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To meat or not to meat

  • Published at 05:51 pm October 10th, 2018
What is the true cost of beef?
What is the true cost of beef? Photo BIGSTOCK

How eating your favourite burger every day could give rise to the next big flood

When you have a huge McDonald’s third pounder burger sitting right before you on the table with hunger rats running in your stomach, meat is definitely not bad.

But when you realize that, 30 years down the line, this single patty of meat could cost you the environment around you, the air you breathe in, the house you live in, and cause catastrophic damage to nature that your children will live to witness, this single piece of meat patty could mean a lot more to you.

Whenever conversations about mitigation arise, the majority of experts inevitably start buzzing about “fossil fuels” and “dirty energy.” While this is an important issue to put our heads on, let’s not forget about the silent, passive inputs to global warming that each of us is responsible for in some way. 

And it’s something very simple -- meat.

To put things in perspective, 18% of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions were linked to worldwide livestock farming and mass production of meat, which also entails eating up land that could be used for crops. It also involves wasting water, causing deforestation, and having a multitude of other harmful effects on the environment. 

In contrast, emissions from cars, trains, planes, and boats worldwide combined accounted for only 13%.

Even with drastic emissions reductions across non-agricultural sectors (which is quite difficult to be achieved by itself), global mean temperature rise to 2C will be impossible to avoid with the current trend of global meat and dairy consumption. 

Measures to immediately reduce the intake of ruminant meat, or meat of animals that produce the greenhouse gas methane (eg, beef and lamb) are imperative, but visibly absent in climate change negotiations for mitigation. 

Experts claim that it’s possible to reduce food-related GHG emission by almost 29% by 2050 only if everyone consumed a sustainable diet. And sustainable diet by no means implies a vegetarian diet, as most of us assume it to be. 

It simply means the adoption of a lifestyle or food habit where at least half of your food intake will comprise of simple food, ie vegetable, fruits, fish, etc. If this doesn’t make sense, fathom this -- we could collectively save $730 billion in health care just by reducing the amount of red meat we eat. 

Experts suggest that the GHG from human activities must be kept at or below 21.3Gt of carbon dioxide equivalents per year by 2050 to have at least a 66% chance of keeping the global rise in temperature to below 2C.   

Americans ate an average of 54kg of meat in 2009, compared to an average of only 2kg in Bangladesh. Argentina and Australia are big consumers, especially of beef, with respectively 55kg and 34kg per person each year. 

Though Bangladesh has one of the lowest per capita meat consumption in the world, the country has traditionally been a meat-eating and meat-loving country, with more than 2 million cows smuggled from India to Bangladesh, and more than 3.5 million sacrificed per year during Eid-ul-Azha, giving rise to a $1 billion industry that has been booming over the last four decades. 

That’s a striking contrast to the fact that only 2kg of meat is consumed per person here, according to data published by FAO in 2009.

What can be cited as an effect of the gaping income disparity in the country -- only 5% of the population (living in the five major cities) consumes more than 80% of the meat. 

While experts in the developed world are contemplating proposing an imposition of added taxes to “red meat” and adopting advanced marketing techniques to manipulate consumers’ attitude towards vegetables, in Bangladesh, we still have a long way to go to ensure access to healthy, balanced diet for all the people. 

In addition to ensuring even distribution of healthy protein to the people living outside the cities and below poverty level, it’s imperative to ensure the intake of unhealthy and complex red meat per person is reduced to a healthy level as well.

Restricting the number or proportion of beef-based items in a restaurant’s menu or limiting the number of burger franchises in a certain area could be effective measures to begin with.

Armin Zaman Khan is a social entrepreneur and a freelance climate change writer based in Dhaka. She is currently leading a beauty-tech platform named Romoni.xyz and works with ICT4D projects as a consultant.