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More Than ‘Meats’ The Eye: Meat Production Pains The Earth

Let’s face it, some of us find it impossible to live without meat. It is an essential part of nutrition for many people, and global demand has been increasing. Indeed, the meat industry is currently one of the biggest industries in the world, covering the processing of meat from the farm, all the way to the supermarket.

Over the past 50 years, meat production has more than tripled. The world now produces more than 350 million tonnes in 2023 [1]. Regionally, Asia is the largest producer accounting for around 40-45% of total meat production, with a staggering 15-fold increase since 1961[2].

However, meat production comes at a heavy price for the environment and it is for this reason that a lot of people have reduced or outright sworn off consuming meat.

Malaysia’s Love For Meat

Rising prosperity has allowed people throughout the world to eat more meat and Malaysia is no exception. Our per capita consumption of meat has increased from 13.2kg in 1961 to almost 55 kg in 2017. With rising income, it is projected that Malaysian consumers will eat even more meat in the future. – Mohideen Abdul Kader, president of the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)[3]

Malaysia is no different from the rest of the world in consuming meat. It should come as no surprise that some of the most popular Malaysian dishes including rendang and nasi lemak are meat-based. Over the course of the pandemic, Malaysians have increased their consumption of meat with lamb meat ranked as the highest, followed by poultry, beef and veal, and pork and fish at the lowest.

Ayam Percik/Source: TasteAtlas

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) South-East Asia regional manager Valeska V said Malaysia imports the bulk of its red meat, some 80% beef and 95% lamb meat and noted that the pandemic has led to more stay-at-home meals[4].

In terms of overall consumption, poultry still remains at the forefront. Indeed, according to Statista, Malaysians consumed an estimated 49.7 kilograms of poultry meat per person in 2021, putting Malaysia among the top global consumers of poultry meat worldwide. And in 2020, chicken made up the top choice of meat for Malaysians eating out, being consumed by 94% of Malaysians, followed by seafood (75%) and beef (64%)[5].

A study by Reuters further highlights this by analysing data for meat consumption in 35 countries, Malaysia included. The study found that nearly all of the selected countries studied (30 of 35) experienced a steady increase in annual per capita poultry consumption between 2000 and 2019. This number doubled in 13 countries, with more than 20kg eaten each year in Peru, Russia and Malaysia[6].

We Malaysians certainly love our meat, but some say we could do with reducing how much meat we eat.

Do We Actually Need Meat To Stay Healthy?

We often hear people say that we need meat in order to have a healthy, balanced diet. The truth of the matter is far more complicated.

It is true that meat provides some vital nutrients that plant-based foods don’t. These include vitamin B12 (which is necessary for the normal function of the nervous system and the formation of red blood cells), creatine, vitamin D3, and omega-3 fatty acids[7].

That said, some of these nutrients can also be found in eggs and dairy products and are also available in dietary supplements[7]. And although meat is a good source of iron, the nutrient can also be found in green, leafy veggies like spinach, as well as iron-rich cereal, bread, and pasta[8]. Thus, with appropriate meal planning and supplements, plant-based diets can provide all the nutrients that your body needs.

It must also be noted that there are certain downsides to overconsuming certain types of meat.

Source: Unsplash

Some meats, particularly red (beef and lamb) and processed meats (bacon, sausages, canned meats etc.) are high in fat, especially saturated fat. And eating a lot of saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels in the blood, and having high cholesterol raises your risk of coronary heart disease[9].

Red meat, when compared with white meat, may also correlate to an increased risk for certain disease states. This suggests that the type and source of meat protein play a role in how our bodies react upon consumption. – Dani Levy-Wolins, RD, a registered dietitian at Thistle and Nourilife[10]

Researchers have even linked red and processed meat with a higher chance of type 2 diabetes. One study found that eating a half serving of red meat (one serving is the size of a deck of cards) a day boosts your odds of getting the disease by 48%[8]. Likewise, there is research that shows eating too much red meat can increase your chance of getting cancer[11].

Red meat stimulates the production of N-nitroso compounds in the gut which promotes the formation of cancer. For those who like grilling, cooking meat at high temperatures produces two cancer promoters i.e. heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs). – Professor Datuk Dr A Rahman A Jamal, UKM Medical Molecular Biology Institute[11]

In short, while you can stay healthy with meat in your diet, it is usually recommended that you cut back on it. And it is very much possible to have a healthy, meat-free diet but it will also take a lot of planning and supplements to make it work.

Eating more meat enhances our chances of getting sick or dying early. Health statistics consistently show that nations which consume the most meat have the highest incidence of heart disease and cancer. – Mohideen Abdul Kader, president of the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)[3]

Meat Is Not So Healthy For The Environment

It isn’t just our bodies that can suffer from eating too much meat. The environment has the most to lose as meat consumption goes up.

There may be no other single human activity that has a bigger impact than livestock farming. Some 40% of the world’s land surface is used for growing food crops, most of which are used to feed animals. – Mohideen Abdul Kader, president of the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)[3]

One study published in Nature Food found that the global production of food is responsible for a third of all planet-heating gases emitted by human activity, with the use of animals for meat causing twice the pollution of producing plant-based foods. 

