Column: Why we need to eat less meat

In this Jan. 18, 2010 file photo, steaks and other beef products are displayed for sale at a grocery store in McLean, Va. The meat industry is seeing red over the dietary guidelines. The World Health Organization’s cancer agency says Monday Oct.26, 2015 that processed meats such as ham and sausage can lead to colon and other cancers, and red meat is probably cancer-causing as well. (J. Scott Applewhite, File/AP)

Meat consumption in America has declined in recent years. The Humane Society of the United States reported that the number of land animals raised and killed for consumption each year dropped from 9.5 billion to 9.1 billion between 2007 and 2014, a total decrease of 400 million animals per year. Even after this important progress, the U.S. has unmatched levels of meat consumption.

According to NPR, the U.S. consumes more meat than anywhere else in the world. An article in Time reports that 285 million tons of meat are produced globally each year. If everyone ate an equal amount of meat, this production would average out to about 80 pounds per person each year. Instead, according to the article, Americans eat on average 270 pounds. This high proportion of meat consumption is alarming due to various health and environmental implications. 

There are many health risks that occur with a high consumption of meat. A recent study by McGill University concluded that the consumption of red and processed meats is associated with colon and lung cancer, and red meat elevates the risk of cancer in the liver and esophagus. The University of Oslo found that high meat consumption is increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.  Conversely, Harvard University found that the replacement of foods rich in saturated fat like meat and dairy products with foods rich in polyunsaturated fats like nuts and vegetable oil reduces the risk of heart disease by 19 percent.

Many people understand that being healthy means eating a lot of vegetables, but it is widely underpublicized that choosing to eat a lot of meat means putting yourself at higher risk for cancer, diabetes and heart disease. This does not mean that people must be vegetarians to be healthy, but people should be conscious of the decisions they make. Replacing a few red meat meals with poultry or vegetarian options will decrease many health risks. 

High meat consumption in the United States also has environmental implications. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization estimated in 2006 that livestock account for 18 percent of greenhouse gases caused by humans. Livestock also require much more water per pound of food than vegetarian options. An article in Time reported that livestock production, including meat, eggs and milk, uses one-third of the world’s fresh water.

The environmental implications of livestock are reflected in the reliance on fossil fuels to care for them. According to the American Journal of Critical Nutrition, 40 calories of fossil fuel energy are put into each calorie of feedlot beef produced. This compares to the 2.2 calories of fossil fuel that go into each calorie of plant based protein. Raising livestock requires much more land, water and energy resources than raising crops, and it is not sustainable. Vegetarian choices are much more environmentally friendly.

The American Journal of Critical Nutrition reports that an estimated four million people live with plant-based diets worldwide. Due to the resources required to raise livestock, it would be difficult on the environment for those people to eat the amount of meat that the average American does. As informed citizens that understand this, we must share the planet with the rest of the world and future generations, this information should be enough to inspire a decrease in the consumption of meat. 

These numbers and risks may seem very detached from daily diet choices. A small decision like deciding what to eat for dinner today hardly carries the weight of climate change, yet it is the repetition of those small decisions that will affect a person’s health and the environmental effect people have on the planet.

People grow accustomed to a diet. Changing their habits can be intimidating and difficult to maintain, but it is better to reduce meat consumption by one meal or one day a week than to ignore these facts altogether. America cannot ignore these facts anymore.


Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.