Ten years ago, a Malaysian researcher called for the Malaysian government to consider impacts of meat consumption on carbon emissions, in formulating National Agricultural Policy and the 10th Malaysian Plan.
Since then national meat consumption has risen a whopping 40 per cent and per head, Malaysia is the second largest Asean meat consumer after Singapore.
God Almighty instructs that cattle have been created for human benefit – food (meat), beverage (milk), clothing (leather) and religious sacrifice: “It is God Who made cattle for you, that you use some for riding and some for food. There are (other) advantages in them for you.” (Qur’an 40:79-80).
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) however, infrequently ate meat – generally gifted lamb. Some call him a ‘semi-vegetarian.’ Meat was considered ‘luxury food’ too expensive for the poor, although they partook from Eidul Adha sacrifices.
Umar al-Khattab (RA), as recorded in Imam Malik’s Muwatta, rebuked a Muslim from a social equity standpoint for buying meat, while warning others that eating meat has “an addictiveness like that of wine.”
These statements 1,400 years ago are uncanny since we know today that feeding livestock grain diverts food from the poor, while modern medicine informs that consuming red meat, beyond the United Nations (UN) recommended intake of 80-90 grams daily, causes increased risk of death, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
Researchers found that switching to the recommended intake could save annual healthcare costs and avoided climate change damages of US$1.5 trillion (RM6.22 trillion) globally.
Raising livestock for meat consumption has severe environmental consequences.
Cattle through frequent belching emit the potent greenhouse gas (GHG), methane, responsible for 44 per cent of global GHG emissions in the agricultural industry.
Livestock are responsible for 15 per cent of all human-generated GHG emissions, greater than those produced by all road vehicles, trains, ships and planes combined.
Forests are carbon sinks containing 80 per cent of the land’s biodiversity, which is declining dramatically.
Nine million hectares of natural forest are cleared annually, largely for agriculture, which severely impacts on indigenous peoples – one fifth of humanity – dependent on forests for their livelihoods.
UN researchers found that average emissions (kilogram CO2-equivalent per kg protein produced) due to beef cattle (295) are much greater than those from sheep and goats for meat (201), cattle for milk (87), and chickens for meat (35).
To produce 1 kg of protein from kidney beans requires 18 times less land and 10 times less water compared to producing 1 kg of protein from beef.
Research published in Natur shows that without action, environmental impacts of the food system could increase 50 to 90 per cent by 2050 resulting from population growth and rise in meat diets, as expanding middle-classes globally aspire to ‘affluence’.
Environmental effects would be “beyond planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.”
The Western world should drastically its red meat consumption by 90 per cent and rely more on chicken, beans and vegetables.
The topic is also assessed here from two Islamic perspectives – Maqasid al-Shari’ah or Islamic law higher objectives and Legal maxims.
Higher objectives stress the protection of life, religion, intellect, progeny and wealth.
Although meat provides benefits, it also creates great harm, especially when consumed frequently, and impacts on earth’s climate and biodiversity, which compromise the higher objectives of protecting life (human health and well-being), wealth and the environment.
Actions causing harm without justification are morally wrong. Legal maxims include that “harm must be eliminated” or “repelled as far as possible.” These perspectives agree that excessively eating meat is unacceptable Islamically.
Meat however, is non-essential for human well-being since alternatve protein and nutrient sources exist so meat consumption could either be eliminated (vegetarianism), or be drastically reduced. If individuals insist on eating meat, then chicken is clearly the preferred choice rather than high carbon-impacting meats.
It is one of the easiest things Muslims can do to live more ethically and restore the environment.
Let us take up this guidance from the sources of Islam to benefit ourselves and all humanity, as well as enhance the resilience and well-being of God’s creatures on Earth.
The writer is Adjunct Fellow at International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia and columnist with the Australasian Muslim Times
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