Is Eating Meat Bad for the Environment? (Climate Crisis Cuisine)
Uncovering the environmental impact of meat consumption
Published:
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Is Eating Meat Bad for the Environment? (Climate Crisis Cuisine)
Uncovering the environmental impact of meat consumption
Published:
Loading reading time...
Is Eating Meat Bad for the Environment? (Climate Crisis Cuisine)
Uncovering the environmental impact of meat consumption
Published:
Last updated:
Loading reading time...

Yes, meat consumption is bad for the environment

Meat production has been identified as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to the exhaust from all the vehicles on the road.

The appetite for meat also drives deforestation and habitat destruction, leading to a loss of biodiversity.

Key takeaways

  • Meat production accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Beef is the least sustainable meat.
  • The land used for meat production could be repurposed for crops. With less land for livestock, we could reduce deforestation and prevent biodiversity loss.
  • A reduction in meat consumption can also help address food insecurity.
  • Ethical meat options include lab-grown meat, insects, game meat, sustainably raised animals, and plant-based meat alternatives.
  • Foods with lower carbon footprints than animal-based food include legumes, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, and plant-based dairy alternatives.
Animals grazing on deforested land, emitting methane, contributing to climate change

The ecological impact of meat-eating

Meat’s impact extends beyond the loss of flora and fauna. It also demands considerable land and water resources.

To produce a single kilogram of beef, for example, thousands of litres of water are required, exacerbating water scarcity issues.

Moreover, with the global population projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, the environmental cost of meat production poses serious questions about sustainability and food security.

Livestock farming and greenhouse gases – the facts

Meat production accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production.

More worryingly, meat production causes twice the pollution of plant-based food production.

With such staggering statistics, we must examine the impact of our diets.

So how does meat eating impact greenhouse gas emissions, and what can we do to create a more sustainable food system?

An image depicting the impact of meat eating on greenhouse gas emissions. The visual shows a cow with the letters "CO2" written on its body, symbolizing the significant contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions. The image highlights the link between meat consumption and environmental degradation, particularly in relation to climate change.

Carbon dioxide release

The connection between cattle and carbon dioxide begins with land use. Deforestation for grazing or feed production releases immense amounts of carbon stored in trees.

Factory farming, reliant on fossil fuels for operation and transportation, adds to the energy consumption and agricultural carbon footprint.

Methane emissions from livestock

Cattle and other livestock are like natural factories for methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Through a process called enteric fermentation, they produce methane, which is over 25 times more impactful on global warming than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Nitrous oxide in agriculture

Agriculture’s unseen gas, nitrous oxide, stems largely from soil management practices. Fertilisers used to grow feed create a significant nitrous oxide output and contribute to global warming.

A brief history of meat-eating

Meat has been vital to human history and contributed to developing our ancestors’ brains. From early hominins with stone tools to advanced hunting and preservation techniques.

This evolution in meat consumption habits has transformed societies, cultures and traditions.

Meat in ancient civilisations

Meat played a significant role in ancient societies from Egypt to Greece and Rome. In these civilisations, meat played varied roles in ceremonial rituals or as luxury items for the wealthy.

Captivating 3D animation scene featuring ancient civilisations gathered around a grand banquet table adorned with a luxurious, eyecatching green tablecloth.

Meat and religion

Religion has shaped cultural attitudes surrounding the consumption of meat throughout history.

While some religions advocate for strict dietary laws or lean towards vegetarianism, others permit a wider range of meat consumption with deeper symbolic meanings or ceremonial practices.

Examples of religious dietary laws include

  • Kosher food in Judaism
  • Halal laws in Islam
  • The avoidance of beef in Hinduism
  • The principle of non-harming in Buddhism

Christianity has a more varied relationship with meat consumption. Different denominations and cultural traditions foster divergent perspectives on this issue.

The meat industry in the modern era

The meat industry has transformed from small-scale, local operations to a global production, packing, preservation, and marketing network.

