Last year, students at Senior School Voorschoten, The British School in The Netherlands launched the Mike Weston Charter Quill & Scroll, an international honourary society for secondary school journalists. The members are invited to submit original written work in one of 15 categories of writing. It entails hard work, lots of edits and even a fair amount of feedback.
We are delighted to share one of the entries from last year’s submissions.
Each choice we make has an indirect consequence on the future of our planet. You may scan a menu and opt for the cheapest option, such as a hamburger, without understanding the true cost of beef.
Throughout the years, not only have we realised the ethical concerns about the welfare of animals and the invasive procedures used to produce meat, we have also discovered that there are huge environmental repercussions.
With the looming rise of climate change and extreme weather conditions, our society must become more aware of the global impact on our diets. The meat industry has more than tripled in size in the past 50 years. This needs to change. The excessive amount of water needed, the high levels of greenhouse gases produced, as well as the vast areas of land used for this industry needs to be reduced. This leads us to wonder: “Is meat really worth it?”
The Impact on Water
Water scarcity is one of the biggest impacts of climate change. Due to an increase in droughts and flooding, fresh drinking water is falling in short supply. Currently, over half of the world’s population experience extreme water scarcity at least once a year. By 2050, the global demand for water is predicted to grow by 40%, water scarcity is becoming a greater threat to mankind.
Individual changes must be made to our diets in order to combat this emerging issue. Producing one burger uses, on average, 2,400 litres of water. This includes the amount of water used to maintain feedlots for cows to live, irrigating crops for food, and drinking water. Compared to a filled bathtub, which usually holds between 150 and 300 litres of water, the quantity of water needed for one burger can fill 8 to 16 bathtubs. The total water used for one burger would thus allow 3 people to have a year-long supply of drinking water.
On the other hand, tofu, a plant-based alternative to meat, requires about 90% less water than beef, proving to be much more sustainable for our growing population and future. If that one beef burger would be replaced by a plant-based burger, over 2,000 litres of water would be saved, allowing plenty of water for scarce regions.
The irreversible effects of climate change as a result of temperature rise are already on the horizon, and our diets must shift to avoid them. One of the causes for the global rise in temperature is the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This raises the world’s temperature and contributes to global warming. Although there are also natural sources for this phenomenon, in recent years human activity has spiked the increase in such gases.
The meat industry is one of the greatest greenhouse gas emitters, specifically through the production of beef. Cows release high levels of methane as a by-product of their ruminant digestive systems, which poisons our environment. Research shows the production of 1 kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions. This is equivalent to a medium-sized petrol car driving over 100 kilometres. With the meat industry demands on the rise, the amount of emissions is only set to increase, which inevitably could cause inhabitable regions, lack of housing and a strain on global resources.
However, this can still be reversed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported how adapted diets, such as a vegan, pescatarian or Mediterranean diet could potentially save over 3 gigatons of greenhouse emissions. For example, if you were to replace 75% of your red meat intake with white meat, already 3.5 gigatons of greenhouse emissions could be conserved. This would reduce the enhanced greenhouse effect and decrease the devastating impacts of climate change.
The Loss of Land
For centuries, rainforests covered vast areas of land, rich in biodiversity, storing large quantities of carbon. But, over the course of history and continuing today, forests have been wiped out and destroyed for agriculture and construction. Habitats have been lost and animals have become extinct simply to produce meat for your plate.
After trees are cut and burnt down, the new land only remains fertile for a few years, resulting in more forests being lost. As a result of this deforestation, carbon is released from trees, which binds with oxygen in the air, causing carbon dioxide to pollute the atmosphere. As there are fewer trees to absorb the carbon dioxide in the air, global warming is becoming an increasing risk.
Although some of this land is being used to grow crops for people, nearly 40% of world grain is used to feed livestock instead of humans. Therefore, more land is needed for agriculture, as well as fields being used as pastures for animals. Beef, especially, uses huge areas of land, but only produces less than 90 kilograms of protein per hectare. In comparison, soybeans, a plant-sourced protein, can produce about 700 kilograms of protein per hectare.
A global shift to a more plant-based diet, or even substituting beef for chicken or fish could reduce the total amount of land used for agriculture by around 3 billion hectares. Natural ecosystems would be able to flourish again in these areas, benefitting our planet as the sum of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere would decrease, reducing the effects of climate change.
Overall, by individually adjusting our diets, it is plausible for immense environmental benefits to occur. Biodiversity can be restored, and the negative foreseeable future can still be reversed. By avoiding that one burger, thousands of litres of water are conserved, less greenhouse gases are emitted, and fewer habitats are destroyed. So, the next time you scan a menu, try opting for a plant-based meal instead as it is palpable that meat is not worth the cost of our future and the generations to come. A global change must take place.
Amy is a Sixth Form student at Senior School Voorschoten. In addition to being an inaugural member of the Mike Weston Charter of Quill & Scroll, she is the BSNMUN Secretary General and LED Drive Team Leader.