The Environmental Impact of Meat Production

Perhaps one of the most prominent factors driving more people towards finding meat alternatives and committing to a plant-based diet is increased awareness about the impact that meat production and raising livestock can have on the environment. This comes as no surprise given that over half of Americans say that maintaining our world’s environment and dealing with climate change should be a top priority for the federal government, according to a recent Pew Research study. However, if you’re not entirely clear how meat consumption is related to rising temperatures across the globe and continuously dwindling natural resources, we don’t blame you! Keep reading to learn more about all the ways meat production impacts the environment. 

Climate Change

Raising livestock contributes significantly to the prevalence of damaging greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, it is estimated that animal agriculture is more responsible for gases like nitrous oxide and methane than all of the world’s transportation systems combined. Greenhouse gas emissions, or GHG emissions, are one of the most notable and widely recognized contributors to global warming and overall climate change. 

In the U.S., chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows are collectively the largest methane producers. More specifically, cows are believed to account for almost 10 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Still, chicken or pork greenhouse gas production is thought to be about 20 percent more than that of a serving of red meat. For all livestock combined, the environmental effects are significant, and a global shift toward a more plant-based diet is necessary to combat these effects, according to the United Nations. 

Environmental Pollution

Similarly, raising livestock for consumption is a significant contributor to environmental pollution, especially in our rivers and streams. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has displayed evidence that animals raised on traditional meat factory farms produce around 500 million tons of manure and excrement each year. Unfortunately, as we do not have animal sewage treatment plants, this waste is not adequately processed. Instead, it is typically either sprayed over crop fields or stored in what is known as “waste lagoons.” 

The runoff from these factory farms and their practices is thought to be among the primary causes of lake and river pollution in the U.S. More specifically, the EPA suggests that the bacteria and viruses found in animal waste can be carried by runoff into bodies of water as well as contaminating sources of groundwater. Though there have been some attempts to limit these effects through regulation, the industry has developed specific techniques and practices to help them meet the restrictions, such as spraying liquid manure into the air to create an airborne mist that will be undetected. Unfortunately, those who live within these facilities’ vicinity are likely to inhale the spray’s airborne toxins and pathogens. In addition, “studies have shown that [animal waste] lagoons emit toxic airborne chemicals that can cause inflammatory, immune, irritation and neurochemical problems in humans,” according to a report by the California State Senate, which means that the pollution of livestock farms isn’t just impacting the health of the environment, but everyone around it as well. 

Water Use

Water is one of the world’s most coveted resources because, despite 71% of the Earth’s surface being covered in water, only 3% of that is freshwater. Two-thirds of that is either frozen in glaciers or otherwise unavailable. So, only 1% is available for consumption and other uses like livestock farming. 

Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages of red meat production is that it requires a vast amount of water to raise livestock, not only to give them something to drink but to grow crops to feed them and clean the factory farms they are raised on. For example, a single milk-producing cow consumes up to 50 gallons of water per day (even more when the weather is hot), so it is estimated that it requires approximately 683 gallons of water to produce merely one gallon of milk. Similarly, producing one pound of beef for consumption requires about 2,400 gallons of water. In comparison, one pound of tofu only needs about 244 gallons of water to produce. 

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), switching to a plant-based diet could reduce a single person’s water consumption by approximately 219,000 gallons of water each year!

Land Use & Deforestation

Given that most of the world is covered in water, it follows that land is also a scarce natural resource available to society. Unfortunately, raising livestock (and growing crops to feed them) for meat consumption is a vastly inefficient use of land resources and often requires further destruction to accommodate the practice. More specifically, the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification estimates that it requires 10 pounds of grain to produce approximately one pound of meat for consumption. Furthermore, in the U.S., about 56 million acres of land are devoted to growing crops for animal feed, while only 4 million are used to produce crops for human consumption. As a result, some argue that better use of this grain yield would be to skip over meat production and feed the grain directly to people.

