Climate change dominates the news, and environmental angst seems at an all-time high. The glaciers are melting, ocean circulation is slowing, the Amazon is burning, Donald Trump is President. Bottom line: the future of civilization as we know it may be in peril.   

Considering this, what can we as mere individuals do? The problem seems huge and systemic and frankly… hopeless. Should we recycle more? Compost? Drive less? Reduce waste? Donate to environmental groups? Write to our senators? 

We should do each one of these things. But there is another critical thing – arguably the single biggest way we can reduce our individual environmental impact every day – that most of us likely have not considered: Eat less meat. 

We are only just beginning to understand the far-reaching environmental impacts of meat consumption, but consider the following facts:

  • Meat production is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the combined emissions from all transportation: ([1])
  • Conservative estimates put animal agriculture at roughly 15% of global CO2 emissions, more than all transportation combined. ([2]) Nobel Prize winning physicist and Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu argues that current models still vastly underestimate the environmental impacts associated with meat production. ([3]
  • Huge amounts of land are used to create meat, in a display of profound environmental inefficiency:    
  • Forty-one percent of land in the contiguous United States is used for pasture for animals or to grow crops to feed them, ([4]) an immense amount of space. Imagine what we could do with all of this land:  the forests we could re-grow, the reserves for wildlife or national parks that we could create.
  • More than 80% of farmland is used for meat, aquaculture, eggs and dairy production, yet it only provides 18% of food calories and 37% of our protein[5].
  • Without meat and dairy consumption, land used for farming globally could be reduced by more than 75% – a land area equal to the U.S., China, the European Union, and Australia combined – while still feeding everyone. (Ibid.)
  • The beef industry has caused more than 70 percent of rainforest destruction ([6]): 

Remember the news footage of the Amazon burning? The rainforest is being torched to meet global demand for beef. While we may imagine that cows are just “living off the land,” in fact, huge amounts of corn and soy are grown to feed them, and the Amazon is being set on fire to create more cropland and pasture to sate the world’s appetite for beef. 

Runoff from fertilizers and pesticides used to grow crops for livestock create ocean dead zones and water pollution:

To produce high yields of corn, wheat, soy, and alfalfa to feed animals, farmers apply significant amounts of fertilizers and pesticides on their fields. When it rains, these chemicals drain into our waterways, polluting them and creating oxygen-deprived “dead zones.” One such dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has covered up to 8,500 square miles, an area the size of Massachusetts. ([7]

Beyond polluting water, meat production also uses a ton of it: 

It takes nearly 2,500 gallons of water to produce one single pound of beef ([8]) – as much water as an average person uses for five months of daily showers. While it does not hurt to reduce your water use at home, reducing demand for meat results in greater water savings.

Poop – animals produce a lot of it:

  • Farm animals produce more than two billion tons of manure per year in the US alone. ([9])  This manure contributes to pollution, sending unsafe levels of bacteria into waterways. It can affect human health as well: people living close to hog farms experience higher rates of asthma.
  • Meat production drives wildlife habitat destruction:

We hear a lot about wildlife becoming endangered or extinct because of habitat loss. While most of us would probably blame encroaching cities and suburbs, the burger on our plate and the land it requires are also culprits ([10]).  Wildlife competes with farm animals for land and habitat, and some populations of grizzlies and wolves have already been driven extinct by the livestock industry.  See #2 above.

Meat production is unethical: 

Paul McCartney famously said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” The suffering of animals raised on modern factory farms is the stuff of nightmares. Future generations are likely to look back at the practices of today and wonder how we could be complicit in such treatment of conscious beings.

We do not need meat to be healthy: 

There is scientific consensus that a meat-free diet is healthy.  The American Dietetic Association, the largest organization of credentialed food and nutrition professionals in the US, states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”([11]) Some elite athletes do not eat meat and excel because of it, as shown in James Cameron’s recent film, “The Game Changers.”

There are great alternatives:

  • The veggie burgers of today are nothing like the bean pucks of several years ago, and these next-generation burgers are not only ubiquitous but delicious.  In doubt? Look up “Glenn Beck and the Impossible Burger” video, in which Beck takes a blind taste test and is shocked when he mistakes a burger made from plants for a burger made from an animal.  He exclaims that if veggie burgers are this good, he could be a vegan. 

With all of this in mind, it is imperative that each one of us takes action. Try the veggie option at your next meal. Local grocery stores are full of different plant-based products – try them out.  The future generations who will inhabit our planet are counting on us.

Natalie Mindrum is the former director of sustainability at a Fortune 100 company and has lived in Evanston for the last five years.

End notes:

1. “Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome 2006

2. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/

[1]3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/04/04/meat-and-agriculture-are-worse-for-the-climate-than-dirty-energy-steven-chu-says/#6da475ef11f9

4 https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987

6. https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_destruction.html  

7. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/massive-dead-zone-predicted-to-be-one-of-largest-gulf-of-mexico/

8. https://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/interactive-graphic/water/

9. https://www.newsweek.com/2015/12/18/two-numbers-animal-manure-growing-headache-america-402205.html

10. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/03/21/291495523/how-your-love-of-burgers-may-be-helping-to-drive-wildlife-extinct

11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864