The Blog

Processed Meat: Bad for Us, Bad for the Planet


On Monday, (26th October) the UN's public health arm - World Health Organisation (WHO), classified processed meats, such as ham and sausages, as carcinogenic to people, based on sufficient evidence that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

The report from the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer states that each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily (the equivalent to two rashers of bacon) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

'New' news?

I'd like to say that a report has come out - with shocking new news. And it has shocked people, making headlines throughout the world. But is this really 'new' news?

While I'm delighted that a well-respected agency, well known for their objectivity and impressive research, has declared that processed meats can cause cancer, I can't say that I'm surprised. At Compassion, we have highlighted the negative impacts on human health of industrial livestock production for many years. The high levels of red and processed meat consumption, made possible by industrial farming, lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, as well as causing certain cancers.

This is not an isolated report with many previous studies advising a reduction in red meat and processed meat consumption because of their links with cancer.

Intensive farming's negative impacts

Industrial livestock production has negative effects not only on human health, as highlighted above, but also on the environment and animal welfare.

Around two in every three farm animals are factory farmed in intensive systems that prioritise production above all else, creating vast quantities of seemingly cheap meat, milk and eggs.

But factory farming comes at a cost. Animals are treated as commodities and are often raised in intense confinement. Factory farming is highly dependent on large quantities of precious resources, including cereals, water and energy. It also involves the use of antibiotics, which in turn has serious consequences for human health as it can increase the chance of bacteria becoming antibiotic-resistant.

With a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, the unsustainable demand for more and more meat poses a significant threat not only to our environment and health but to our planet.

Livestock farming: climate change's forgotten sector

Factory farming is an energy-hungry industry, accounting for nearly 15% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, produced an interim report on climate change in August. She stressed that "The world's current consumption pattern of meat and dairy products is a major driver of climate change and climate change can only be effectively addressed if demand for these products is reduced."

Hilal added: "Nations with emerging economies must increase awareness of the implications of meat consumption, while developed countries should demonstrate a willingness to modify consumption behaviour and avoid food waste."

Experts agree that in order to prevent global warming levels becoming critical, we have to keep temperature increases to below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. But as demand for livestock products continues to surge, particularly in developing countries, the emissions from food are poised to increase dramatically.

Next month, global leaders will meet to negotiate a new plan of action on climate change in Paris. But so far our European representatives have refused to recognise factory farming as a major contributor of dangerous greenhouse gases, despite an abundance of scientific evidence proving its irreversible damage. I urge leaders to rethink their current stance on climate change.

It is unlikely that temperature rises can be kept below the 2°C target without a reduction in global meat and dairy demand. Therefore, instead of eating lots of 'cheap' meat from factory farmed animals reared in appalling conditions, we should be eating less, better quality meat and milk products. This change in diet would not only have environmental and health benefits, but would enable farmers to move toward more extensive, humane and sustainable farming methods, such as free range and organic.

To date, livestock farming is climate change's forgotten sector. This must be addressed if the world is to avert the disastrous consequences of exceeding the 2°C threshold, yet world leaders are refusing to acknowledge this at the forthcoming global climate change negotiations.

What can we do?

The WHO's report is just the latest in a series of expert studies that all point to the fact that we need to address meat consumption and industrial livestock production. Not just to end the suffering caused to billions of animals through factory farming or the effects of intensive agriculture on the planet but also to protect our health.

Higher welfare animal products cause less animal suffering. Buying them will encourage investment in higher welfare farming which is smaller scale and poses fewer risks to animals, people and the planet. Find out more and download our Compassionate Food Guide.

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