Ecological footprints of meat production


– What’s on your plate?

Producing the animals that becomes beef, pork, chicken breast or turkey on our dinner plates has become costly to the environment. The thought that the world’s five biggest meat and dairy producers combined emit more greenhouse gases into the environment than the top three oil production companies – Shell, ExxonMobil and BP – sends shock waves up my spine. But that’s factual, says a report by GRAIN and The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), USA.

Astoundingly, animal production requires more resources and causes higher emissions than plant-based alternatives.  I often thought of a plant-based diet as a weight-loss mechanism, but a meat-based diet is not just a calorie-adding activity: it affects the environment in enormously negative ways. Thus, the climate is impacted by the various stages of animal production – right from the land required for production, through to the farming process (feeding), transportation and selling stages. Not only does livestock production account for most of the world’s greenhouse emissions (carbon emissions, etc.), it also takes up half of the planet’s habitable surface – causing habitat loss that leads to the extinction of some endangered species, and thereby unbalancing the whole ecosystem as the food chain gets affected.

World Carbon Emissions Target

The recently-held climate change conference (COP 27) in Sharm el-Sheikh-Egypt, re-emphasised the need to take action toward achieving the world’s collective climate goals agreed upon under the Paris Agreement and the resultant Convention. The agreement warns that world greenhouse emissions should be kept well below the 1.5oC level (2oC tops) to prevent global warming. However, to achieve this target, experts say carbon emissions must decline by 45% (relative to 2010 levels) by 2030. How can we do this? What can a simple life-changing activity such as a diet change do?

Substituting Livestock with Plant-based protein

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report states that reducing livestock herds would reduce methane emissions, which is the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.  The idea is that faithfully swapping the intake of animal products such as pork, mutton, chicken, turkey or beef, and the dairy products that come with them – milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream, eggs, whey and the like – for plant-based food such as beans and legumes would be beneficial not only to our health but also the environment.

The truth is that when we give up our livestock appetite for a plant-based diet, we not only reduce methane emissions but in the long run we be help bring a balance to the ecosystem and animal habitats remain intact.  Think of this: a comparison of simulated net emissions from legume production and average beef production rates showed that legume substitution could account for 46 to 74 percent of the required reductions. Forty-two percent less cropland would be needed as well – meaning deforestation, and for that matter habitat-loss, would certainly be curtailed. To achieve this, we’ve got to make some bold lifetime decisions. The question is, how ready are we? What is preventing us from making those bold decisions?

Meat energy against Plant energy

I remember my primary school science lessons when I was taught to eat meat and drink milk for strong teeth and bones. Indeed, we’ve been taught that meat protein gives us energy and makes us strong… and that plant-eaters aren’t capable of such machismo. However, after watching the documentary The Game Changers by J. Wilks I indulged my sense of curiosity to research further into the truth underlying this idea.

I was shocked to my wits’ end to learn that indeed an analysis from the bones of Roman gladiators, who were highly prized fighters in the Roman Empire, showed they were fed mainly on beans and barley. They were not meat eaters – yet they had enormous strength/energy to live as fighters, fighting for survival and public entertainment. And that’s how they got their nickname HORDEARII… which means beans and barley macho.

Additionally, numerous plant-based sportsmen and women mentioned in the documentary – such as Carl Lewis (the nine-time Olympic Gold medallist), Morgan Mitchell (the two-time Australian 400-metre champion), Kendrick Farris (the US Olympic weightlifter), Patrik Baboumian (one of the world’s strongest men) among others – have testified that their diet-change from animal to plant-based nutrition actually improved their energy levels and made them stronger and better[1] at what they did. Remarkable!

Land Conversion for Animal/Livestock Production

Let’s now turn the page and take a look at the ecological footprint of animal or livestock production worldwide. First, an activity such as conversion of land for livestock production means deforestation. Deforestation has occurred in many tropical regions, including the Amazon rainforest where it has been linked to cattle ranching – think livestock.

The situation is not so different in a country such as the United States of America, where ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations; (CAFOs) are used to raise farm animals. Here, not only is there a need to clear the land for housing the animals but it’s also very essential to plant feed-corn used as fodder to feed livestock in these feedlots – think deforestation. In the process of deforestation, long stores of carbon are released into the atmosphere; thus playing a part in the total energy imbalance that is causing the Earth’s temperature to rise – think global warming.

Feed Production

It is alarming to think of the externalities for having to feed animals in these feedlots. The need for producing feed corn means a need for using lots of nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser and manure supplies to help nourish and grow the corn.  Toxic elements from these fertilisers and manure find their way into our lakes and streams through run-offs and soil erosion, contaminating our water-bodies – which in turn poses a threat to and from aquatic life, as fish ingest them and become diseased… affecting humans who eat such diseased fish.

A study of pollution in rivers around Portland, Oregon, found that wild salmon there are swimming around with dozens of synthetic chemicals in their system. Think of what will happen to a person who ends up with this fish on their dinner plate. One can argue that this is Ghana and not Portland – but hey, as a country that is so big on imports, Ghana imports fish and other livestock products from all over the world and the story of negative externalities is a real issue. What someone does in their little corner has an effect on others in one way or another; who can control what happens in our oceans? – think negative effect.

The Trickling-down effect

When these run-offs occur, the number of plants and algae in these water-bodies increases. One would think this is a good thing, but ironically this is not healthy for water resources as it causes a reduction in the water’s oxygen content – leading to the death of aquatic plants. As these plants die, the microorganisms use the organic matter as a food source which causes growth; i.e., making the microorganisms reproduce more, which makes them use up the oxygen in the water, eventually leading to suffocation of fish and other aquatic species. Here, more is not merrier but murkier.

Where we are now

International surveys and increased availability of plant-based options demonstrate a willingness for the world to make dietary changes for environmental benefits. Not only would we stay healthy and improve our energy when we rethink what we put on our dinner plate, but we could also reach our targetted greenhouse gas emission reductions as set by the Paris Agreement – if governments across the world were to encourage/enforce a plant-based diet policy. Where is Ghana in all this?


Edna  is  a Lecturer at the UPSA Law School. Her teaching and research areas include Torts, Environmental law and Commercial law. Driven by her great passion for environmental issues, in particular international climate change law and policy – coupled with her passion for empowering and educating the younger generation to be more environmentally conscious, she has authored a children’s book titled ‘PRINCESS SOPHIA AND THE LITTLE MERMAID’ about the effects of plastic pollution from a child’s perspective: available on and kindle. 

[1] J. Wilks; 2019; The Game Changers Documentary: A Netflix Production

Leave a Reply