Why eating meat is bad for the environment

September 22, 2007 | By | 15 Replies More

This issue of eating meat is gaining more momentum, as people start realizing the toll that meat-eating is putting on the environment.  Raising farm animals contributes more greenhouse gases to the environment than all transportation (cars, trains, airplanes and anything else) combined.

This excerpt is from an article on Common Dreams, entitled “Nuggets and Hummers and Fish Sticks, Oh My! Why Vegetarianism Is the Best Way to Help the Environment”:

The vast majority of the calories consumed by a chicken, a pig, a cow, or another animal goes into keeping that animal alive, and once you add to that the calories required to create the parts of the animal that we don’t eat (e.g., bones, feathers, and blood), you find that it takes more than 10 times as many calories of feed given to an animal to get one calorie back in the form of edible fat or muscle. In other words, it’s exponentially more efficient to eat grains, soy, or oats directly rather than feed them to farmed animals so that humans can eat those animals. It’s like tossing more than 10 plates of spaghetti into the trash for every one plate you eat.

And that’s just the pure “calories in, calories out” equation. When you factor in everything else, the situation gets much worse. Think about the extra stages of production that are required to get dead chickens, pigs, or other animals from the farm to the table:

  1. Grow more than 10 times as much corn, grain, and soy (with all the required tilling, irrigation, crop dusters, and so on), as would be required if we ate the plants directly.
  2. Transport — in gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing 18-wheelers — all that grain and soy to feed manufacturers.
  3. Operate the feed mill (again, using massive amounts of resources).
  4. Truck the feed to the factory farms.
  5. Operate the factory farms.
  6. Truck the animals many miles to slaughterhouses.
  7. Operate the slaughterhouses.
  8. Truck the meat to processing plants.
  9. Operate the meat processing plants.
  10. Truck the meat to grocery stores (in refrigerated trucks).
  11. Keep the meat in refrigerators or freezers at the stores.

With every stage comes massive amounts of extra energy usage — and with that comes heavy pollution and massive amounts of greenhouse gases, of course. Obviously, vegan foods require some of these stages, too, but vegan foods cut out the factory farms, the slaughterhouses, and multiple stages of heavily polluting tractor-trailer trucks, as well as all the resources (and pollution) involved in each of those stages. And as was already noted, vegan foods require less than one-tenth as many calories from crops, since they are turned directly into food rather than funneled through animals first.

A friend of mine impressed me long ago with his claim that morality begins with what we are willing to put into our mouths.   When we are willing put meat into our mouths we are affecting far more than our own bodies–we are affecting large swaths of the rest of the world.  I’m not only referring to land animals. This article makes it clear that eating fish comes with a similar set of environmental concerns.  

I still eat meat, though I’ve minimized my meat-eating over the years.  Articles like make me wonder whether even eating a little bit of meat is too much.

Every time we sit down to eat, we can choose to eat a product that is, according to U.N. scientists, “one of the … most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,” or we can choose vegan — and preferably organic — foods. It’s bad for the environment to eat animals.

One more thing – – the health benefits of giving up meat are spectacular.  In short, if you’re not motivated to give up meat for “the environment,” there’s good reason to give it up for your own health and safety.

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Category: Environment, Food

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (15)

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  1. Martin says:

    Erich,

    It is disappointing that you do not mention the most significant factor in this equation; water.

    One kilogram of grain-fed beef requires at least 15 cubic metres of water.

    One kilogram of lamb from a sheep fed on grass requires 10 cubic metres of water.

    One estimate I saw said it takes one thousand tonnes of water to grow one tonne of wheat, in China. Since 1 cubic metre of water has a mass of 1 tonne that would seem to imply that 1 kilogram of wheat requires 1 cubic metre of water.

    Water is a precious and finite resource that many of us take for granted. But the world is beginning to wake up to the fact that there might not be quite as much of it as we thought.

    At World Water Week held in Stockholm in 2004, it was announced that with about 840 million people undernourished or lacking a secure food supply, and another two billion or more people expected to be added to that by 2025, feeding the world's growing population – and finding the water to grow their food – continues to be a basic and sizeable challenge.

    A paper delivered during the conference, entitled Water: More Nutrition Per Drop, said: For several decades, the increase in food production has outpaced population growth. Now much of the world is simply running out of water for more production.

    The problem is not that the world's water is running out, it is simply that there are vastly more of us to share the finite amount of water on our planet. So that two-fifths of the world's people already face serious shortages, and water-borne diseases fill half our hospital beds, with one child dying from water-borne disease every eight seconds.

    Think about that. In the time it took you to read that sentence, two children died from water-borne disease.

    People in rich countries use ten times more water than those in poor ones, and we use it less efficiently and waste more.

    But the solution to this problem is complex beyond imagining. For example, in South Africa they privatised the water supply – I really don't want to get into a discussion about how bizarre that sounds to me – which means that many households receive 6,000 litres of water per month, for free, but then have to pay for anything they use above that. That works out at about 50 litres per day for a family of four, and 50 litres per day is the recommended basic domestic water requirement, per person. The trouble is that many households, and this is particularly true among the less well-off communities, have more than four persons. So the idea of supplying some free water to as many as possible must be acknowledged as a great step forward for this deeply troubled country, but it must also be acknowledged that the policy they have chosen benefits the haves more than the have-not's; it benefits most those who are more likely to be able to afford to pay for their water.

