Yes, eating meat is bad for the environment
But, after researching this article, it is clear that I overeat meat, which is bad for the environment. I thought I was making an impact when I reduced my meat intake from daily to three times a week a few years ago. But I need to do more and encourage my family to lead sustainable lives.
Starting today, I am making a change to help avert a climate breakdown. I aim to reduce the amount of animal and dairy products I eat to 1-2 days a week max. I am not ready for a vegan or vegetarian diet, but I am taking steps.
The environmental impact of meat-eating
As world populations continue to grow, so does the demand for food, including meat. Yet, research has shown that meat production, particularly beef, is environmentally damaging.
Eating meat impacts the environment because its production releases substantial amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, which drive global warming.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that livestock accounts for 12% of global emissions. In fact, 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?
- Meat production accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from food production. Beef is the least sustainable meat due to its land/water use and methane production.
- Poultry and pork have lower impacts than beef but still contribute to climate change. Fish and seafood can be more climate-friendly depending on how they’re caught or farmed.
- 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.
- There are steps we can take to mitigate the impact of meat production. These include reducing meat consumption, supporting sustainable farming, and technological innovation.
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.
- In ancient Egypt, meat was crucial in religious and ceremonial rituals. Animal sacrifices were common.
- In ancient Greece, meat was considered a luxury item. It was primarily enjoyed by the upper class or on special occasions.
- The ancient Roman diet mainly consisted of plant-based foods. Though, meat was consumed by the wealthy at opulent banquets.
Meat and religion
Religion has shaped cultural attitudes surrounding the consumption of meat throughout history. Religious beliefs often dictate:
- What types of meat are permissible
- How animals are slaughtered
- The significance of meat in ritualistic or symbolic contexts
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.
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.
Overview of meat production
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.
Livestock farming and greenhouse gases
The livestock industry contributes significantly to emissions. In fact, meat production accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gases from food production.
The primary sources of these emissions include manure, enteric fermentation, and feed production.
Enteric fermentation is the digestive process in ruminant animals such as cows and sheep. It releases significant amounts of methane – a potent greenhouse gas.
Additionally, feed production needs large quantities of fertilisers, leading to nitrous oxide emissions.
Is eating meat sustainable? Taking a look at the carbon footprint of different meats
Meat and dairy production accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
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
Beef is the least sustainable meat
Beef is considered the least sustainable meat for several reasons, including:
- Land. A large amount of land is needed for grazing and growing feed. This contributes to deforestation and land degradation, as forests are cleared to create grazing areas. This creates significant carbon opportunity costs. Land and forestry could be used more productively to absorb emissions.
- Water Use. A large amount of water is needed for both drinking and growing feed. This strains water resources, especially in regions where water scarcity is an issue.
- Emissions. Methane is produced during the digestive process and the decomposition of animal manure.
- Energy Use. A significant amount of energy is used for transportation and processing. The majority of this energy is derived from fossil fuels.
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.
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 the animal feed also contributes to soil degradation and water pollution.
Like beef, poultry and pork production requires large amounts of water for drinking and crop irrigation. This can contribute to water pollution when manure runoff is not managed correctly.
Overall, poultry and pork are more environmentally sustainable than beef. But, their production can still have significant negative impacts on the environment.
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.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But here are a few options that are often considered more ethical:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Many foods have a lower greenhouse gas footprint than meat, including:
- 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.
- Vegetables. A great source of vitamins and minerals. They can be eaten raw or cooked and can be used in a variety of dishes.
- 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.
- Nuts and seeds. Excellent sources of protein, healthy fats, and fibre. They are also low in carbon emissions.
- 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?
Methane from livestock digestion
One major contributor to emissions is methane production during digestion in ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep.
Methane from livestock digestion impacts climate change in several significant ways:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- Soybean cultivation. The expansion of soybean cultivation for animal feed has increased deforestation, especially in regions such as the Amazon rainforest in South America.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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. 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
Finally, 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.
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
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 the greenhouse gasfootprint of your food. 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.
Several innovations could reduce the impact of meat on greenhouse gas emissions:
- 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.
- 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.
- Precision farming. Sensors and data analytics can optimise animal feed and reduce waste. This improved efficiency can lead to reduced emissions from livestock farming.
- Renewable energy. Moving meat production facilities to solar and wind power can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
- 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?
In summary, 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.
Even though one action can’t solve the problems caused by eating meat, working together is essential.
Encouraging plant-based diets and sustainable livestock production methods are essential steps. We can then achieve a more environmentally friendly and climate-resilient future.