Is eating meat bad for the environment? A polluted landscape with factory smoke and animal waste, illustrating the environmental impact of meat consumption

The shift from family-owned businesses to large, industrialised companies has had an impact.

  • Large-scale cattle farming requires vast amounts of land for grazing and growing feed. This contributes to deforestation and habitat loss.
  • Technological advances have allowed the meat industry to scale, standardise and improve efficiency.

Despite the immense growth of the meat industry, significant concerns exist. A decline in traditional farming has affected the environment, human health, and animal welfare.

These concerns have led some consumers to seek alternative protein sources or more sustainable diets.

The most consumed type of meat by country. Infographic by the Visual Capitalist
Meat consumption by country. Source: Visual Capitalist

Is eating meat sustainable? Taking a look at the carbon footprint of different meats

World in Data suggests cutting meat and dairy could eradicate food emissions. This includes food production and the opportunity cost associated with agricultural land use.

Chart from Our World in Data that we can save 14.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent by going vegan.
Source: Our World in Data

If you are considering becoming a vegan, this video provides a good overview of the benefits of changing diets.

Which meats are worse for the environment?

There is variation in the environmental footprint of different meats. For instance, beef production has higher emissions than poultry, pork or lamb.

Based on data from Our World in Data, below is a comparison of greenhouse gas emissions for various foods. (measured in kilograms of CO₂ equivalent per 1000 kilocalories)

  • Beef: 36.4
  • Lamb and mutton: 12.5
  • Pork: 5.2
  • Chicken and turkey: 5.3

By comparison. plant-based food (average) generates less than 1kg in CO₂ equivalent

Chart from Our World in Data showing Beef's ghg emissions of 36.44kg per 1000 calories.
Source: Our World in Data

Beef is the least sustainable meat

Beef is considered the least sustainable meat because it requires a large amount of land, water, and energy.

Livestock farming also increases methane emissions and exacerbates water scarcity in vulnerable regions.

Across the supply chain, beef production generates

  • 10x more greenhouse gas emissions than chicken, pork, and turkey.
  • 20x more emissions than plant-based foods.

Yet, it is seen as a valuable source of protein. On a global average, beef production releases around 110lb (50kg) of greenhouse gases for every 100g of protein it provides.

In comparison, nuts and pulses produce less than 1kg for the same amount.

Midjourney interpretation of a captivating 3D animation showcases the implication of too much cattle farming

Poultry and pork have less impact than beef but still contribute to climate change

While chicken is is chicken more sustainable than beef, it still has an impact.

Feed used in poultry and pork production is made from crops like soy and corn. These require large amounts of water and energy to produce. Using monoculture crops in animal feed also contributes to soil degradation and water pollution.

Are fish and seafood more sustainable?

Certain types of fish and seafood are more climate-friendly. It depends on how they are caught or farmed.

Wild-caught fish can be sustainable using methods that don’t harm the marine ecosystem, such as pole and line fishing or traps.

However, some fishing methods, such as bottom trawling or dredging, can damage the ocean floor and result in the capture of non-target species.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, can be sustainable if it is done in a way that does not harm the environment and promotes the welfare of the fish.

Sustainable aquaculture practices include using:

  • Recirculating systems that reduce water use and waste
  • Feeding fish with sustainable feed sources
  • Avoiding the use of antibiotics and other chemicals

However, not all fish and seafood are equally sustainable. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and poorly regulated and unsustainable aquaculture operations can all harm marine ecosystems and reduce fish populations.

To make sustainable seafood choices, it is vital to look for certification labels. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). This can indicate that the fish or seafood has been sustainably caught or farmed.

Additionally, choosing locally sourced and seasonal seafood can help to reduce the carbon footprint of the production and transportation of the seafood.

Which is the most ethical meat to eat?

Determining the most ethical meat depends on several factors. These include animal welfare, environmental impact, and personal values.

