An analysis of red meat and its impact on human health and the environment
By Elliot Parker
In today’s society we consume a significant amount of processed foodstuffs and intensively farmed meat, dairy and produce. As well as this, medical science has advanced to levels that allow humans to live longer. Nevertheless, links have been established between the consumption of red meat and the increased likelihood of cancer. It is important to note that different forms of cancer are caused by different variations of red meat. This increased likelihood of cancer is triggered by various factors. These factors include how the animal is itself reared, the conditions it inhabits and the nutrition it receives. As well as how the meat is treated following slaughter, whether it is further processed, e.g. cured or smoked. Moreover, farming practices in both the UK and the rest of the world are leading to a spike in greenhouse gas production, as the push for producing fattened animals that can produce significant capital upon slaughter are outweighing the desire to have sustainable and green farming.
WHAT IS RED MEAT AND HOW DOES IT CONTRIBUTE TO THE ONSET OF CANCER?
Red meat includes beef, lamb & mutton, pork, veal, venison and goat. According to the NHS website, if you eat 90g of red meat per day, it is recommended that you reduce your intake to 70g a day to reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer. The consumption of processed meats such as salami and chorizo can also compound the causation of bowel cancer. Commonly consumed foodstuffs within the omnivore community including an 8oz steak, a Full English Breakfast and a doner kebab can contain upwards of 120g red meat per serving. Consequently, health professionals advise it, if you do eat red meat, to reduce your intake to an average of 70g a day throughout the week. So, if you eat a doner kebab on your way back from the nightclub, you should only eat a small breakfast, e.g. a bacon sandwich instead of a Full English. However, consuming regular rashers of bacon has been linked to a 19% increase in the likelihood of contracting colorectal cancer.
So how does red meat cause cancer I hear you ask? Well, the actual cooking of red meat creates carcinogens within the meat, which when consumed will increase the risk of attaining cancer in the future. Moreover, saturated fats in red and processed meats have been linked to cancers of the colon and the breast as well as increasing the potential likelihood of heart disease. Red meat is a good source of iron, which is beneficial to the development of healthy blood cells. The most common type of iron found in red meat is called ‘heme iron’, which is found in animals that have haemoglobin, so red meat, fish and poultry contain varying levels of heme iron. This type of iron produces ’N-nitroso’ compounds when subjected to heat and these are powerful carcinogens. The most common forms of cancer from heme iron consumption are stomach and oesophageal cancer. Furthermore, heme iron has been linked to onsetting arthritis, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and metabolic syndrome (which can lead to heart failure, strokes and type 2 diabetes). Therefore, eating most types of meat will subject the human body to heme iron, but the risk is much more vast with red meat, as it has been termed the “single most accessible source of heme iron.” However, it is not all doom and gloom, red meat and its levels of heme iron can be very beneficial to people suffering from anaemia (deficiency of iron).
THE MAASAI PEOPLE – A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS
Although red meat, by definition, is unhealthy, it has not always, nor is it still always, massively detrimental to human health or the environment itself. The Maasai people who are native to Tanzania and Kenya consume large quantities of red meat in comparison to the majority of the world. Comparatively, to the rest of the world, their health is excellent and they have low blood pressure and cholesterol levels, despite their traditional diet being centred on meat, blood and milk. This is because the Maasai adopt traditional methods of farming, which allows the animals freedom to graze and eat high quality grass, which means the animal lives a happy life up to the point of slaughter.
In contrast to the mainstream farming methods, which are much more industrial and based on concepts of quantity over quality with the maximisation of profit at the helm of the meat industry’s goals. In this industrial farming system animals are given a poor diet, mainly soybeans, to maximise their size in order to maximise the amount of meat available on their bodies. These animals are given antibiotics to fight disease that can secrete into the meat and as a result, adversely affect human health. Furthermore, these animals are usually battery farmed and they do not have space to graze, as a consequence they are not relaxed and often depressed, which too has an adverse impact on the quality of the meat and as a result a negative impact on the humans that consume it. A link has been made between meat quality and the experiences of the animal at slaughter, if they are stressed and anxious, natural hormones produced by the animal, such as adrenaline, has led to a decrease in the tastiness of the meat. There is an insatiable demand for red meat, in which battery farming and industrial scale production is utilised to maintain the cheap nature of red meat but as a consequence of this the meat is of much lower quality and bad for health.
