Calls to rethink UAE diet as UN study shows environmental damage of eating meat

In the first part of a series on environmental New Year's resolutions for the UAE, The National looks at the damage of eating meat.

Turning a new leaf: As part of The National's Earth Matters coverage, we look at some potential New Year's resolutions for the UAE to help the environment, in a series examining meat consumption, water conservation, food waste and driving habits.

ABU DHABI // Eating a cheeseburger could be more damaging to the environment than driving to work each day, new research shows.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the average emissions to produce one kilogram of beef is 46.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

In comparison, the popular but petrol-guzzling Nissan Patrol Safari consumes about 0.25kg of CO2 per kilometre.


A cheeseburger comprises about 200 grams of meat, meaning one serving equals the equivalent of driving 40km – and that is without factoring in the energy it takes to make the cheese and bun.

Dr Ismahane Elouafi, director general of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture research institute, said it was time to rethink our diets.

“We seem to have more people and fewer resources, so it’s completely contradictory to be eating in a way that consumes so much,” she said. “We have to see how to produce for more, for the future of our children.”

To produce enough food, she said, the option of going vegetarian for some days of the week could make a huge difference in each person’s carbon footprint.

Some statistics have shown that the UAE has the highest per capita water consumption in the world.

According to calculations by the Water Footprint Network, if a UAE resident were to refrain from meat two days a week, it would save the equivalent of all the water they use for a n entire year.

“There are viable alternatives now to eating meat, especially considering what we know about how many resources it takes to raise cattle,” said Dr Salwa Karboune, an associate dean of research at the faculty of agricultural and environmental sciences at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

“There are ways of getting the nutrients and protein but from completely vegetarian sources, like quinoa or lentils.

“So imagine, for one kilogram of beef you need 1,870 gallons (8,501 litres) of water. When you compare 1kg of meat to a 1kg of lentils or other pulses, they require 2 per cent the water needed to grow the meat,” said Dr Kabourne, who was in the UAE on a sabbatical.

The FAO has found that the global livestock industry results in the emission of 7.1 billion tons of greenhouse gas per year, about 15 per cent of the total produced by humans.

Although the UAE, which imports more than 90 per cent of its food, does not produce much meat, the demand for animal protein is contributing to this output.

The FAO’s annual report found that on average, UAE residents each consumed about 73.2kg of meat per year, ranking the country among the highest consumers of meat. The organisation predicts that meat consumption is projected to increase up to 70 per cent by 2050.

“People love red meat but it’s resource intensive. When you talk about what it takes to get 1kg of meat, you need to start looking at the amount of water, land and energy it takes,” said Dr Elouafi.

For every step during the agricultural process – from the Sun to grass to cow to humans – only 20 per cent of the energy transfers onto the next phase, making the process of eating meat highly-energy intensive.

During this energy-transfer process, a cow will release 250 to 500L of methane, a greenhouse gas that some scientists believe is 50 times more damaging than CO2.

To meet the goal of reducing global warming to less than two degrees by 2050 it may require humanity to stop eating meat.

Producing 1,500 calories of meat, or about 1kg, creates about 46kg of CO2 emissions. If this amount of energy were used to produce rice, it could grow 54,000 calories of energy.

This is the difference between the meat not providing enough calories to feed one person for a day and having enough rice to feed 27 adults.

“We need to start looking at alternatives to our resource management,” said Dr Elouafi.

The management of land use and identified areas of concern about the livestock industry’s environmental effect was one of the issues discussed at the UN climate change Conference of Parties 22 meeting in November. The next meeting, Cop23, is going to be more focused on agriculture and our diets, Dr Elouafi believes.

The rearing of animals is generally less efficient than the production of equal amounts of plant protein or other foods.