Animals grazing on crowded land.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few options that are often considered more ethical:

  1. Lab-grown meat. Also known as cultured or cell-based meat. Lab-grown meat is produced by cultivating animal cells without raising and slaughtering animals. This method reduces the need for factory farming and its associated ethical and environmental issues.
  2. Insects. Insect farming has a lower environmental impact compared to traditional livestock farming. Insects like crickets and mealworms are protein-rich and require less land, water, and feed. They also produce fewer greenhouse gases and can be more humanely harvested.
  3. Game meat. Wild game like deer, elk, and bison often have more natural and less stressful lives than factory-farmed animals. However, it’s essential to consider the ecological impact of hunting and potential overhunting.
  4. Sustainably raised animals. Animals raised on small, sustainable, and humane farms can be an ethical choice. To ensure higher welfare standards, look for certifications like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or Global Animal Partnership.
  5. Plant-based meat alternatives. While not technically meat, plant-based alternatives can provide similar taste and texture experiences. And do so without the ethical concerns associated with raising and slaughtering animals.

It is essential to consider your personal values and priorities when making food choices.

Researching the source of your meat and choosing more ethically can cut the negative impact on animals and the environment.

Which foods have a lower carbon footprint than meat?

Various plant-based foods surround a piece of meat.

Many foods have a lower greenhouse gas footprint than meat, including:

  1. Legumes (e.g. lentils, chickpeas, beans). A great source of protein. They also have a high nutrient content, making them a healthy addition to any diet.
  2. Vegetables. A great source of vitamins and minerals. They can be eaten raw or cooked and can be used in a variety of dishes.
  3. Grains (e.g. rice, quinoa, wheat). A staple food in many cultures and are low in carbon emissions. They are also a good source of carbohydrates and fibre.
  4. Nuts and seeds. Excellent sources of protein, healthy fats, and fibre. They are also low in carbon emissions.
  5. Plant-based dairy alternatives (e.g. soy milk, almond milk). Many recipes could use plant-based dairy alternatives instead of cow’s milk.

Incorporating more of these foods into your diet can reduce your environmental impact. They are less harmful because of their production methods and their carbon food miles tend to be lower.

Why is meat consumption bad for the environment?

An image depicting four factors contributing to emissions from meat consumption. The visual shows four icons, each representing a different factor. The first icon shows a cow with methane gas emissions coming from its mouth, representing the methane produced from livestock digestion. The second icon shows a forest being cleared, representing land-use change and deforestation associated with livestock farming. The third icon shows a bag of fertilizers and a corn plant, representing the use of fertilizers and feed production for livestock. The fourth icon shows a truck and a factory, representing the emissions associated with transportation and processing of meat products.

Methane from livestock digestion

One major contributor to emissions is methane production during digestion in ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep.

  1. Potency. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of approximately 25-32 times more harmful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time frame (EPA/Nisbet et al.). Methane is much more effective at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This escalates global warming and the climate crisis.
  2. Enteric methane emissions. Ruminant animals produce methane during their natural digestive process called enteric fermentation. As they digest food, microbes in their stomachs break down complex carbohydrates, releasing large quantities of methane as a byproduct. This methane is then expelled into the atmosphere when the animals burp.
  3. Manure management. Methane is also produced during the decomposition of manure. Tiny living things called microbes create methane gas when animal waste is kept in places without much oxygen.
  4. The volume of livestock. The large number of animals raised for global meat and dairy production contributes to increasing enteric methane emissions and manure decomposition.
  5. Long-term effects. Although methane has a shorter atmospheric lifespan than CO2, its impact is faster. Reducing methane emissions could have a more immediate effect than cutting CO2 levels.

Land use change and deforestation

Another significant factor is land use change and deforestation.

Demand for meat increases the need for agricultural land. Forests are often cleared to grow feed for livestock or create pastureland.

Lush green forests are cleared for cattle grazing, while rivers are polluted with animal waste.

