Environmental Impact of Meat Consumption

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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Most cultures in the world have embraced a meat-eating lifestyle, as has been the case since agriculture became a prominent food supply thousands of years ago. Modern agriculture is now the number one contributor to a variety of factors that impose hazards to the environment, including and not limited to, an increase in rates of methane and CO2, overconsumption of water, overuse of land resources, waste production, water and air quality degradation, deforestation, and species extinction. In particular, the United States has the second highest rate of meat consumption for any given nation at 198.51 lbs per capita per year, falling just behind Australia at 198.87 lbs. With a population of 319 million people, the United States is by far the greatest consumer of meat in the world. [1]

Greenhouse Gases

Agriculture production is expected to increase to match the demand of an increasing global population. In fact, greenhouse gases are projected to increase by 80% by the year 2050. This presents the problem of accelerating an increase in global temperatures through the greenhouse effect. The majority of greenhouse gas production results from waste product of livestock - primarily methane. [2] Methane is much more destructive than CO2, as it has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame. Most of us know that the transportation industry is one of the leading contributors of greenhouse gases. However, most of us do not know that agriculture is actually an even bigger contributor. While the transportation industry is a large producer of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides, the quantity and potency of these gases are far less destructive to the environment than those of methane. Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gases, whereas industry is responsible for 13%.


Around 80 - 90% of US water consumption is dedicated to agriculture production [3]. For animals, this includes the water that is needed to grow the crops consumed by livestock, water that is directly consumed by livestock, water used to scald the animals, and any remaining water used to cleanse/process the meat for marketing. Agriculture scientists are trying to implement methods of more efficient water usage, such as through drip irrigation; however, much progress is still to be made before to sustainably facilitate a meat-based lifestyle. How much water is needed to produce foods in the meat (and dairy) industry? The following list contains the water usage per pound of everyday foods[4]. It becomes apparent through this chart that meat and dairy-based foods require considerably more water to produce than plant-based foods.


So what does this mean for the present and future of humanity? It is important to address is that the general public does not realize the damage that meat consumption creates for the environment. Cultures and education around the world teach that meat and dairy are necessary for good health and growth - in reality, consuming meat and dairy have been shown to cause a wide variety of health defects. Behind closed doors, we fail to see that 99% of meat production happens in factory farms, where ethical and environmental policies are relinquished to yield quicker production and profits. Moreover, even large environmental groups such as Greenpeace and 350.org refuse to acknowledge the negative environmental impacts that the agriculture industry creates. The agriculture industry is among one of the hugest capital giants and therefore yields a lot of legal power. As has been the case with food libel cases Winfrey and McLibel. The human population is continuing to grow - the population is projected to increase to 9.7 billion by the year 2050. [5] It is impossible for agriculture to expand to meet this growing demand while still maintaining sustainable usage of Earth's resources.

Meat Consumption affects humans and the environment at a large scale. The effect it has on the environment varies directly with relation to the method the livestock is managed. Some of the negative environmental factors that can be seen to have a direct correlation with the demand for meat production include but are not limited to the pollution of the atmosphere through fossil fuel usage, methane produced by animals, land degradation, water consumption and the clearing of forests to make way for grazing pastures. The environmental impact that meat consumption has had on the world is only expected to increase in the next coming years. “The past half century has seen marked growth in food production, allowing for a dramatic decrease in the proportion of the world’s people that are hungry, despite a doubling of the total population” [6]. Elferink argues that the “environmental impact of food is expected to increase due to population growth and a more luxurious consumption” [7]. Ultimately, this means that there will be an increased “consumption and a greater demand for processed food, meat, dairy, and fish, all of which add pressure to the food supply system” [8]. Which will in turn create a “greater competition for land, water and energy” [9]. It is hard to deny the negative environmental effects that meat consumption has had on the world. On the other hand, big meat corporations and its employees are making a significant economic profit. Additionally, it is important to consider that “In 2013, more than 482, 100 workers were employed in the meat and poultry packing and processing industries”[10]. These corporations are the entities that will suffer economic losses if there is a decline in meat consumption at a large scale. If we are to reach a sustainable solution it is imperative to find a balance between the meat consumption and meat production at a global scale. Ideally, if more of the worlds population would adopt a vegetable based diet we would see a dramatic decrease in the negative factors and natural resource toll that the world is currently suffering caused by the meat industry. The amount of jobs that the meat industry has created is monumental, however it has been done at the expense of the natural environment. Unfortunately, there is a strong mutual relationship between an increased production of meat and a increased depletion of the environment.


