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The environmental impact and ethics of beef production and what we can do about it

November 12, 2010
Did you know that producing 1 Kg (2.2lb) of beef releases as much carbon dioxide as driving a car for three hours? Global demand for beef has exploded in recent years and huge, confined animal feeding operations have proliferated around the world. These consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains. Eating meat is indeed much less energy-efficient than having a vegetarian diet, as about two to five times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through livestock as through direct grain consumption. As a result, livestock production is now estimated to generate nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 30% of ice-free land around the world is now directly or indirectly linked to meat production, which is also responsible for large-scale deforestation. In addition to its environmental impact, intensive cattle farming often means poor welfare conditions for the animals, who live stressful lives in very crowded space and are fed exclusively on grains and supplemented feeds to enable cheap, year round meat production and quick fattening. Now what can we do about all this? If, like me, you cannot consider becoming a complete vegetarian, there are still various ways you can adjust your consumption to be more environmentally friendly and encourage the respect of animal welfare:
1. Eat less meat. There are plenty of other sources of proteins to draw from, including pulses, eggs, fish and legumes.
2. Eat British meat. This means less energy spent in transportation and most likely better welfare standards, as UK beef production is less intensive than in the rest of Europe, with only 15 to 20% coming from intensively farmed cattle
3. Look for the Freedom Food label. This label was set up by RSPCA in 1994 and its welfare standards are far above the UK legal minimum requirements and other standard quality assurance schemes.
4. Favour grass-fed meat: animals are allowed to grow at a natural pace, live natural low stress lives, and are less susceptible to diseases, hence less likely to have received antibiotic treatment. As a bonus, the meat also has a more intense flavour and is leaner.
5. If you can fork the price, consider buying organic meat: the organic label means no routine drugs, growth promoters, GMO, animal offal or any other additives fed to animals; At least 70% of animal feed must he grown to organic standards; and no artificial fertilisers or pesticides can be used on feed crops or grass.

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