The entire system of food production, such as the use of farming machinery, spraying of fertiliser and transportation of products, causes 17.3bn metric tonnes of greenhouse gases a year and accounts for 35% of all global emissions, according to the research[12].

The emissions are at the higher end of what we expected, it was a little bit of a surprise. This study shows the entire cycle of the food production system, and policymakers may want to use the results to think about how to control greenhouse gas emissions. – Atul Jain, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois[12]

The use of cows, pigs and other animals for food, as well as livestock feed, is responsible for 57% of all food production emissions, the research found, with 29% coming from the cultivation of plant-based foods. The rest comes from other uses of land, such as cotton or rubber. Beef alone accounts for a quarter of emissions produced by raising and growing food[12].

Raising livestock requires a lot of food and space. Grazing animals like cows require a lot of land, which is often cleared through the felling of forests, as well as vast tracts of additional land to grow their feed[12]

To put it into perspective, human settlements occupy only 1% of the planet’s landmass, while livestock grazing and feed production use 27%. Compare this to the 7% used for crop production for direct human consumption, and 26% occupied by forests[6].

Indeed, industrial meat production is one of the primary threats to the Amazon’s deforestation, with Brazilian farmers setting fire to parts of the rainforest to clear space for cattle ranching and to grow industrial animal feed, like soya, for farms in other countries[13]. All of this will destroy the natural habitats of plants and animals, leading to biodiversity loss.

Source: Greenpeace

Converting forest to pasture for beef cattle, largely in Latin America, is responsible for destroying 2.71 million hectares of tropical forest each year—an area about the size of Massachusetts—in just four countries. This is more than half of tropical deforestation in South America, and more than five times as much as any other commodity in the region.Union of Concerned Scientists

In Malaysia specifically, beef cattle made up nearly half of the registered livestock farms in West Malaysia in 2018, at 56.3%[13]. And currently, the land used for cattle farming totals 734,354ha[15]

When trees are cut down, they will also release their stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Many of these fallen trees are either burnt or left to rot, leading to greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions[13]. This, combined with the methane (another powerful greenhouse gas) produced by livestock, has contributed to a climate impact roughly equivalent to all the driving and flying of every car, truck and plane in the world[12].

All of these things combined mean that the emissions are very high. To produce more meat you need to feed the animals more, which then generates more emissions. You need more biomass to feed animals in order to get the same amount of calories. It isn’t very efficient. – Xiaoming Xu, a researcher at the University of Illinois and lead author of “Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods”[12]

Misery For The Animals And A Vector For Disease

Animals suffer from industrial meat production, and not just wild ones.

To increase efficiency and yield, so-called factory farms will rear their livestock in crowded, indoor conditions. In such cases, the animals will often be mutilated to make such close-quarters inhabitation feasible. For example, chickens are debeaked to prevent pecking and cows and pigs have their tails docked to discourage biting[16].

In Malaysia, egg-laying hens spend their entire “working years” in battery farms – confined in narrow wire cages, with barely any space to even turn around in before they are finally slaughtered and sold off as “ayam pencen” (retired fowl)[17].

Besides the ethical problems, factory farms will also put human health at risk. Because of the confined conditions, it is inevitable that diseases will quickly and easily spread between livestock. 

As such, antibiotics are heavily used to prevent such incidents. In fact, 73% of antibiotics worldwide are used on animals. In 2017, almost 11 million kilograms of antibiotics and 5.6 million kilograms of medically important antibiotics were sold in the U.S. exclusively for animals in factory farms[16].

Unfortunately, this overuse of vital antibiotics will lead to more resistant bacteria (including dangerous ones such as E.coli and salmonella) that can spread from animals to humans through consumption or run-off pollution from manure. Drug-resistant bacteria currently kill 700,000 people a year[13]

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) as one of the top 10 threats to global health and one of the urgent health challenges for the next decade. Some 4.95 million deaths a year are associated with AMR and 1.27 million are directly attributable to it, according to recent studies[18].

In Malaysia, the rampant usage of antibiotics in livestock (especially chickens) has been a major cause for concern since the 1980s when CAP’s tests on meats sold locally found penicillin-resistant bacteria in chicken, mutton and pork. Several strains of bacteria were also resistant to neomycin and chloramphenicol[19]. Further tests in the 1990s revealed similarly concerning results:

Our tests in 1995 found a majority of bacteria in many types of meat — chicken, beef, mutton and pork — were resistant to two types of antibiotics, ampicillin and amoxicillin. This demonstrates the existence of food poisoning super germs that could not be treated with some medicines. –  Mohideen Abdul Kader, president of the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)[19]

Even well into the New 10s, indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock persisted as in January 2016, CAP found the antibiotic erythromycin was widely available in shops selling animal feed in Kedah and Perlis[19].

