The Environmental Impact of Eating Meat

Recent studies support the hypothesis that plant-based diets are environmentally better than meat-based diets.

BEEF is the single food with the greatest impact on the environment!

Beef makes a substantial contribution to food security, providing protein, energy and also essential micro-nutrients to human populations. Rumination allows cattle – and other ruminant species – to digest fibrous feeds that cannot be directly consumed by humans.

However environmental sustainability issues are acute.

They mainly relate to the low efficiency of beef cattle in converting natural resources into edible products. Water use, land use, biomass appropriation and greenhouse gas emissions are for example typically higher per unit of edible product in beef systems than in any other livestock systems, even when corrected for nutritional quality.

OTHER high impacting foods on the environment are cheese, fish and milk.

There appears to be:

  • a lack of awareness of the association between meat consumption and climate change
  • a perceptions of personal meat consumption playing a minimal role in the global context of climate change
  • resistance to the idea of reducing personal meat consumption

In general, people associate eating meat with pleasure, and there are social, personal and cultural values around eating meat. There is some skepticism of scientific evidence linking meat and climate change.

Environmental impacts:

1. Animal waste

Scientists have said that the impact of animal waste (liquid manure from livestock cleanliness) on the ecosystem is comparable to the impact of pesticides and chemical fertilizers (World Watch Institute, 2004).

In Italy, farm animals produce about 19 million tons per year of waste that, owing to their poor organic content and high pollutant content, cannot be used as fertilizers. At present, they are spread over the ground, leading to severe nitrogen pollution of water springs, waterways and seas. 

2. Land use

According to EU data, Europe can grow enough vegetable proteins (such as SOYA) to feed all its inhabitants, but not all its farm animals.

In addition the increase in the use of land for animal husbandry purposes is linked to deforestation and to the modification of the management of rainforests. Every year 17 million hectares of rainforests are destroyed, and the trend is increasing.

In semi-arid areas like Africa, land is increasingly used for extensive farming of products, which are not used to feed the local human population but are exported to developed countries as cattle feed or for cattle grazing. This use of land is an important factor responsible for the desertification process. The UN estimate that at present 70% of drylands and 25% of the total land area of the world is undergoing desertification. 

3. Damage to respiration from inorganic chemical compounds; and consumption of fossil fuels (used in production and transport of foodstuffs)

If animals are considered as “food production machines” these machines turn out to be extremely polluting, to have a very high consumption and to be very inefficient!

When vegetables are transformed into animal proteins, most of the proteins and energy contained in the vegetables are wasted: the vegetables consumed as feed are used by the animals for their metabolic processes, as well as to build non-edible tissue like bones, cartilage, offal and faeces.

A large amount of energy is also used in production of animal feed and the upkeep of animal husbandry facilities (stables, abattoirs etc.).

If we only take into account fossil fuel consumption, production of one calorie:

  • from beef needs 40 calories of fuel
  • from milk needs 14 fuel calories
  • from grains needs 2.2 fuel calories of fossil fuels.

4. Water consumption

Water consumption represents the most dramatic impact on our environment.

Animal farming and agriculture are responsible for 70% freshwater consumption on the planet; whereas only 22% of water is used by industry and 8% is used for domestic purposes.

The issue of water shortage can be explicitly linked to eating habits! The planet’s freshwater reserves will eventually no longer be sufficient to feed our descendants with the present Western diet (‘Water week’: Stockholm, 2004).

Cattle feed on grains (even free range) need much more water than is necessary to grow cereals.

In summary:

Production of livestock accounts for 18% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Although livestock products can alleviate malnutrition in poor countries, they are associated with diseases of affluence in wealthy countries. Red meat (pork, beef, sheep and goat), especially, is associated with higher rates of death due to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

A policy of reducing consumption of red meat in wealthy countries and encouraging a limited consumption increase in poor countries would benefit the climate as well as human health.


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