In addition, the meat industry has perpetuated the problem of deforestation around the globe, but most prominently in the endangered Amazon rainforest. Deforestation is the process of permanently removing trees to make room for something else, typically a clearing for agriculture or livestock production, or to use the timber as fuel, for construction, or in manufacturing. This is a problem of increasing concern as the effects of deforestation and loss of vegetation are severe, including desertification, soil erosion, flooding, increased prevalence of GHG emissions in the atmosphere, and perpetuating climate change. 

It is estimated that more than 90% of the land cleared in the Amazon since the 1970s is currently being used for livestock production alone. Alternatively, the vast majority of plant-based proteins used in meat-free products sold in the U.S. are grown within the U.S rather than in endangered environments like the Amazon.

Oceans

An often overlooked area of the environmental impact of meat production is the consumption of fish and other seafood. Instead, we tend to focus on the practices used to produce meats like beef, chicken, and pork. However, commercial fishing methods and coastal fish farms are an increasing problem and concern for the wildlife of aquatic environments. 

First, certain commercial fishing methods like bottom trawling and long-lining are damaging to the ocean. These methods often result in clearing the ocean floor of all life and destroying coral reefs. In addition, the catch-all nature of these fishing methods usually results in many unintended and unmarketable animals being caught, known as “bycatch.” These animals can include hundreds of dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and other aquatic creatures each year worldwide. 

Unfortunately, coastal fish farms are much better in terms of their impact on the environment. These facilities release all sorts of by-products such as feces, antibiotics, parasites, and non-native fish into the surrounding marine ecosystems, which are delicate and sensitive to changes. Furthermore, since most fish are carnivorous, they must be fed massive qualities of wild-caught fish, usually in the form of fish meal. It is estimated that it takes about three pounds of fish meal to produce just one pound of farm-raised salmon. 

How to Help

As you can see, while having your hamburger may not create an immediate or noticeable change in the world around you, the practices used and resources required to produce it directly impact the global environment. But it’s not all bad news! There are a few easy ways you can help minimize your contribution to the problems discussed above. 

We get it; switching to an entirely plant-based diet isn’t for everyone. The good news is, you don’t have to give up all meat forever to make a difference. The fact is, most Americans consume meat or meat products every single day, but from a nutritional standpoint, they don’t need to. Reducing your consumption by even a day or two each week (think: Meatless Mondays) can have a significant impact over time. Once you get used to your new diet, or perhaps even crave some of the new foods you’re trying instead of meat, you can increase the number of days you go meat-free if you’d like. Otherwise, the small change you’ve already made will continue to impact the environment positively. 

At Meatless Farm, we are dedicated to creating a product we can be proud of and that you will love! That’s why we recently opened the world’s first dedicated plant protein facility (outside of China) in Calgary, Canada. This flagship facility uses cutting-edge manufacturing processes to reduce water and energy use by up to 90% when making our products. Why Canada? Well, Canada is the pea-capital of the world so having a facility here will allow us to grow, harvest, process and extract our own pea protein, all within 20 kilometers. Talk about sustainability! Learn more about how our plant-based protein is made here. 

Ready to make the switch? Check out our other blogs on eating plant-based as an athlete such as our Plant-Based Diets for Athletes: Is it Healthy? blog and our 5 Plant-Based Recipes for Athletes blog.   

About the Author

Angela Walker is a BANT and CNHC registered nutritional therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience, including 8 years with the award-winning, Optimum Health Clinic. Angela is a Nutrition Consultant for Meatless Farm, where she develops nutrition research and communicates the personal health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Angela is also a nutritionist and performance coach of Food for Thought, a program designed to change the way people think about food, diet and nutrition, based on the principles and practices of personalized nutrition and functional medicine. Angela is a published author of many well-known articles including ‘Case Studies in Personalized Nutrition’, a core text at many of the training providers for nutritional therapy and personalized nutrition in the UK and US.