This problem had only worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic as pointed out by Malaysian Association of Food Animal Veterinarians president Datuk Dr Vincent Ng In Hooi:

Due to the movement control order and lockdowns, veterinarians and other professionals were unable to service farms which led to a poor diagnosis of diseases and improper usage of drugs. Because of this, some farmers self-medicated animals with antibiotics. – Datuk Dr Vincent Ng In Hooi, Malaysian Association of Food Animal Veterinarians president[20]

Worryingly, many of the worst pandemics in history have been linked to factory farms. For example, the H1N1 swine flu that killed 151,700 to 575,400 people in 2009 has been linked to a strain that emerged on U.S. pig farms in 1998[16].

Researchers estimated that 70% of zoonotic diseases come from wildlife and then make the leap to humans. Deforestation and human encroachment into previously forested areas have been identified as factors in the spread of zoonosis, as farm and domestic animals come into contact with wildlife. The crowded and unhealthy conditions in factory farms then expedite the spread of viruses such as avian influenza and bacterial pathogens such as E. coli, Campylobacter and salmonella. – Wong Ee Lynn, Petaling Jaya[21]

Although Malaysia has banned six antibiotics from being used on livestock — erythromycin, enrofloxacin, tetracycline, ceftiofur, tylosin, and fosfomycin — as well as colistin, a last resort antibiotic used for human beings, we still do not know whether our meats are truly free from these banned or other antibiotics as past experiences showed the despite bans, the antibiotics are still used[19].

Should We Stop Eating Meat? 

I’m a strict vegetarian and part of the motivation for this study was to find out my own carbon footprint, but it’s not our intention to force people to change their diets. A lot of this comes down to personal choice. 

You can’t just impose your views on others. But if people are concerned about climate change, they should seriously consider changing their dietary habits. – Atul Jain, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois[12]

There’s no denying that meat is delicious and that some people can’t live without it. Regardless, it will certainly help the environment and our own bodies if we learn to reduce our meat consumption.

In fact, one study in the UK found that a vegetarian diet produces 59% fewer emissions than a non-vegetarian one[6].

Going vegetarian or vegan is not easy and certainly not for everyone. Such a diet requires a lot of dedicated meal planning and finding the right supplements required for nutrients that plant-based foods are unable to provide.

Alternative Diets For You To Try

Veganism is slowly but surely rising in Malaysia, and there are now countless ways you can go meat-free.

But if you’re not quite ready to be meat-free yet, consider taking on a flexitarian diet to help control your meat consumption. You can substitute meat with other protein sources such as eggs, cheese, tofu or tempeh, bulk up your dishes with whole foods such as rice, pulses, beans or pasta, or sign up for Meatless Mondays. And if you’re unsure of what type of meat you should buy, consider getting the leanest option possible.

Ultimately, what we eat is a personal choice, but we must also make it an informed personal choice. The environmental, ethical and health implications of our food choices require awareness not only by climate warriors but also by our policy leaders[6].

Explore our sources

  1. OECD. (2023). OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2023-2032. Link
  2. H. Ritchie, P. Rosado & M. Roser. (2017, updated 2019). Meat and Dairy Production. Our World in Data. Link.
  3. M.A. Kader. (2020). Eating meat brings misery and destroys health. Malaysiakini. Link.
  4. N.H. A Malek. (2021). Consumption of red meat in Malaysia is growing. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
  5. Oppotus. (2020). Revealing Malaysia’s Biggest Food Trends. Link.
  6. Reuters. (2021). How much meat do we eat? New figures show 6 countries have hit their peak. Astro Awani. Link.
  7. S. Nikam. (2021). Are Humans Supposed to Eat Meat? Healthline. Link.
  8. C. Mikstas. (reviewed in 2022). What Happens When You Stop Eating Meat. WebMD. Link.
  9. NHS. Meat in your diet. Link.
  10. L. Fisher. (2022). What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Eating Meat? We Asked an RD. Real Simple. Link.
  11. UKM. 3 Key Facts About Red Meat Consumption and Cancer. Link.
  12. O. Milman. (2021). Meat accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production, study finds. The Guardian. Link.
  13. N. Brown. (2022). 7 reasons why meat is bad for the environment. Greenpeace UK. Link.
  14. R.A. Zayadi. (2021). Current Outlook of Livestock Industry in Malaysia and Ways Towards Sustainability. Journal of Sustainable Natural Resources. Link.
  15. S.A. Shah. (2020). Govt to double cattle farming area by 2025. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
  16. O. Rosane. (2021). Factory Farming: Everything You Need to Know. EcoWatch. Link.
  17. W. Muthiah. (2022). Malaysian businesses support cageless method of egg farming. The Star. Link.
  18. H. Doriya. (2022). Antimicrobial resistance: Here is how to reduce AMR in factory farming. DownToEarth. Link.
  19. M. Abdul Kader. (2022). Beware of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. New Straits Times. Link.
  20. Y. Meikeng. (2022). Antibiotic usage in chickens is under control, say associations. The Star. Link.
  21. W. Ee Lynn. (2020). The danger lies in factory farming. The Star. Link.

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