“Throw more steak on the barbie” is a regular call-in line with Australia’s top pastime of BBQ-ing with family and friends. Unsurprisingly, in 2013, Australia was the world’s biggest meat consumer, although our consumption is now declining.
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 (s) 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 (r), 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 1400 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 UN-recommended 80-90 grams daily, causes an 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.
Raising livestock for meat consumption has severe environmental consequences.
Cattle through frequent belching emit the potent greenhouse gas (GHG), methane, responsible for 44% of global GHG emissions in the agricultural industry.
Livestock is responsible for 15% 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% 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 livelihoods.
The UN found that average emissions (kg 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 ten times less water compared to producing 1 kg of protein from beef.
Research published in Nature shows that without action, environmental impacts of the food system could increase 50 to 90% by 2050 resulting from population growth and rise in meat diets, as expanding middle-classes aspire to ‘affluence’.
Environmental effects would be “beyond planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity.”
Western individuals should drastically reduce red meat consumption by 90% and rely more on chicken, beans and vegetables.
The topic is assessed 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, 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.
It is non-essential for human well-being since alternative protein and nutrient sources exist so meat consumption could either be eliminated (vegetarianism) or drastically reduced.
It is one of the easiest things Muslims can do to live more ethically and restore the environment.
Let’s do it this Ramadan and then through the year post Ramadan.