/ 19 June 2023

Meat-eating South Africa, is it time to slow down?

Inflation Increases As Grocery Shoppers Pay More For Meat
Meat consumption is relatively high in South Africa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

If I had to tell you that South Africa ranked in the top 10 countries globally that consume meat, would you react with shock or indifference? 

What shocked me is that our meat consumption is higher than in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. 

This is according to a study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which investigated meat consumption by the kilogramme, per person. The study placed South Africa in seventh place. Australia topped the list, followed by Brazil. 

Globally, meat consumption has been increasing for a few decades. In the 1960s, on average, a person ate 23.1kg of meat annually. By 2019, the figure had risen to 43.2kg. 

Whether one should eat meat is a personal choice that requires a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, it is high in protein. On the other hand, eating a lot of meat is unhealthy, and South Africa has a high burden of heart disease and obesity. 

But there is another problem with the meat industry — the environment link. It is a major contributor to carbon emissions, contributing to climate change, and uses a lot of water. 

Climate and environment problems

According to another FAO study, 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to livestock farming. 

The industry releases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which cause harm to varying degrees. Methane and nitrous oxide do not linger in the air as long as carbon dioxide but their climate warming potential is higher than carbon dioxide. 

Producing feed for livestock also contributes to carbon emissions. 

Amy Quinton, of the University of California, wrote: “Cattle are the number one agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide. Each year, a single cow will belch about 220 pounds of methane.”

German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that “about 15% of global greenhouse emissions result from livestock farming — almost on par with those produced by the transport sector”.

The debate is complex, which is why the journal Nature featured a study that compared greenhouse gas emissions from plant-based and animal-based foods. 

The study found “plant-based foods account for just 29% of greenhouse gases emitted by the global food industry. In contrast, 57% of greenhouse gas emissions in the industry are linked to breeding and rearing cows, pigs and other livestock, as well as producing feed,” as reported by Deutsche Welle. 

A 2021 study by Tokyo Ndlela and Melanie Murcott, of the University of Pretoria, noted some of the environmental harms of the meat industry.

“The reality of South Africa’s agricultural landscape is that approximately 60% of national water is used for watering crops. The majority of those crops are then fed to animals intended for human consumption. In this way agriculture for meat production and meat consumption is exacerbating South Africa’s water crisis, which is characterised by periodic droughts which are a consequence of climate change.”

They also referenced how the industry can be seen to cause land degradation, air pollution, waste pollution and water pollution. 

Other reports have found that the food system, which is largely meat-based, is a major cause of deforestation.

The other side

But Frank Mitloehner, an animal science and air quality specialist at the University of California, believes that the meat industry is nowhere near as bad as it is made out to be. 

He questions the claims made regarding emissions being worse than the transport industry. He contends that the FAO looks at all aspects of emissions, including from fertiliser production, land conversion and direct emissions. But manufacturing and assembly of vehicles were ignored in the transport sector.

He believes that initiatives such as meat-free Mondays won’t do much to reduce climate change.

He writes that it may be worthwhile exploring sustainable farming practices that can be scaled globally. He notes the importance of livestock for livelihoods in many developing nations. 

Drawing my own conclusions, I believe that meat does contribute to global climate change. I don’t believe individuals cutting out meat will make a major difference, but a change in livestock rearing would. 

I do think that meat is crucial for livelihoods and can be a crucial protein source. But, as with everything, moderation is what’s needed. 

I’m no industry expert, but logic tells me that big meat producers need to include sustainable practices, which may bring down the emissions from the sector. 

“Business as usual” in all sectors, from agriculture to transport, will exacerbate climate change.