I care about the environment - should I stop eating meat?

Meat has been prominent in the media recently, with news that eating red and processed meat could cause cancer[1].  But it’s not only human health that is jeopardised by our love of meat; it’s spectacularly damaging to our planet and almost everything on it.  In the past 50 years, the overall demand for meat has quadrupled[2].  And herein lies the uncomfortable truth: we just cannot eat so much meat.  Here are a few reasons.

We don’t have enough space

It requires around 3.25 acres to support a single meat-eater’s diet, but if we added up all the arable land on the planet and divided it up equally, we would each get just two thirds of an acre.  Purely considering available land, if everyone on earth derived just 25% of their calories from animal products, only 3.2 billion people could have food to eat[3].

Picture1The fact is, meat is a very inefficient way of turning land into calories, and we simply don’t have space for it.  In Europe and North America, a cow consumes between 75 – 300kg of dry matter to produce 1kg of protein, and globally 1.3 billion tonnes of grain are consumed by farm animals each year[4].  We’re using our limited land to feed animals instead of people; 56 million acres of U.S. land produce hay for livestock, but only 4 million produce vegetables for human consumption.  The world’s cattle alone consume enough calories to feed 8.7 billion people – more than the global population[5].

As well as taking up land, livestock also contributes directly and indirectly to degradation of land area, through deforestation (91% of Amazon Rainforest destruction has been for animal agriculture[6]) and desertification and soil erosion (removing stabilising vegetation by grazing leads to topsoil drying out and blowing away, exposing less biologically active lower layers).

We’re running out of waterPicture2

It takes 300 gallons of water per day to produce food for a vegan, but 4,000 gallons to feed a meat eater.  Converse to what it may seem on a rainy day in the UK, water is precious and scarce; only 1% of the water on earth is fresh and liquid, and not all of this is fit for drinking.  In 2015, more than 1 billion people don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water, and with increasing populations, pollution and climate change this figure is only likely to increase.  It is predicted that by 2525, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages[7].  Agriculture is the single largest consumer of water.   Staggeringly, you would save more water by eating just one pound of beef less than if you didn’t shower for an entire year[8].

Water pollution is also an issue, with livestock operations responsible for more than 500 hypoxic (lacking oxygen) ‘dead zones’ in the world’s oceans.  These occur when fertilisers are carried out to sea by rivers and overstimulate algal growth.  When this algae dies and decomposes it uses up oxygen, depriving marine life and creating a ‘dead’ zone.  The Gulf of Mexico dead zone encompassed 8,481 square miles at its largest (so far) in 2002[9].

It’s very wasteful

A typical pig factory generates the same amount of waste as 12,000 people[10], and a farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people[11].  Once in our homes we waste around 570,000 tonnes of fresh meat each year, the equivalent of 12 billion animals[12].  And that doesn’t include all the unusual cuts of meat that’re thrown away before they reach out homes.

It adds to climate change

A study from the University of Oxford showed that a meat-rich diet produced 7.2kg carbon dioxide (CO2) per day, vegetarian and pescatarian diets 3.8kg per day and a vegan diet 2.9kg per day[13].  Raising livestock generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the transport in the world combined.

Beef and lamb are the real problem, with poultry and pigs accounting for only 10% of total livestock emissions[14].  Producing one hamburger uses roughly the same amount of fossil fuels as driving a small car 20 miles[15]; for most people, giving up red meat is a better way to reduce their carbon footprint than giving up their car[16].


As well as CO2, methane (CH4) is a key concern.  CH4 has 21x the global warming potential of CO2, and every day cows produce roughly 150 billion gallons[17].

What can we do?

So is there such a thing as sustainable meat consumption?  Perhaps, but it involves very little meat.

On a community scale, meat arises as a natural part of an agricultural system based on the production of vegetable staples; livestock eat crop wastes, forage land unsuitable for arable cultivation, produce manure for fertilisation, and at the end of their lives get eaten.  And frankly, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to totally give it up.  In the developing world increased meat consumption may be needed to overcome malnutrition and provide food security.  Despite the recent cancer scare, the World Health Organisation (WHO) continues to stress the importance of meat in our diet[18].

We don’t all need to become vegans; the message is that we need to eat less meat, not no meat at all.  It is estimated that we can sustainably eat 80-85g of red and white meat every three days.[19]  To put this in perspective, the average American currently eats 122g per day.

There are some things we can all do:

  • Make meat a treat. Reducing our consumption is vital, and that starts at an individual level.  Try having meat twice-three times per week.  You’ll discover some great vegetarian recipes!
  • Choose more environmentally friendly meats. You make have picked up that this does not include beef!  Lean meats, poultry, fish and seafood are generally better.
  • Try nose-to-tail eating. Choose less popular cuts – liver and kidney, for example – you might surprise yourself!  We might as well start by not wasting what we’re already producing.
  • Throw less away. Freeze food, plan meals ahead of time so you only buy what you need, get your portions right and only cook what you’ll eat, and learn to love leftovers.


[1] WHO (2015): Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat

[2] Global Agriculture: Agriculture at a Crossroads

[3] Earthoria (2008): Global Hunger: The more meat we eat, the fewer people we can feed

[4] Walsh (2013): The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production

[5] Gold and Porritt (2004): The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat

[6] World Bank: Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon

[7] WWF (2015): Water Scarcity

[8] Earthoria (2008): Global Hunger: The more meat we eat, the fewer people we can feed

[9] NOAA (2015): 2015 Gulf of Mexico dead zone ‘above average’

[10] PETA: How does meat harm the environment?

[11] US EPA (2004): Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

[12] Hird (2014): The meat we eat… or don’t eat. The Guardian

[13] Scarborough et al (2014): Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK. Climatic Change

[14] Walsh (2013): The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production

[15] PETA: How does meat harm the environment?

[16] Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds

[17] 250-500 litres per cow x 1.5 billion cows globally = 150 gallons rough average (http://www.ibtimes.com/cow-farts-have-larger-greenhouse-gas-impact-previously-thought-methane-pushes-climate-change-1487502)

[18] WHO (2015): Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat

[19] Butler (2011): Just how much meat can eco-citizens eat?  New Scientist

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