Why Is Meat Bad For The Environment?

An illustration of various farm animals commonly raised to produce meat.

Most people eat meat, but a majority of us are at least somewhat misinformed about the relationship between meat and climate change.

Regardless of what our ancestors ate, meat consumption today has an enormous impact on our planet.

The good news is, your lifestyle and diet choices can drastically reduce your impact!

While the list of negative impacts from eating meat is quite long, the solutions, at least in your own life, are relatively easy to grasp.

So, why is eating meat bad for the environment?

How much meat do we actually eat?

Before we dive into the various problems with the meat industry, let’s talk about how much meat we actually eat. Also, who is eating the most?

And just to be clear, we’re mainly going to be covering meat farmed on land. Which isn’t to make light of things like the seafood industry or overfishing – they’re just separate topics.

So, which countries are the most responsible for eating all of this meat? As you can see below, almost every nation across the globe eats a substantial amount of meat, with a few exceptions like various parts of the African continent.

A chart showing the amount of meat consumed per person across the globe.

Interestingly, places like New Zealand, Canada, and Switzerland all seem to be reaching their peak in certain types of meat consumption – which is good news. The issue is that these cases are quite rare, and mainly found within more developed countries.

And not everyone within a specific country eats the same amount of meat, of course. As the world focuses in on the carbon footprint of beef, studies are producing startling data in places like America – with recent data suggesting that around 50% of beef is eaten by the top 12% of consumers.

What are the environmental impacts of meat consumption?

Driving by roadside pastures filled with cows grazing isn’t really all that concerning for most, and why would it be? Compared to obvious signs of pollution like plumes of smoke flowing from oil refineries, the negative effects of industrial meat production aren’t as clear.

Cattle being fed at a trough, a major source of beef emissions.

Let’s go over the major issues with mass meat production:

Animal agriculture produces substantial greenhouse gas emissions. The clearest, looming issue with meat consumption is the amount of carbon emissions it produces overall, from “farm” to table.

A graph showing the missions associated with animal and plant-based products.

It’s not a small amount either, with up to 18% of global emissions attributed to the livestock industry, with most of that coming from beef specifically. Much of the carbon footprint of meat can be traced back to methane, a gas produced by animals like sheep or cows everytime they belch, fart, or poop through a process called enteric fermentation.

enteric fermentation: methane produced by microbes within animals like cows during digestion

This process is both natural and unavoidable; but unfortunately, methane has more than 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2). And animals tend to poop, a lot.

Animal agriculture pollutes drinkable water and breathable air. Alongside releasing methane, massive farms and meat factories also contribute to an alarming amount of air and water pollution. Which sounds vague – after all, what doesn’t lead to pollution?

A hot, steamy pile of animal manure releasing methane.
Image by Karoly Lorentey via Flickr

Animal poop is the main culprit, as all of this waste produced by animals leads to vast streams of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other pollutants entering our air and water supplies. In fact, there’s so much waste involved that communities living near factory farms are at greater risk of developing health issues like respiratory irritation, chronic asthma, and even weakened immune systems.

Studies concerning air-quality are even beginning to link food production, specifically animal-based food, with a growing number of air-quality related health issues in places like the US – a threat even to those who drink the cleanest water in the world.

Excess animal waste creates oceanic dead zones. The poop-related issues don’t stop there, as animal feces affect more than our freshwater supplies. These polluted rivers and streams eventually flow into our oceans, and large swaths of oceanic dead zones tend to form where rivers converge.

dead zones: oceanic areas without enough oxygen to support biodiverse ecosystems

When too many nutrients collect in one area, massive algal bloom events occur which then suffocate and kill various aquatic animals like fish, marine birds, and other predators which feed on them.

A huge, green algal bloom off the coast of Lake Erie, the fourth largest lake in the Great Lakes, USA.

If you’re looking for a specific example, pollution linked to meat producers like Tyson Foods and Cargill is thought to be the leading driver of one of the largest dead zones found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Animals require too much freshwater. Nowadays, most people are either living in drought-vulnerable areas or regularly hear about a lack of water in the news. What most are unaware of, however, is that animal agriculture currently uses around 30% of our planet’s freshwater.

A sign for fishermen posted in front of a dried up, drought-stricken river.

A common example used to explain just how thirsty meat production is the fact that, on average, it requires nearly 43,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef – around half a standard size swimming pool to make a couple of hamburgers.

A majority of this water is used to grow the crops used to feed cattle, like alfalfa. A perfect example of the absurdity involved in all of this is alfalfa grown in the drought-stricken desert of Arizona, USA being shipped across the globe to feed cattle herds in Saudi Arabia.

Meat production leads to extensive deforestation. Beef is one of the main foods from the rainforest you most likely eat on the regular, and it’s also the leading cause of deforestation within these beautiful ecosystems.

