What are the effects of large scale meat consumption on the environment? Is there anything that we can do as consumers to reduce this impact?

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The debate surrounding the consumption of meat is not something which is new to human nature. The most prominent arguments against this large scale consumption are usually related to either the health factor or the subject of animal welfare. Nevertheless another discussion point that is growing in stature is the fact that meat consumption also has a huge impact on the environment.


Environmental writer Ethan Goffman states that meat has an enormous impact on environment. According to a United Nations report livestock is one of the two or three most significant contributors to the environmental problems – it accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is significantly more than transportation. A report by the Environmental Working Group ranked lamb the worst in terms of greenhouse gas emissions followed by beef, cheese pork and farmed salmon. These meats, except salmon, also use up the most resources, having the worst overall environmental impact.

Meat. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/procsilas/3203650430/

Nowadays, farms focus on how to produce their meat in a way which will generate as much profit as possible. Animals are crammed into tiny stalls and given feed – antibiotics and hormones – to maximize growth, and to allow them to be ‘harvested’ as soon as possible. Although these animals do not interact with the outdoor environment, their excrement can still get into fields and be washed into waterways causing health risks. Journalist, Jeff Tietz, reports that the manure of factory farmed pigs includes methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide,  phosphorus, nitrates and heavy metals as well as over 100 microbial pathogens. Communities near factory farms complain of nosebleeds, chronic diarrhea, earaches and burning lungs. Further to this, EPA has found that chicken, cattle and hog manure has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states.

Meat takes up to ten times as much input per unit of food as fruit and vegetables do, and the production consumes an amount of energy that isn’t proportionate to results. Farmed animals in the US produce 130 times as much waste as the human population, and the livestock sector accounts for over 8% of global human water use. The run-off from fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is creating dead zones in the seas, killing fish and causing toxic algal blooms, while some are threatening amphibians, bees and other, sensitive ecosystems.

In terms of the environment, chicken is definitely a better choice, but surprisingly organic and free-range chicken has a worse environmental impact than factory farmed chicken. Energy use of organic chickens is 33% greater than that of free range chickens which stands at 25%. As a result global warming potential was found to be 46% higher from organic and 20% higher due to the production of free range chickens, in comparison to the production of an average, factory chicken. The difference in the statistics is mainly due to the longer time it takes for the organic chickens to grow naturally. Nevertheless, there are also benefits to the organic brand of chicken, for example pesticide use is reduced by 92% during organic chicken production.


Putting aside all the negatives that were listed above, Mother Earth News discusses some benefits of meat production. For example the production of grass-fed meat builds better soil. Converting from grain-fed to grass-fed meat, millions of acres of row crops can be turned into carbon sinks and permanent pasture can be used to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby slowing global warming and conserving water.

Photo Credit: CIFOR/Flickr

Photo Credit: CIFOR/Flickr

However there are even problems with this,  grass-fed meat production takes up a vast amount of land that could be used to grow trees. These trees perform similar functions but on a much larger scale, turning CO2 into oxygen and removing odours and pollutant gases from the atmosphere. The Amazon Rainforest, otherwise known as ‘the world’s refrigerator’ or ‘the lungs of the planet’ is also in danger. Large scale deforestation has occurred to make room for cattle, this provides a double blow to the environment as not only do the cattle produce a large amount of greenhouse gases, but the trees that can nullify this damage are no longer there. As has been shown, meat production has both pros and cons, nevertheless, the dangers caused to the environment outweigh the benefits meat production provides, meaning as a planet we certainly need to cut our meat consumption in order to save the environment we inhabit.

What could we eat instead of meat?

There are many different options such as beans, rice, quinoa, pulses, eggs, milk, tofu, cheese, nuts and seeds, but this does not mean it is necessary to entirely cut out meat from your diet. Possible ways to reduce the impact are when choosing meat to opt for the grass-fed options, alternatively start by attempting to only eat meat every other day, then twice a week, then once a week. Soon you’ll notice, that you don’t necessarily need meat to feel satisfied and to prepare delicious meals full of flavour. There is also a misconception that tasty vegetarian meals are hard to come by and make for a dull diet, but a small amount of investigation on Google will soon show that this is not the case. Through more moderate consumption that wouldn’t cause a drastic change in people’s diets the problem can be substantially reduced.