Red signals from meat

Beef production uses more water and land and emits more greenhouse gases than other livestock

Updated - November 16, 2021 09:57 pm IST

Published - November 08, 2015 12:49 am IST

Health threats to Indians are likely to come from meat production rather than consumption.

Health threats to Indians are likely to come from meat production rather than consumption.

A recent >recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared red meat a carcinogen. Processed meats are the major culprit, and are a Class-1 carcinogen, which means that the evidence linking consumption to cancer is strong.

Red meats are in a lower category, 2A, which means consumption is probably linked to cancer, specifically colorectal cancer. The link between processed meat and colorectal cancer is hardly new. A 2009 study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that eating red and processed meats was linked to a higher risk of dying of heart disease and cancer. In the U.K., it is estimated that 19 per cent of all cancers are linked to tobacco use whereas 3 per cent of all cancers are linked to red meat. The relative danger from processed meat consumption (relative to tobacco) is likely to be far lower in India where tobacco use rates are higher than in the U.K. and consumption of both red meat and processed meat is far lower.

Ramanan Laxminarayan

Although meat consumption in India is on the rise, it is nowhere close to what the West consumes. Even compared to China, India’s intake is much lesser. Every Chinese citizen consumes 10 kg of poultry each year. This is roughly 10 times what every Indian does. The consumption of beef by the average Chinese citizen compared relative to India is even greater.

Moreover, the proportion of processed meat in India is small compared to most countries. However, consumption of meat as a whole and of processed meat is on the rise, although mostly of poultry rather than red meat.

The biggest health threat to the average Indian is likely to come from meat production rather than consumption of processed or red meat. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. used to lead the world in beef exports. That’s no longer the case. India is the world’s largest beef exporter and, as it happens, is now also the world’s largest milk producer, although this latter improvement has not necessarily resulted in greater milk consumption for many of our children, who remain protein-deprived.

So, how does meat production affect us as average citizens? Meat production consumes vast quantities of water compared to other foods. A 2012 Dutch study in the journal Ecosystems reported that beef has an overall water footprint of roughly 16,000 litres per kg produced. Water consumption is 320 litres per kg for vegetables and 400 litres per kg for starchy roots. Though water consumption per kg of beef is likely to be lower in India, production is becoming more water-intensive.

For a country with one of the lowest availabilities of fresh water supply per person, and where hundreds of thousands of children die of diarrheal diseases every year, the potential for disease and poor sanitation because of meat production has a far greater health consequence than any direct consumption of meat.

The second impact is in terms of climate change. Globally, livestock accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Beef production emits five times more greenhouse gas emissions than other livestock. Also, a global transition to a low-meat diet would halve the mitigation costs to achieve a 450 ppm CO2-eq. stabilisation target in 2050, needed to head off the worst effects of climate change.

Third, meat impacts land availability. Beef production requires 28 times more land than other livestock. A global food transition to less meat and a complete switch to plant-based protein food is likely to have a dramatic effect on land use. Up to 2,700 million hectares of pasture and 100 million hectares of crop land could be abandoned. The extra land could be used for fruits, vegetables and other foods.

Finally, meat production in India is increasingly using more antibiotics, placing selection pressure for drug resistant bacteria. Global consumption of antimicrobials in food animal production was estimated at 63,151 tonnes in 2010 and is projected to rise by 67 per cent in 2030. According to our estimates, roughly 58,000 newborn deaths are due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria produced each year in India. With greater antibiotic resistance, the impact on newborn deaths is likely to increase.

What does this tell us? Certainly, the environmental impact of meat production and its impact on health should not be used to justify the efforts of some State governments to regulate what their citizens eat based. But let us make no mistake: the meat we produce shapes our health more by how it shapes our environment and the world we live in than in its direct impact on health.

(Prof. Ramanan Laxminarayan is Vice-President for Research and Policy at the Public Health Foundation of India.)

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