While this issue isn’t entirely due to farming animals, some of our planet’s most important forests are being clear cut to make room for cattle grazing land or to grow crops like soy; if you weren’t aware, soy is the largest source of protein in animal feed.

Why is eating meat bad for us?

The arguments against eating meat extend beyond environmental issues, too. From a health or socioeconomic standpoint, our addiction to tacos and chicken sandwiches can lead to more direct problems.

Eating excessive amounts of meat isn’t good for you. Contrary to popular belief, or at least the philosophy of delusional influencers – animal meat is in no way necessary for optimal human health.

Red and processed meats in particular are actually suspected carcinogens, and that includes unprocessed red meat. If you’re someone who enjoys fast food, even occasionally, you’ve also likely noticed how meat is often just a vehicle for questionable amounts of cheese, bread, salt, and sugar.

Animal agriculture is linked to zoonotic diseases. Animal agriculture is also intertwined with the spread of zoonotic diseases; the most famous of which being things like H1N1 (swine flu), Ebola, and even COVID-19.

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell infected by the Novel Coronavirus Omicron virus.

zoonotic disease: an infectious disease that can spread from animal to human

The cramped environments animals are forced to live in are perfect breeding grounds for disease, and this in turn has led to widespread antibiotic usage within the industry.

Turkeys crowded into a filthy, stuffy factory farm barn.

With around 80% of medicinally important antibiotics being shared amongst livestock, experts are becoming increasingly vocal about the threat of antibiotic resistance spreading in the near future.

Eating meat is inefficient and wasteful. Most people who eat meat everyday aren’t thinking about how efficient their cheeseburger is. However, with a rapidly growing global population it’s become quite obvious we humans need a cheap, efficient, and healthy source of protein (the most efficient would be eating bugs and insect protein).

So why is meat production inefficient? It all comes down to calories. All of the issues above contribute to this, but to put it simply: animal agriculture uses over 80% of agricultural land to produce fewer than 20% of calories overall.

Another tragic aspect of eating meat is the sheer amount of plastic involved. Fast food wrappers, vacuum sealed grocery packs, to-go containers; all of these packaging options involve non-recyclable plastic and are basically required because of how quickly animal products spoil.

Eating meat directly leads to animal suffering. The unfortunate reality of the meat industry is that, no matter how it’s done, farming animals ultimately leads to both pain and suffering on a massive scale.

Cramped piglets in a dimly lit factory farm pen.

An abstract topic for most people who don’t work in a slaughterhouse, of course, but the fact remains that every bite of meat you take involves the death of an animal – with many species we eat even being capable of forming their own societies and animal culture.

Are there solutions to the environmental impacts of eating meat?

Can meat sustainability really be achieved? If you’re someone looking to learn a bit about how you can personally contribute to reducing the impact animal agriculture has on the environment, here are a few ideas:

Embrace plant-based or vegan diets and lifestyles. Veganism means different things to different people – but the overall idea is to live your life in a way that minimizes harming animals.

While you don’t necessarily have to learn how to go vegan, it’s the single most impactful thing you could do if you truly want to reduce your impact. A plant-based diet accomplishes a similar goal; depending on where you live, you can start by substituting plant based meat within your diet.

Plants like beans and legumes are some of the healthiest protein options that exist, and they offer a range of health benefits as well. Vegetarians and vegans have been shown to be at a reduced risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers.

An assortment of protein-rich dried beans and legumes ready to be cooked.

Another interesting development is lab grown meat, also known as cultivated meat, a relatively new technology that involves growing things like chicken nuggies and steaks within production facilities without slaughtering any animals.

Educate yourself about meat and dairy subsidies. The animal agriculture industry receives a staggering amount of subsidies – in other words, your money, collected through taxes, is then given to beef farmers via agricultural subsidies.

Here’s a PBS Frontline documentary I really enjoyed that talks a bit about how we ended up in our current situation (from 2002):

Being aware of how local and national governments favor the meat industry is a key part of reexamining how you vote and support future reforms. Taxes being funneled into an industry that produces high amounts of emissions while also negatively impacting our health seems insane – but most tend to go about their lives completely unaware.

Get involved with sustainable agriculture and gardening. The issues with meat extend beyond animals themselves – many of the problems are due to the crops we feed them. Massive monoculture farming operations require large quantities of land, water, pesticides, and even GMOs in some circumstances. While GMOs aren’t dangerous, the socioeconomic problems that come along with them can be.

Some solutions to these problems can be found within the world of sustainable agriculture. While not all meat industry problems can be fixed, educating yourself on the topic or even learning how to start a garden or begin backyard composting is still super valuable information.

Final thoughts

Meat consumption and climate change go hand-in-hand, with our addiction to convenient, greasy, fleshy meals only recently becoming a major topic of discussion amongst climate scientists.

While a major shift within the animal agriculture industry seems far off, a general awareness of the environmental impact of eating meat is starting to take off all across the globe.

Do you have any thoughts on why the meat industry is bad for our planet?

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