scale and seems to have lost all value. Even worse, this mass production was only possible under low animal welfare standards. Naturally, this causes the quality of the product to decrease as well.

Conscious consumption can change this: We have it in our hands every time we go out to buy groceries. If we eat less animal products and invest in higher standards, the animals, climate and we as consumers benefit of the higher quality of the product!

Do you eat animal products? What kind of plant substitutes do you like and what product do you find difficult to replace?


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