As a result of the knowledge of carcinogens within the red meat we consume coming to the surface, there have been calls from organisations and academics to add health warning labels to red meat, such as with smoking and affiliated products.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF RED MEAT CONSUMPTION
It is important to highlight the environmental impacts of red meat consumption, most notably cattle farming, which is one of the biggest contributors to global warming and the subsequent climate crisis. Livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all transport emissions from cars, trains, planes, ships, industrial and agricultural vehicles combined. This is due to cows producing methane as part of their digestive cycle. Methane is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the earth over a 100-year period, and it is 80 times more powerful over a period of 20 years. Most cows are fed on soybeans, over 70% of soy beans produced in the world are fed to livestock, with only 6-7% produced for human consumption. Soybeans are effective in bulking out the cow, making them fatter and therefore maximising the profit potential on slaughter. Soybeans encourage the cow to flatulate more, as they create more ‘gas’ (methane upon expulsion) within the cow. The continual destruction of rainforests in the Amazon, Africa and Oceania to make way for livestock production is removing greenhouse gas capturing devices (trees) and replacing them with livestock centres that produce one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the world.
Many of these fires were caused illegally by ranch owners to clear space for livestock production. The darker the red the more intense the fire and its subsequent damage. (Source: WalesOnline)
Increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are negative for human health in the sense that it will lead to a radical shift in climate patterns on earth. Year-on-year we experience record temperatures every summer with months of drought increasing in countries around the equator and the two tropics. This is making areas of the world uninhabitable, and significant portions of land are unable to grow any more food or raise any livestock upon it. Moreover, increased greenhouse gases from cattle farming will lead to a rise in the world sea levels following the melting of ice caps in Greenland, the Artic and Antarctica, which is leading to coastal erosion and by the end of the century countries we know today will not exist, such as Bangladesh and Indonesia. The permafrost that is currently melting in the Siberian ice belts, which is leaking increased amounts of methane as it is thawing, compounds this. The amount of methane in the permafrost is said to be colossal, more than 17 million tons of methane was expelled from the Siberian permafrost in 2013 alone. Antarctica used to lose about 40 gigatons of ice per year in the 1980s, but over the past decade it has lost around 252 gigatons of ice each year (one gigaton is a billion tonnes). This sends shivers down my spine and cattle farming is greatly exacerbating this loss of ice. These facts about current industrial cattle farming and the damage that is occurring to the environment and the negative health impacts on humans upon consumption have been common knowledge for a long time, yet very little, if anything has been done to alleviate these issues. In fact, industrial scale farming has become more commonplace and red meat, especially beef, has become very cheap and easily accessible.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FOOD STANDARDS AND THEIR IMPACT ON HUMAN HEALTH
We live in a country and previously an economic union that prides itself on maintaining high levels of food standards, for example America consumes high levels of chlorinated chicken and food that has been exposed to rodent droppings, both of which are permissible within American food safety standards. Exposure to chlorinated-washed chicken is that the molecules stay in the human body and build up over time, these too are carcinogenic, so continued exposure can increase the risk of cancer. Rodent droppings, when dry, can be hazardous to those who breathe it in, and the fecal matter can spread viruses and diseases. It is important to add that at the end of January 2020, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State has said that there will be no trade with the UK unless chlorinated chickens are included as a part of it. We cannot allow our food standards to drop for the sake of cheaper and increasingly cancerous meat.
When you imagine farming in the UK, certainly cattle farming, you picture big fields with a lot of cows that have enough space to graze and grow. Although this is true to a certain extent, the Americanisation of British agriculture has taken place on a large scale. In places such as Kent, Northamptonshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire, over a dozen ‘industrial scale’ cattle factory farms have been found, in which the cattle have no room to graze and are instead fed food that fattens them up as quickly as possible. Most supermarkets and fast food restaurants secure their meat from such farms. Not only is the quality of the meat bad and detrimental to human health, the animal rights abuses and the environmental impact of these institutions are alarming and a cause for concern. There has to be a balance between animal welfare, the quality of the food produced, the environmental impact of such farming and profiting. Currently, the pendulum swings on the profit side, which is massively to the detriment of the animals themselves, the environment and the consumers of this low quality meat through future health ramifications.
ALTERNATIVES TO RED MEAT
What are the alternatives to red meat? Cutting down consumption of red meat is certainly a start. Attempting 2 days a week without meat is a positive move for both the environment and personal wellbeing. The author is still a meat-eater, although I have stopped consumption of beef and fish for environmental reasons. Instead of beef mince, I consume quorn mince, which I have found is just as good in a bolognese, chilli or a moussaka. Adding chickpeas or lentils to a dish gives the consumer a significant amount of protein, which can be used as a substitute for meat as protein. If you are a fan of peanut butter, eating peanut butter sandwiches for lunch instead of a ham sandwich is also a good source of protein. Substituting quinoa as a salad instead of a red meat option is also a nutritional alternative. Moreover, eating leafy dark green vegetables such as kale can be an excellent source of iron that has no carcinogenic effects when cooked.
Although, it must be noted that change must come from the very top of our society to radically alter farming practices. The individual consumer can exercise their right not to buy something but for fundamental change, laws and regulations must be placed onto farming both domestically and internationally that seeks to make farming more sustainable, less cruel and better for human health. As the low-quality meat that is consumed by the majority of people is allowed to be low quality by big companies and complicit governments, who cut corners in order to maximise profits.
