Meat production drains land and water resources, says Worldwatch Institute

Image of drought-affected land

Global meat production is reaching new peaks, according a report by the Worldwatch Institute, and having a debilitating effect on land and water resources.

Urbanisation, increasing wealth and changing diets have seen meat production expand fourfold in the past 50 years – and 25-fold since 1800 – the Washington-based environmental research organisation said in its report, Peak Meat Production Strains Land and Water Resources.

The report’s authors observe that cutting back on the meat we eat is one sure way that people can guarantee they are not contributing to the depletion of land and water resources.

The Worldwatch report reveals that 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater supplies goes towards agriculture, a third of it to grow animal feed crops – crops that also take up 10 per cent of agricultural land. More than two thirds of agricultural land worldwide is used to graze animals.

Up to five times as much land is required to raise a cow as a pig or chicken, albeit for the same amount of protein. For every kilogram of beef produced, 15,000 litres of water is used. In comparison, a kilogram of rice requires 3,400 litres of water, eggs 3,300 litres, milk 1,000 litres and potatoes 255 litres.

Citing figures from the US Food and Agriculture Organization, Worldwatch observes that the majority of the 308.5 million tonnes of meat produced worldwide last year derived from Asia. Countries such as China and India helped contribute to the production of the continent’s 131.5 million tonnes of meat in 2013. According to the report, China alone produces nearly half of all the pork in the world.

Michael Renner, a Worldwatch Institute senior researcher involved with the report, said curbing the environmental impacts associated with meat would require looking at the quantities and kind of meat being consumed, as well as ending industrial-scale livestock farming.

Dietary choices make a big difference, Renner said. “Until broader changes sweep through the meat-production system, eating less meat … typically means leading a less resource-intensive life.”

Read the report