Rising Demand for Meat Takes Toll on Environment As global demand for meat products has increased in recent years, so has awareness of the environmental damage that the industry causes. Modern meat production uses enormous amounts of energy, pollutes water supplies and creates greenhouse gases.
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Rising Demand for Meat Takes Toll on Environment

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Rising Demand for Meat Takes Toll on Environment

Rising Demand for Meat Takes Toll on Environment

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Biofuels aimed at helping the environment may have made the food crisis worse, and the reverse could also be true: What we eat may be hurting the environment. Stanford University's Roz Naylor has researched the environmental impact of mass food production. She directs the program on food security and the environment there. Professor Naylor says eating meat is no way to be green.

Professor ROZ NAYLOR (Director, Program on Food Security and Environment, Stanford University): The biggest environmental impacts of eating meat are from growing the crops that feed the livestock. This is particularly true for pork and poultry and even feed-grown cattle at the end of the life cycle.

And there's a lot of nitrogen fertilizer used, so there's a lot of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide emitted in that process. There's water used in irrigating those crops. And then, of course, there's a lot of waste just from the industrial livestock operations themselves, a lot of nutrient waste and chemical waste.

MONTAGNE: How much has the industrialized aspect of growing or producing meat of all kinds affected the environment?

Prof. NAYLOR: It's actually had pros and cons, because as you industrialize, you put the animals on a smaller piece of land, and so you're not taking up quite as much grazing land. On the other hand, now you're feeding them processed feeds, which requires huge amounts of land that are fertilized, that have chemicals that use water and so forth for their feeds.

MONTAGNE: Is it also, though, that these industrialized operations consume a lot of energy? That is, they burn fossil fuels?

Prof. NAYLOR: They certainly do consume energy, so it's in the mechanization. It's used in the fertilizer production for the feeds. And, of course, in both the meat and the crops, it's just the transportation of these materials all over the globe, because meat's not grown and raised near the crop itself anymore. So you're transporting grain all the way across the world to grow some cattle that gets shipped again all over the world to meet consumer demand in a totally different country.

MONTAGNE: Is it just meat, though? I mean, does meat production hurt the environment that much more than other food production? I'm thinking of industrialized, huge mega farms here in California. That can be a big issue for the water, with runoff from pesticides and whatnot. I mean, how much more does meat damage the environment than any other food product?

Prof. NAYLOR: There's a lot of environmental damage from a whole range of crops. You're right. So it's really a scale issue, because in order to feed livestock, to get the same calories we would out of meat than we would out of direct grain consumption, for example, we're using three to maybe seven times the amount of grain.

And so you're putting at least 50 or 60 percent of our total grain production into just feeding animals right now.

MONTAGNE: There's an interesting study out of the University of Chicago that calculated that Americans could, if they reduced meat consumption by just 20 percent, it would be as if one had switched from a regular car or sedan to a Prius.

Prof. NAYLOR: Yeah. That's probably true. I mean, in terms of how much Americans eat, even relative to Europeans - say, Germans have a thoroughly meat-intensive diet you typically think of. But we are eating 40 or 50 percent more per person. I think 20 percent in the United States would make a huge difference. We're the third most populous country in the world.

MONTAGNE: Short of cutting back on the amount of meat that people eat, is there any way to mitigate the environmental impact of growing and processing meat?

Prof. NAYLOR: I think recoupling the crop production to the livestock and having people purchase the meat raised closer to home all will definitely help the environment. Because you could use, actually, the waste from the livestock to fertilize crops and to lower the transportation costs and lower the fertilizer use and have a little bit more accountability on a local level. And so I think a big part of the environmental question is moving from a very globalized market down to more of a localized market, where there is accountability and people understand where the food's coming from. They see the effects in their backyard, and they're conscious of it.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. NAYLOR: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Roz Naylor is an economist with Stanford University. She's director of the program on food security and the environment there.

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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, our global food series continues with a trip to Egypt, the land that in ancient times was the bread basket of the Roman Empire, in modern times is facing angry and sometimes violent crowds in breadlines.

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