The excessive use of water for agricultural activities suggests a great probability for the depletion of natural resources. It should be noted that water is an essential resource for agricultural production through irrigation. 70% of the freshwater withdrawal globally is utilized in the agricultural sector. Moreover, the large volumes of water used in agricultural production demonstrates is value as a crucial resource in livestock and poultry farming.

Water is essential in the meat processing chain from the start to the finish. Based on the process perspective, the processing areas, the meat, and the machines in the meat industry require water. To this end, large volumes of water are contaminated with cleaning chemicals, waste products, and raw materials. including bones, legs, packaging materials, hair, skins, and chemicals. It is no doubt that washing of the livestock, cleaning of the machines, and the carcasses contribute to the environmental pollution. Consequently, waste products such as blood, manure, fat, undigested stomach contents, and other cleaning agents also require a large volume of water to discharge. [11] Apart from the environmental pollution, the large quantities of water needed for meat processing in Brazil’s export-oriented livestock feed and meat production, which is around 8%, also subjects the population of Brazil to freshwater stress. [11]

At bottom right and bottom center, deforestation and cultivation are evident by the regular, rectangular shapes that delineate plots. Fire is a common means of clearing land and this type of slash-and-burn agriculture is having a devastating impact on plant and animal communities as well as people who are native to the forests. MODIS has detected numerous fires (red dots) and thick smoke is visible at bottom left. Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is important to consider land when talking about the environmental impacts of meat consumption. The report published by the Agricultural Organization under the United Nations in 2011 revealed that livestock production accounts for over 30% of the global land being utilized for the meat and livestock-related production. Moreover, the report further revealed that around 70% of all the land under the agricultural activities and livestock production is responsible for freshwater pollution, climate change, and destruction of biodiversity. [12] This toll the livestock rearing has on the environment is evident in the case of Brazil. This country is naturally forested, courtesy of owning 60% of the Amazon rainforest. However, Brazil is one of the major producers of the commercial beef cattle in the world, and cattle rearing requires large amounts of land for grazing.[13] It is natural, then, that livestock farmers have their eyes on the Amazon rainforest for pasture and space. It is estimated that if the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is not contained, the rainforest will be reduced to 40% by the year 2025. [13] Having said this, the livestock production in Brazil has created a lot of environmental problems in the nation and other South American countries. Four-fifths of the forest has been deforested across the Amazon rainforest to create room for the livestock farming.[13]

There are serious environmental impacts and destruction of biodiversity due to the agriculture-related deforestation. [13] The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest to create land for the large-scale livestock rearing for meat destroys the water catchment area, leading to the water shortages and global warming. [13]

Rainforest and Wildlife

In the case of Bolivia and the Amazon rainforest, the environmental researchers have established that livestock agriculture in the Amazon is not sustainable and will lead to the irreversible changes in the tropical forests.[13] More specifically, the deforestation of the rainforest has increased the temperature of the region by over 4 0c, resulting in adverse impacts on the human and the wildlife inhabiting the forest. Moreover, the lands cleared for livestock farming releases huge quantities of greenhouse gasses. Greenhouse gasses are emitted in all the stages of the livestock rearing and meat processing from the animals in the farm, to the slaughterhouses, to the meat processing plants. In the farms, there are heavy environmental burdens through the emission of the nitrous oxides, methane, and carbon dioxide emanating from the manure. Nitrous oxide contributes to global warming and ammonia leads to acidification.[13] Also, emissions from the meat production processes contribute the 2,836.8 million tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Moreover, livestock rearing and meat processing are responsible for around 30% of the greenhouse emissions in the world. More so, this happens due to the tropical deforestation and the methane gas emissions. Specifically, livestock feed and meat production emits 45% of the greenhouse, digestion by cows contributes to 39% greenhouse emission, and manure decomposition is responsible for 10% greenhouse emission.[14]

The Present and Future of Humanity

The land and water demands in agricultural activities is on the rise due to increasing population. Given this, the need to expand land for agricultural activities including livestock farming, has led to the deforestation of the tropical areas to create agricultural lands. These changes in land utilization create negative impacts on the environment through greenhouse emission, fragmentation of the species habitats, and the alteration of the hydrological cycles. The effects pose doom to the current and future generations. In Brazil, their practice of clearing of the rainforest for export-oriented livestock feed and production is unsustainable; the temperature in the tropical rainforest has increased by 4 °C. The effects result in the destruction of the wildlife habitat, reduced freshwater supply, and global warming. [14]


