Global meat consumption has been rising steadily since the 1960s and is projected to increase another 14 percent over 2020 levels by 2030, condemning billions more animals to suffering and slaughter. But it’s not just farmed animals who will be impacted. An increase in meat consumption will also push us beyond safe limits for greenhouse gas emissions and destroy even more of the natural world. The science is very clear; protecting the environment requires humans to eat less meat.
HOW DOES EATING MEAT AFFECT THE ENVIRONMENT?
Eating meat means supporting an industry that is the major driver of habitat destruction around the world, and also a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Agriculture produces 35 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally, with farming animals and growing crops to feed them accounting for 57 percent of that total, according to a major recent study. Cows in particular, through no fault of their own, are a serious danger to the climate, since they burp a powerful GHG called methane. Other sources of emissions in animal farming include clearing ecosystems for grazing land and growing feed crops, as well as the vast amounts of manure generated by farmed animals.
Intensive animal agriculture, or factory farming, causes huge amounts of pollution. Cattle feedlots and chicken sheds pollute the air with manure particles and dust. Manure is produced in such large quantities that it is over-applied to the land and seeps into waterways, disrupting ecosystems with a rush of excess nutrients. The feed to fuel factory farms is grown in monoculture tracts of a single crop, kept viable through pesticides and fertilisers that harm wildlife. At sea, fish farms allow pesticides, antibiotics, diseases, and waste to flow freely into surrounding waters.
In the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, an area the size of a football pitch is being cleared every minute, often to make way for cattle to graze. But it isn’t just the Amazon that is being demolished to satisfy demand for meat. In Queensland, Australia, an area of forest the size of Sydney was cut down in 2015-16, killing an estimated 45 million wild animals in the process. These precious ecosystems are becoming fragmented and degraded, making them more prone to wildfires, which destroys more forest and releases more GHGs.
Animal agriculture is the main cause of deforestation, with a massive 41 percent of tropical deforestation — 2.1m hectares a year — directly linked to the expansion of pasture for grazing beef cattle, mostly in Brazil. In addition, nearly 500,000 hectares of forest is cleared every year to grow soy, the majority of which — around 77 percent — ends up as livestock feed.
LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY
Agriculture is the main cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. A primary reason for this is its use of land, and that demand is stoked above all by animal agriculture. If everyone adopted a plant-based diet, we could reduce agriculture’s land use by 75 percent, taking pressure off our natural resources and allowing wild habitats of all types to flourish.
IS ALL MEAT BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
In response to scientists and animal advocates urging people to adopt plant-based diets, farmers and farming organisations have often encouraged people to eat “less but better meat”, meaning meat that comes from pasture-raised cows and sheep. But 77 percent of agricultural land is used for farming animals, with most of that used for grazing animals. Cows and sheep, the types of animals most likely to spend at least some of their lives lon pasture, require up to 100 times more land than growing cereals.
According to the meat industry, it’s okay to have cows and sheep take up lots of land because if they are farmed in the right way they can store carbon in the soil and fight climate change in the process. The problem is, the evidence doesn’t back up these claims. What the evidence does consistently show is that eating plant-based foods is the most effective way to reduce your impact on the planet.
HOW DOES EATING LESS MEAT HELP THE ENVIRONMENT?
The impacts of meat production are numerous and serious. If people ate less meat this could go a long way to helping the environment.
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THE ENVIRONMENT IF WE STOPPED EATING MEAT?
If everyone went vegan, we could free up 75 percent of agricultural land to be used for other purposes such as rewilding. This would not only help to draw down carbon from the atmosphere as the biomass of trees and other vegetation increases, it would also allow species to thrive in areas where they have been killed to protect farming interests, such as badgers in the UK and wolves in the US.
Methane emissions would quickly fall, which would be a big boon for the climate. Cutting methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent over the next decade would prevent 0.3C of global temperature rise by 2040, according to experts, which could be vital in preventing a breach of the 1.5C limit.
Manure, pesticides, and fertilisers used to grow feed crops cause huge amounts of pollution, creating dead zones in our oceans and rivers where wildlife suffocates and dies. Without the pollution from animal farming these ecosystems could recover.
Less animal farming would also improve air quality. In the UK, 60 percent of fine particulate pollution comes from ammonia generated by animal waste and synthetic fertilisers. It drifts into cities and mingles with other pollutants to cause deadly air pollution.
STATISTICS ON EATING LESS MEAT
Though global meat consumption is expected to keep rising, there is some good news. British people are eating 17 percent less meat than they did a decade ago. Meanwhile, 4.5 percent of the UK population are vegetarian or vegan.
People who eat a lot of plant foods and little meat have up to a 32 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than people who eat a lot of meat.
Some meat-eaters worry about how to get enough protein without animal products. But people in wealthy countries often eat 30 to 50 percent more protein than they need, while it’s easy to get your daily requirements from plant-based sources.
We could halve deforestation and the associated carbon emissions if just 20 percent of the beef consumed globally were replaced with a meat substitute within the next 30 years.
SHOULD WE EAT LESS MEAT TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT?
Yes. The evidence is clear on this point. The public debate about eating meat often focuses too narrowly on its climate impact, when in fact wildlife and ecosystems also stand to gain a lot by a massive reduction in meat eating.
HOW TO EAT LESS MEAT
It’s never been easier to cut down on eating meat. Not only are nutritious foods like beans, vegetables, and tofu readily and cheaply available, plant-based products are also more delicious and abundant than ever.
To help you get started on eating less meat, you can sign up to Veganuary or try cooking vegan versions of your favourite meals to see how easy it is to cut down on meat. Maybe buy a vegan cookbook and try to make each of the recipes in it to expand your repertoire. Eat at vegan restaurants to enjoy some of the amazing meals that chefs are concocting out of plant foods. And if you’re looking for something quick and easy, why not try some Vegan Fried Chick*n?
WHAT FOODS ARE BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Plant-based foods, including processed foods like vegan burgers, almost always have a lower environmental impact than animal products. Protein-rich foods like beans and tofu have a fraction of the impact of animal proteins. Our own independent environmental impact report showed that VFC products were better for the environment than their animal equivalents across the board.
It’s not hard to eat way less meat. Your health is likely to benefit, and the environment definitely will. Not only will you be cutting emissions, deforestation, and pollution, changing your diet will help to save wild animals and stop millions of farmed animals from being exploited and slaughtered. There really are no downsides to eating less meat.