World in Data reveals that nearly 50% of Earth’s habitable land is allocated to agriculture. This leaves only 38% for forests, 14% for shrubs, and 1% for freshwater resources. Urban and built-up land accounts for a mere 1%.

The data also shows that over three-quarters of the land is dedicated to livestock and dairy. This is despite the industry contributing only 18% of global calories and 37% of protein.

46% of habitable land-use is taken by agriculture
Source: Our World in Data

The loss of forests releases large amounts of carbon dioxide stored in plants and soil. This reduces the ability of forests to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

Other drivers of emissions from land use include:

  1. Soybean cultivation. The expansion of soybean cultivation for animal feed has increased deforestation, especially in regions such as the Amazon rainforest in South America.
  2. Cattle ranching. Beef production is a leading cause of deforestation. In Brazil, large areas of the Amazon rainforest have been cleared to create pasture for cattle.
  3. Land degradation. Converting forests and other natural ecosystems into agricultural land often leads to soil degradation and erosion. Livestock grazing and crop production can result in losing fertile topsoil and productivity. This leads to an unsustainable circle. Forest areas are cleared for livestock as degraded land becomes unsuitable for agriculture.
  4. Biodiversity loss. Land use change harms biodiversity by destroying habitats and disrupting ecosystems. This can lead to the loss of plant and animal species. Some of which may play crucial roles in maintaining ecosystem health and stability.

Finding ways to address deforestation is crucial to preserving our land.

6442c2c2ecbc880057887e12 Carbon Opportunity Costs of Livestock Hayek et al
Source: World in Data

Fertilisers and animal feed production

Production of synthetic fertiliser and livestock feed also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The manufacturing process of fertilisers releases nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas with 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Additionally, the decomposition of excess fertilisers on fields leads to further nitrous oxide emissions. Feed crops like soy and corn need large amounts of synthetic fertilisers.

Animals grazing on lush green grass, while factories emit smoke into the air. Trash litters the ground, and polluted water flows nearby

They often involve intensive agricultural practices. This includes fossil fuel-powered machinery for planting, cultivation, and harvest.

Encouraging earth-friendly farming methods is vital to help fight climate change. These methods include careful farming, using resources wisely, using the right amount of plant food, and managing nutrients to keep everything balanced.

Transportation and processing

The transportation and processing of meat products play a role in greenhouse gas emissions. The movement of live animals, feed, and final products between farms, processing facilities, and markets generates carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

The energy required for processing and packaging meat products also often relies on burning fossil fuels.

Food waste

The United Nations estimates that 20% of the 263m tonnes of meat produced globally is wasted.

This means that all the resources that went into producing it are also wasted, including water, land, feed, and energy.

This contributes to the depletion of natural resources and exacerbates environmental issues. Not to mention social problems such as food security and higher prices.

Additionally, the decomposition of meat in landfills releases more methane into the atmosphere.

Can meat be environmentally friendly?

While a plant-based diet is more eco-friendly, there are some ways to reduce the environmental impact of meat consumption.

  • Buy local and sustainability assured. This reduces emissions from transport and can lessen the impact of deforestation.
  • Eating organic chicken or pork. These are less climate-intensive than beef and do not emit methane.
  • Reducing your meat intake. Greenpeace suggests that everyone needs to reduce meat eating by 70% by 2030.
  • Choosing grass-fed meat. Grasslands act as a carbon sink and provide floral diversity that depends on grazing to flourish.

Steps to reduce the environmental cost of meat

An image illustrating four steps to reduce the impact of meat on greenhouse gas emissions. The visual shows four icons, each representing a different step. The first icon shows a plate with a smaller portion of meat, representing reducing meat consumption. The second icon shows a plant-based burger, representing alternative protein sources. The third icon shows a piece of paper with regulations written on it, representing regulations and policies. The fourth icon shows a factory with a wind turbine, representing technological advancements. The image highlights the various strategies that can be employed to reduce the environmental impact of meat consumption.