The Kyoto Protocol identifies livestock as potential sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, Goodland and Anhang rebut the understanding that the live domesticated animals are important carbon sinks.[15] They assert that cattle rearing of cattle increases pressures on other carbon sinks such as forests[15]. Furthermore, Goodland and Anhang opine that the photosynthetic capacity of the earth decreases as forests are clear for anthropogenic reasons, and aptly relative livestock to automobiles as products of human inventions, leading to environmental degradation. [15]

While agricultural production produces the necessary nutritive substances for the world population, it contributes to the destruction of the natural habitats for other living organisms. Carlsson-Kanyama and González believe that beef farming exhausts resources such as water and fertilizer unnecessarily because the need to grow animal feed forces the farmers to set aside vast areas of land. They believe that such land should be used to grow crops instead of cattle since it is more efficient and sustainable.[16] Additionallt, Balmford et al. claim that the desire to feed the world population increases pressure on the land we share with wild animals and plants[17]. They note that governments can feed their populations through the establishment of limits on excessive consumption. [17]


The act of attributing deforestation to the need to produce animal feed fails to recognize the reasons which force the population to reduce the existing forest cover. While the need for agricultural land results in the encroachment of the forested areas, it is a consequence out of the necessity to satiate an increasing human population. An increase in population requires the massive production of food all over the world, and the perception that the world can eliminate food insecurity through an increase in production fails to recognize the overall impact on biodiversity. The researchers’ claims are valid as excessive use of farm chemicals pollute various aspects of the environment. In general, human beings need to appreciate and consider the impact of particular agricultural practices on the well-beings of other living creatures.

Layering Perspectives: Additional Evidence of Impact?

The description above details the costs and impact from meat consumption from the perspective of natural resources conservation students. In this section, we welcome contributions from other perspectives. Those interested in contributing to this case study may use the following questions as a guide:

  1. What other costs and/or impacts become apparent when meat consumption is viewed through the lens of other disciplines and professions?
  2. What special expertise, resources, or theoretical orientations might others bring to help us better evaluate the costs and implications associated with meat consumption?

Insect Protein

Insects as food (Escamoles, chahuis, chinicuiles and chapulines). Helene Combes. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One remedial action to reduce resources used to raise livestock and meet dietary needs is to use insects as a dominant source of protein for both humans and animals. These include the following five species; houseflies, black soldier flies, mealworms, locusts, and silkworms as they are abundant, commonly found, and are nutrient rich. Insect production must begin to attract private investment to ensure its growth and commencement worldwide [18] . Crickets are also extremely nutritious and contain a large amount of protein while also being filled with; iron, calcium, zinc, Omega 3 & 6, magnesium, and many other vitamins and minerals. This complete source of protein holds everything one needs to grow and repair ones muscles, therefore, additional supplements that potentially hinder one’s health are not needed [19]. Not only are crickets wholesome and nutritious, they are also environmentally friendly. They require much less water than cows, chickens, and pigs, due to their ability of hydrating from the food they consume. For each pound of protein, crickets emit 100 times less greenhouse gases than that of cows. Furthermore, crickets require only 15 square meters of land per pound of protein while cows require 200 square meters for the same amount.

Non-Governmental Organizations

Non-governmental organizations embody a potential foundation that could aid in a decline of meat consumption. They are especially significant given the lack of support from the government and the limited media coverage of the problem. NGOs have the proper connections, tools and experience in order to communicate desired messages into policy goals and public education. “These tactics can largely be divided into “inside” strategies focused on direct lobbying and “outside” strategies that seek to shape public opinion and values, which may either generate support for a current policy or help build a movement that may yield a policy solution in the future” (Laestadius, Neff, Barry & Frattaroli, 2013 p. 27). Furthermore, NGOs are extremely influential and may persuade individual behaviour through campaigns by means of public education, which may result in an increase of support for direct policy (Laestadius et. al, 2013). Four main approaches have been established to encourage the reduction of meat consumption. The first approach is for the integration of a tax on meat or to simply raise its price. The second approach is to hinder the availability of meat, and make it less accessible through regulatory tactics. The third approach is to include additional labeling on the packaging of meat to educate and bring awareness to consumers, and the final approach is to attempt to change dietary inclinations through education [20] (Laestadius et. al, 2013).

Individual Ambition

Individuals hold the ability to reduce degradation on the environment by altering their views and attitudes towards their food consumption patterns. There are three different motivators that tend to be considered when altering these views; morality, health, and the environment (Zur & Klockner, 2014). Morality is inclusive of the considerations of animal and human rights. Animals are exploited and treated inhumanely and well over 63 billion animals are slaughtered each year. A further question of morality concerns world hunger. Individuals often have trouble comprehending that much of the livestock fed to animals can be perfectly consumed by humans (Zur & Klockner, 2014). Health also plays a large role in the alteration of food consumption patterns given the relationship of meat to numerous diseases. The myth that a healthy diet cannot exist without the consumption of meat is beginning to diminish, and now many are aware that the opposite is in fact the case. The final motivator is the environment, as its degradation is strongly associated with the consumption of meat. These motivational barriers are crucial to persuading individuals to reduce or completely eliminate their meat consumption [21](Zur & Klockner, 2014).