FOOD OF THE FUTURE – THE POTENTIAL OF 3D PRINTED MEAT?
A recent technological phenomena occurred with the revolutionary 3D printer, which combined with genetic science, has allowed scientists to 3D print organisms and clumps of cells, which in turn has allowed scientists to 3D print meat. The demand for meat is said to increase by 73% at the middle of the century, which means the strain on the environment and the amount of arable land we have will be pushed to its logical extreme. 3D printed meat as it stands is currently plant based, but is said to have the same texture and appearance as meat. The issue with this is, that although the number of individuals who are vegan (someone who does not eat meat or any products derived from an animal) or vegetarian (someone who does not eat meat but consumes animal derived products, such as milk or eggs) is increasing exponentially, the consumption of meat is something so engrained into humanity’s development so shifting away from meat will take place over generations. Technology is a wonderful thing, if scientists were able to extract stem cells that can then be cloned to produce pieces of beef, pork, chicken that are lumps of meat as opposed to a sentient being with a central nervous system, this I feel would be a suitable middle-ground and would certainly be much more beneficial for the environment, human health and could quash concerns for animal welfare.
In order to aid my research and findings with this article, I decided to create a survey about red-meat consumption, some of the results were fairly surprising and others were expected given the current attitudes to consumption of red meat, which is either staunchly for or against it as part of the human diet. Out of the 28 people who completed my survey, nineteen of them were omnivores, two of them were also omnivores but some meat cannot be consumed due to their faith, there was one pescatarian (eats no meat but consumes fish), three vegetarians and two vegans, with another person transitioning into veganism. As a collective, this widely matches the current dietary preference of society today, with the number of people being vegetarian or vegan rising slowly. Out of the omnivores, nine people consume red-meat at least 1-2 times a week, two consume it 2-3 times a week, five people have it 3-4 times a week, and one person eats it 4-5 times a week, one person eats it 5-6 times a week and three people eat it once or twice a month maximum. Other than the omnivorous individuals who consume it 4-6 times a week, this is a fairly healthy amount of red meat consumption. Certainly within the parameters of the 70g per day recommended amount of red meat as per the NHS website. Moreover, fourteen of the individuals on the survey answered that they would cut down their red meat consumption considering it has been linked to the development of cancer, matched with eight people who have said they will not cut down their consumption despite the risk and six people to whom it does not apply as they do not consume red meat.
It appears that like a lot of human activity that people enjoy or that is so habitual, it is difficult to give up. When asked whether people would completely cut out red meat, fifteen people answered that they would not and six people said they would, with 7 people abstaining from the question. Moreover, despite the link to cancer, sixteen people voted that there should not be warning labels on red meat in comparison to twelve people who voted that there should be. However, on a positive note, twenty people against eight said they would approve of an increased taxation on red meat from which the derived revenue can be invested into alternatives to red meat and associated farming practices that are less cruel, not as bad for human health and the environment. I also included a question on the potential of consuming 3D printed meat, when asked whether people would eat such meat, ten answered that they would, five would not, 11 would potentially consider and two people provided a ‘maybe’ answer with the statement “if it tastes as good/better than real meat.”
Furthermore, on the survey I brought up some questions about veganism and whether the individual would consider becoming a vegan. Eight people answered in the positive, ten people answered in the negative, five people would maybe consider veganism and five further people said they would not go fully vegan but would consider a life without such reliance on meat and animal derived products. I then asked a question on why people would become vegan. People who answered in the negative before, still provided a reason why they might be a vegan even though they intend not to be one. Five people from the outset stated they did not want to be a vegan. Eight people said they would become a vegan for environmental reasons, two people for ethical and animal rights reasons, four for human health related reasons and seven people would be vegan for a combination of the three aforementioned reasons.
TO SUM IT ALL UP
From this data I sense no real emotions of shock or surprise. The number of vegans and vegetarians is what I expected, if not slightly more than anticipated. People’s awareness of the impacts of red meat on human health and the environment is promising and their desire en masse to increase taxation of it to fund more suitable and safer alternatives is promising. Moreover, the desire for individuals to move to veganism will always be beneficial for an individual’s carbon footprint. However, as previously mentioned, it is important for an individual to be environmentally conscious but no real change can be effectuated without policy-makers and industry leaders coming together to put profiteering aside and instead favour farming methods that places environmental protection and the maintenance of human health at its core. So, in conclusion, red meat is dangerous for human health but this is greatly exacerbated by farming practices and the insatiable desire for profit, which in turn is wreaking havoc on the natural environment, which in turn is causing the destruction of ecosystems and the planet itself, which in turn is also damaging to human health.
 https://academic.oup.com/ije/advance-article/doi/10.1093/ije/dyz064/5470096 – see ‘Discussion’ heading for information regarding bacon consumption
 Ibid (n i)