Reducing meat consumption

One effective way to reduce the impact of meat is to consume less of it. This could be done in several ways:

  • Gradual reduction. Consumers can gradually reduce their meat consumption over time. Start with Meatless Mondays or reduce meat intake to a certain number of weekly meals.
  • Plant-based meat alternatives. Tofu, tempeh, seitan, and legumes are protein-rich and can be used in various dishes.
  • Flexitarian diet. Mainly eating plant-based meals with small amounts of meat and animal products.
  • Whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are fulfilling and high in nutrients and fibre.
  • Mindful eating. Practice mindful eating.  Slow down during meals, savour each bite, and recognise hunger and fullness cues.
  • Experimenting with new recipes. Try new recipes that use plant-based ingredients and experiment with spices and seasonings to add flavour.
  • Eating locally. Support local farmers and reduce your food’s greenhouse gas footprint. Start by buying locally sourced, seasonal produce and avoiding imported meat.

Adopt a planetary health diet

The Planetary Health Diet is a flexitarian dietary approach developed by the EAT-Lancet Commission in 2019. The diet aims to promote health while reducing the environmental impact of food production.

It is primarily plant-based, focusing on whole, minimally processed foods. The diet also includes modest amounts of animal products but in much smaller quantities than the typical Western diet.

The diet recommends eating no more than

  • 98 grams of red meat (pork, beef or lamb)
  • 203 grams of poultry
  • 196 grams of fish per week

Regulations and policies

Implementing regulations and policies can help reduce the climate impact of meat production.

  • Carbon pricing. Incentivising producers to reduce their emissions by adopting more sustainable practices.
  • Land-use regulations. Regulating land use for animal agriculture. For instance, limiting deforestation or requiring minimum pasture space per animal.
  • Incentives for sustainable practices. Introducing tax credits or subsidies for farmers who adopt more sustainable practices. These could include reducing the use of fossil fuels, using renewable energy, and improving animal welfare.
  • Dietary guidelines. Encouraging a reduction in meat consumption and increased consumption of plant-based foods.
  • Labelling requirements. Requiring meat product labels to highlight the environmental impact of the production process. Researchers at Durham University found that labelling could reduce the selection of meat meals by 7-10% when they described the consequences of meat-eating for health, disease epidemics and climate change.
  • Education and awareness campaigns. To inform consumers about the environmental impact and benefits of reducing meat consumption.
  • Meat taxes. Implementing taxes and levies similar to those imposed on cigarettes and alcohol.

To solve this complicated problem, we need everyone to help. People and businesses must change their habits, and governments must set clear guidelines.

Technological advancements

Several innovations could reduce the impact of meat on greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Alternative protein sources. Researchers are exploring alternatives. Plant-based meat substitutes, cultivated meat, and insect-based protein all have a lower carbon footprint than meat.
  2. Feed additives. Scientists are working on developing feed additives for livestock to reduce methane emissions. For example, seaweed has been found to reduce methane production in cows.
  3. Precision farming. Sensors and data analytics can optimise animal feed and reduce waste. This improved efficiency can lead to reduced emissions from livestock farming.
  4. Renewable energy. Moving meat production facilities to solar and wind power can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
  5. Improved processing techniques. Reducing food waste and enhancing refrigeration systems can reduce processing and distribution chain emissions.

The final bite: is meat bad for the environment?

Yes, meat consumption habits significantly contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global warming. Livestock rearing generates approximately 14.5% of all carbon emissions. This is comparable to the amount produced by all forms of transport combined.

Vegan diets produce 51% fewer GHG emissions than a meat-based diet. Furthermore, a high-meat diet generates 7.19 carbon dioxide equivalents. The vegetarian/vegan diets are 3.81 and 2.89, respectively.

Reducing meat consumption could significantly lower the global GHG emissions of our food. Changing what we eat can also make us healthier and help create a better food system for the Earth. Making our planet happier and healthier too.

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Author

Rob Boyle
Rob built Emission Index to collect and share data, trends and opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and expedite the energy transition.

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