Moral Obligations of the Meat Sector

The meat producing sector, of the food industry, is known to be one of the leading causes for environmental pollution and degradation. Thus it is time they take responsibility and begin to mitigate their impact on the environment. Environmental improvements need to be made within this sector, as it will most likely take a long period of time before the population reduces their meat consumption; therefore, the meat sector has a moral obligation. Meat production companies can begin mitigating these issues by putting into action manure management strategies and alternative feeding methods. These companies must also design new techniques and improvements to minimize their use of inedible products and various packaging. In addition, they must also be aware of their resource management, predominantly with water and energy consumption. In order to minimize water use, the meat sector could optimize their flow of water and implement ways to reuse wastewater [22].

Environmental Meat Tax

Taxation of Animal Food in the EU: A way to mitigate surging food prices, deforestation pressure and greenhouse gas emissions. Romuald Bokej. CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The negative externalities of consumption and production of the meat industry could perhaps be reduced by a Pigouvian tax. If implemented it would increase the consumer price of meat to appropriately address the harmful effects on the environment; this in turn would carry out the social costs of the meat commodity. The introduction of this tax would work as a monetary incentive for individuals to reduce their negative impact on the environment by reducing their meat consumption [23].

Taking into consideration that the meat industry “accounts for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions and for 80% of total anthropogenic land use” [24]. Action must be taken in order to regulate and ultimately decrease the rate at which humans are negatively affecting the environment through the consumption of meat. The environment has been suffering at all scales, the Amazonian forest has been experiencing, “severe deforestation problems for several decades… while there are many causes, one of the main cuases is cattle ranching…” [25]. The issue of deforestation due to cattle ranching has been predominately observed in Brazil, who happened to be the largest exporter of beef in the world, even more alarming is the act that most of the Amazon is located in Brazil thus making it extremely vulnerable to deforestation. Furthermore, it has been proven that humans do not require a meat based diet in order to live a healthy and productive life. Even more alarming is the fact that “people in industrialized countries consume on average around twice as much meat as experts deem healthy” [26]. Additionally, “new insights in the adverse health effects of beef and pork have lead to a revision of meat consumption recommendations”[27]. If the global population transitioned to a reduced meat diet, or to a plant-based protein diet we would see a dramatic positive change on land use and the environment as a whole. Every single individual is a key component and influences the meat market at a global scale. Unfortunately, many individuals are unaware of the negative impacts that meat consumptions has on the environment, especially rural and segregated communities that depend on meat to survive and practice their religious and spiritual ceremonies. In order to change this dominant mindset, it is crucial to implement educational methods that will shed some light with regards to the situation at hand. By presenting the meat industry for what it truly is more people across the world will become aware of the weight that their actions have as well as the consequences that they will bring and be more likely to reduce the amount of meat they consume. However, change must not only come from individuals, big meat corporations must set and abide to more restrictive regulations in order to avoid the negative environmental toll that they contribute to. Besides the health aspects that a plant-based diet would have it would also, “play an important role in future climate change mitigation policies” [28]. Without a doubt, change must occur in the near future if we are to conserve the environment at all scale, meat production and consumption is an unnecessary and unsustainable way to nurture our bodies and live sustainably.

There is a clear correlation between the large scale consumption of meat at a global scale and the degradation of the environment. There has been numerous published scientific reports stating the vast amount of negative factors brought upon by the meat and poultry industry. Furthermore, we have been able to clearly present the negative effects of the meat industry, which include but are not limited to the degradation of land, deforestation, air pollution and inhumane treatment of animals.

In summary, many arguments are against the livestock rearing for meat consumptions because they affect environmental degradation, deforestation, reduced photosynthesis capacity, and the destruction of habitat for other animals. However, these arguments are too simplified because they fail to factor the increasing human population and the massive production of food need to sustain it. In retrospect, it is true that overutilization of land for agriculture adversely impacts on the biodiversity. Humans must appreciate that and work on the sustainability measures.


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source: http://wiki.ubc.ca/Course:CONS200/2016w2/Wiki_Projects/Environmental_Impact_of_Meat_Consumption

Post image: Taxation of Animal Food in the EU: A way to mitigate surging food prices, deforestation pressure and greenhouse gas emissions. CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons