The Science behind MEAT

Humans love meat. Steak, fried chicken, bacon and sausages are just the best things. Eating meat has become so trivial that many people don’t consider something a proper meal if there’s no animal involved, which is pretty amazing since only a few decades ago, meat was a luxury product.

Today, you can get a cheeseburger for a dollar. Paradoxically, meat is pretty much the most inefficient way of feeding humans. If we look at it on a global scale, our meat diet is literally eating up the planet. Why is that? And what can we do about it without giving up steak?

Humans keep a lot of animals for food. Currently, about 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cattle and roughly 1 billion pigs and sheep. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. So we’ve transformed Earth into a giant feeding ground. 83%of its farmland is used for livestock, for example, as pasture and to farm fodder crops like corn and soy. That’s 26 percent of Earth’s total land area.

If we include the water we need for these plants, meat and dairy production accounts for 27 percent of global freshwater consumption. Unfortunately, meat production is like a black hole for resources.

Since animals are living things, most of their food is used to keep them alive while they grow their tasty parts. Only a fraction of the nutrients from fodder crops end up in the meat we buy in the end.

Cows, for example, convert only about 4% of the proteins and 3% of the calories of the plants we feed to them into beef. More than 97% of the calories are lost to us.

To create 1 kilogram of steak, a cow needs to eat up to 25 kilos of grain and uses up to 15000 liters of water. Animal products are guzzling up tons of food, but they only make up 18 percent of the calories humans eat. According to projections, we could nourish an additional 3.5 billion people if we just eat the stuff we feed to animals. 

To make our favorite food group even more unsustainable, about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are created by the meat industry, as much as by all ships, planes, trucks and cars combined.

And there’s another aspect to meat.

It comes from actual living beings. pigs, cattle and chicken are not the ones writing the history books. But if they were, humans would appear as rampant genocidal maniacs that thrive on suffering. Globally, we kill about 200 million animals every day, about 74 billion a year. This means that every one and a half years we kill more animals than people have lived in the entire 200 thousand year history of humanity. One could argue that we’re doing them a favor, after all, they wouldn’t exist without us, we might eat them in the end, but we also provide food and shelter and the gift of existence to them.

Unfortunately, we’re not very nice gods. A lot of our meat comes from factory farms, huge industrial systems that house thousands of animals engineered to be as efficient as possible. They have little regard for things like quality of life. Most pigs are raised in gigantic, windowless sheds and never get to see the sun.

Dairy cows are forced to breed continually to ensure their milk supply, but are separated from their calves hours after birth. To fatten up beef cattle for slaughter, they are put in feedlots, confined pens where they can’t roam and put on weight more quickly. To make it possible to keep them so tightly together without dying of diseases, the majority of antibiotics we use are for livestock. Up to 80 percent in the U.S, which helps in the short term but also fuels antibiotic resistance.

But the ones that may have got the worst deal are chickens. In factory farms, they’re kept in such vast numbers and so close to each other that they can’t form the social structures they have in nature. So they start attacking each other. To stop that, we cut their beaks and claws. Male chickens are deemed worthless since they can’t lay eggs and are not suitable for meat production. So within minutes after birth, they’re usually gassed and shredded and grinders.

Several hundred million baby chickens are killed this way each year. Even if you had a personal score to settle with chickens, how we treat them is beyond broken.

So better buy organic meat where animals are treated nicely, right? Organic farming regulations are designed to grant animals a minimum of comfort. The problem is that organic is an elastic term. According to EU regulations, an organic hens still might share one square metre of space with five others. That’s a long way off from happy farmyard chickens. Farms that sincerely do their best do exist, of course, but meat is still a business and organic label is a way to charge more money.

And countless scandals have revealed producers looking for ways to cheat the system. And while organic meat might be less cruel, it needs even more resources than conventional meat production. So buying organic is still preferable, but does not grant you moral absolution. The way we treat animals will probably be one of the things future generations will look down on in disgust.

While all these things are true, something else is true too. Steak is amazing. Burgers are the best food. Chicken wings taste great. Meat satisfies something buried deep in our lizard brain.

We hardly ever see how our meat is made. We just eat it and love it. It creates joy. It brings us together for family meals and barbecue parties. Eating meat doesn’t make you a bad person. Not eating meat doesn’t make you a good one.

Life is complicated and so is the world we’ve created. So how should we deal with the fact that meat is extremely unsustainable and a sort of horrible torture? For now, the easiest option is opting out more often.

Taking a meat free day per week already makes a difference. If you want to eat meat, produce with less suffering, try to buy from trusted producers with a good track record, even if it costs more. To make an impact on the environment, go for chicken and pig rather than lamb and beef as they convert their feed more efficiently into meat. And if you’re going to have your steak, you should eat it too. An average American throws out nearly a pound of food per day, a lot of which is meat.

In the future, science could get us clean meat. Various startups have successfully grown meat in labs and are working on doing so on a commercial scale. But solutions like this are still a few years away. For now. Enjoy your steak, but also respect it.

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