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The Environmental Impact of Meat
(Released January 2012)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Reduced meat consumption is becoming increasingly popular, due to concerns about personal health and animal welfare. Yet a third factor is now reaching the public consciousness: the environmental impact of meat. While it’s hard for most people to give up meat entirely, reducing consumption, changing the kinds of meat eaten, and switching to organically raised meat are alternative options. Yet how does one decide which meats to eat to best help the planet? This Discovery Guide helps answer that question.

Meat has an enormous impact on the environment. A United Nations report explains that globally the livestock sector is “one of the two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems,” including climate change, air and water pollution, land degradation, and biodiversity loss (Steinfeld et al). The report estimates that livestock accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, significantly more than transportation (Steinfeld et al).1

Greenhouse gas emissions by sector
The relative fraction of man-made greenhouse gases coming from each of eight categories of sources, as estimated by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research in 2000
A recent report by the Environmental Working Group, which did a full cycle analysis on all types of meat, ranked lamb the worst in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Beef came in second, with cheese third (not technically a meat, of course), followed by pork and farmed salmon. Except for salmon, these meats also have the worst overall environmental impact, using up the most resources (Hamerschlag). Chicken is probably the best land animal to eat, certainly in terms of climate change impact. Fish have a low greenhouse gas impact, but are being eaten in such large quantities that many are at risk of extinction.

Meat production, particularly Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)—factory farming—has a huge environmental impact beyond climate change emissions. This is not your grandfather’s farm; indeed, the idyllic vision of a family farm, wherein the farmer knows all the animals and takes care of them, is virtually gone. Instead, animals are crammed into tiny stalls devoid of vegetation, and given feed, hormones, and antibiotics on schedules designed to maximize growth and allow them to be “harvested” as soon, and as profitably, as possible.

Animals in such conditions are anything but part of nature’s cycle. Although they don’t interact with the outdoor environment, their excrement can get into fields and be washed into waterways, creating dead zones and causing health risks. Journalist Jeff Tietz reports that the manure of factory farmed pigs includes “ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorus, nitrates, and heavy metals” as well as over 100 microbial pathogens “including salmonella, crystosporidium, streptococcie and girardia” (qtd in Foer). Gases from vast manure pits infiltrate the air. Communities near factory farms complain of “problems with persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, and burning lungs” (Foer). The EPA has found “that chicken, hog, and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states” (Foer). Antibiotics in animals may also be contributing to strains of drug-resistant bacteria.

Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico
Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River dumps high-nutrient runoff from its vast drainage basin, which includes the heart of U.S. agribusiness, the Midwest.
In a hungry world with a growing population, meat is an inefficient way to feed people. Meat takes up to ten times as much input—depending on the type of animals and the conditions in which they’re raised—per unit of food as do fruit and vegetables, and consumes an outsized amount of energy. Overall, “farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population” (Foer). And, in a world of increasing water shortage, the livestock sector accounts “for over 8% of global human water use” (Steinfeld et al).

The average American, meanwhile, is eating far more meat than necessary, men nearly twice as much (Adults’ Daily Protein), contributing to an epidemic of obesity. Overall, “Among developed nations, the U.S. has the highest consumption of meat, up to 208 pounds per person annually. This is 60 percent more than Europeans consume” (Bosshardt). The epidemic is spreading, however, as developing countries eat more meat, so that, “From 1971 to 2010, worldwide production of meat tripled to around 600 billion pounds while global population grew by just 81 percent” (Hamerschlag). Yet studies show that vegetarians have less obesity and lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other sickness than heavy meat eaters (Hamerschlag). Of course, meat removed from one’s diet must be replaced by a mixture of complementary proteins, which include beans, rice, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, and seeds. Tofu is another excellent choice, generally considered a complete protein. Health is a major reason why many choose to consume less meat, but nowadays we must consider environmental health as well.

1A later, though less notable study found only a 12% impact for all of agriculture, including crops and farmed animals (Vansickle).

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