    It is also true that if a farmer in, say Nebraska, chooses to use less water for his cows, that does not mean there is more water available in Africa. All it means is that there is more water going down the Missouri to flow into the Atlantic ocean. So in this sense at least it is obvious that using the class warfare argument is at the very least ignoring the facts. It also shows that although the phenomenon is felt all over the world, there is not going to be one solution for everyone, but that we require a whole raft of local solutions.

    Some of those solutions may depend on technology; desalination for example, may play a part, but it is expensive in terms of the fuel required and leaves a brine mountain to be disposed of. But one thing seems certain to me; any solution that does not address the basic issue of the global population explosion is just tinkering with the symptoms rather than attacking the disease head on.

    We, as a global community, need to completely re-think not just our diet as you suggest, but our energy consumption, our wasteful profligate use of our valuable natural resources, and our basic desire to procreate and increase our number beyond the point where the planet can no longer sustain us as a viable species.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Martin: Thank you for reminding me of yet another reason to cut WAY back on meat–the water it takes to produce meat (water is addressed in the article to which I linked). It's not premature to raise that issue in the U.S., where many of the western states already have stressed water supplies. Further, those water supplies need to be protected, so the issue of animal excrement is a related issue. As the author of the linked indicates: "According to a report prepared by U.S. Senate researchers, animals raised for food in the U.S. produce 86,000 pounds of excrement per second — that’s 130 times more than the amount of excrement that the entire human population of the U.S. produces!"

  3. Xiaogou says:

    Actually, eating meat in America has become bad because we grain feed the cattle, pigs and chickens in mass quantities and it takes more resources that could be used for other things. In other parts of the world feed the animals from time to time, but for the most part they take care of themselves. Why waste food the family can eat on a dumb animal anyway. In the Taoist temples in China you will see the monks eating rice and vegetables, but not meat. Yet in the temple grounds you will see chickens running around. Why do you ask? While a vegetarian diet is good if a monk gets seriously ill or hurt they will make him chicken soup because it has restorative properties and many of the healing herbs they use is combined in the soup the fortify it for the ill. How much resources are wasted on the chicken, very little as they are for the most part free ranging, eating the grass seeds and bugs that are found on the temple grounds.

    In America you find a huge platter stack with steaks and you will be lucky to have a salad.

    In many of the larger Chinese cities, not Beijing or Shanghai, you will find in the heart of the city behind the high compound walls a little bit of garden and chickens running around. In that part of the world, traditionally a meal for a family of 10 or so would have about 4 ounces of meat, a fish and a lot of vegetables. The meat is used to flavor the dish. What you have is mixed into the huge platter of vegetables you will find little slivers of meat. Unfortunately, this is changing as the Chinese are trying to catch up with the Americans.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Another great insight, Xiangou. If you read Michail Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," you'll get an insight on all the problems caused when livestock production shifted away from the farm to the industrial feedlot. Now an animal (cow) that was evolved to digest grain is fed on corn through most of its life instead of the final month before slaugher. This necessitates the routine administration of antibiotics. Also, because eating grain causes much higher levels of acid in the gut, dangerous strains of E. Coli that can survive in the stomach acid of humans have evolved. And of course, when the basis of our food chain is not green leaves but seeds, our diets are stripped of essential omega -3 fatty acids.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    [Paul] McCartney says the amount of land and water used to maintain the meat industry makes it a major contributor to climate change and complains that most environmental groups do not list vegetarianism as one of their top priorities.

    "It's very surprising that most major environmental organizations are leaving the option of going vegetarian off their lists of top ways to curtail global warming," he said.

    A 2006 United Nations report found that cattle-rearing generated more greenhouse gases than transportation.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080421/lf_nm_life/mc

  6. food for thougth says:

    I am as concerned as anyone about the impact we have on our beautiful planet. I agree taht meat eating is a habit that needs to be addressed and I hope that sites like this are having an impact in educating people about the effects of producing meat.

    There is, however, one thing I would like to point out that I have not seen anywhere yet. What about pets. If the production of food is becoming such a big issue, why is it that nobody has raised an issue with people who owns and feed relatively useless pets. If the pollution caused by growing food is a real concern to humanity, why isn't there a movement to educate people on the elimination of useless pets that require a large amount of food; food that could best be used to feed starving humans. Not to mention the issue of excrements and water contamination caused by pets.

    I guess it would not make much sense for animal activists to question the existence of pets would it. Unless their cause is about the environment and not just a bandwagon of animal rights activists willing to do or say anything to be heard.

  7. Sorry Erich, this is one of those So What issues I can't get behind. Human beings are omnivores, which means we eat everything. I like meat. I dislike most vegetables (which means I will probably keel over from clogged arteries some day). People like McCartney—even more so those ridiculous people at PETA—are like reformed smokers. It's not enough that they have made a change in their lives (their privilege) but they have to convert everyone.

    Cows and pigs are not humans. Whether we like it or not, everything living eats something else living to survive. Reclassifications of certain animals from food source to not food source is a luxury in some parts of the world, but absurd in others. It is a question of choice—not necessity. And not all people share biologies so much that removing a particular food source from their diet works in all cases.

    No, if the environment is harmed by eating meat, then we need to do something about lions, bears, sharks…..

    (I am being partly facetious, just so everyone knows. But only partly.)

  8. Erika Price says:

    I think we can forge a reasonable balance. Humans – especially American ones- won't give up meat any time soon. But we do eat more meat than seems healthy both for the environment, and for our personal health. If every meat-eating 'merican just reduced their meat serving to the recommended "deck of cards" size, we could make a significant dent in the harm we do. If we further replaced some meat servings with nuts and other good sources of protein, we could make that dent a little bigger. And no one would have a terribly reduced lifestyle for it.

    I think PETA and McCartney do themselves a disservice by pushing so strongly for strict vegetarianism/veganism. It creates a false all-or-none dichotomy, which scares moderates away.

  9. John says:

    Many olden cultures including the vedic civilization (India) does not at all permit eating any kind of meat. This has now been polluted by the present day civilization but according to the revealed scriptures eating any kind of meat (chicken, beef ect..) is bad for health, envirnoment and also for spiritual progress.

    According to the scriptures, No meat eating, intoxication, gambling and illict sex are the basis of being a human being or else you are no less than an animal. There is no reason for anyone to actually eat meat. All the nutrition required for good health are present in vegetables, milk, grains etc..

    We are just trying to satisfy our tounge by eating meat which also causes all kinds of cancer and health issues later in your lives.

    By the way it is correctly said by mark that "everything living eats something else living to survive" but we should only eat by inflicting minimum pain to a living entity because what goes around comes around. if not in this life then next..humans have the brain power to make this discrimination.

  10. Dan Klarmann says:

    Biologists can tell what an animal's intended diet is by gross anatomical details such as the types of teeth and the length of the small intestine. Geneticists and microbiologists can now refine this by looking at what digestive enzymes are naturally available at various stages of growth.

    Humans (allowing that we are animals) are adapted for a diet heavy in vegetation, but also containing a significant amount of meat. To eat no meat at all, one must supplement his diet year round with processed legumes that only naturally appear seasonally and in a few regions. Otherwise, we lack necessary amino acids that are easily obtained from animal tissue, but are produced by the metabolic systems of true herbivores.

    According to one school of evolutionary thought, the eating of cooked meat in particular gave us enough of an energy and protein boost to support the evolution of the oversize brains of which we are so proud.

  11. John says:

    Try to understand what I am saying. Scientists differ in their opionins day in and day out (becasue they do not submit to any superior authority i.e GOD).

    We have to submit to the only authority that is the vedic knowledge to understand what is the real secret of life. I am combining spiritual knowledge here but this is the best way to explain that meat eating is one of the worse offenses anyone can do.

    Because every living entity has the right to live and die by natures law no one has any right to kill a living entity for its own satisfaction. The scriptures say that plant food is OK so we have to follow that.

    Well if still you need any scientific info read the article below. I can send you thousands of more articles if you are interested.

    http://www.diseaseproof.com/archives/healthy-food

  12. neelmani says:

    AYURVEDA SAYS your body & brain becomes what you eat.Nonveg food basically eaten by animals like tiger,lion etc wild animals.their nature is cruel.Animals which eat veg food r usually docile & peace loving animals.Means your braincells & thinking are developed according to the food u eat. Certain vegetables creat calmness & peace in mind after eating them.All hindu sages & saints always lived on simple veg food,& spread the message of peace.

  13. Random says:

    As an environmentalist and an omnivore, I just like to say that the author of this page makes a poor argument with his/her 11 stages of production. The author mentions "trucking" meat to places about 5 times separately. Obviously the person is trying to point out that every time the trucks are transporting meat they are damaging the environment. You fail to realize though that it doesn't matter if its plant grown food or meat, it has to be transported regardless. Farms growing fruits, vegetables etc still have to truck that food from place to place. You really need to come down to earth with this one, do really think that by becoming vegan, the food is going to miraculously appear in your refrigerator. I think not; it still has to be transported to you grocery store by trucks. Therefore your theory on the 11 stages of production is a fallacy.

  14. jade says:

    I agree with neelmani. You are what you eat. the food you eat may be the best form of medicine or the slowest form of poison. have a plant-based diet instead. At first i find it kinda hard but now i love it. going vegetarian is one of the best ways to become healthy.

  15. Sonyamo says:

    In response to 'random':

    Just because the author of this article perhaps didn't realize one thing on the 11 stages doesn't give you reason to discredit all the stages. You do make a point; fruits, vegetebles, and other farm grown products still need to be transported. However, these can be grown locally, whereas meat usually cannot. Locally grown fruits and vegetables don't require as much fuel for transportation.

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