What is Better for the Environment: Vegetables or Meat?
Both animal-derived and plant-derived food production has an effect on the environment, but meat production is worse for the environment in most cases. This means that eating meat is usually worse for the environment than eating vegetables. This doesn’t mean that every meat food type is worse than every vegetable-based food type. Every food type and every production method has its own pros and cons in regards to our health and the environment.
Bacon and all processed meats increase the risk of cancer. It would be nice if we found out that producing bacon helped the environment, but in order to make it look good, you have to compare it to a head of calorie-light lettuce.
Calorie-for-Calorie, When is Meat Better than Veggies?
A 2015 study became twisted into headlines as, “vegetarianism is bad for the environment”. That isn’t what the study said. The study said that calorie-for-calorie some meat products have less environmental impact than plant products. This is true for say comparing bacon (which is calorie dense) to iceberg lettuce (which is calorie light and awkward to grow). The takeaway from the study is, “what is good for us isn’t ALWAYS good for the environment”.
Just how powerful is the meat industry? Why is that important?
What Goes Into the Meat Industry?
The livestock industry raises animals for food, fiber, and labor. Raising animals is inherently expensive in terms of environmental resources. Animals, especially those we eat, require more land and water (and produce more natural pollution) than plants.
In order to understand what really goes into the meat that we eat, we’ll look at each environmental factor separately.
What are the effects of the meat industry on the environment? This video takes a look.
“We grow enough edible grain to provide 50% more than is required for every person in the world, yet 27,000 children under the age of 5 die of poverty and starvation every day. Much of this edible grain is used to feed animals for meat, dairy and egg production.” – Sustainable Table
In short, it takes a lot of land to both raise livestock for food and to grow the food required to feed an animal. Without considering the quality of the feed, it takes on average 7 pounds of feed to raise one pound of beef, over three pounds of feed to raise one pound of pork, and about two pounds of feed to raise one pound of chicken.
This agricultural inefficiency leads to some pretty devastating results:
- About 40% of all agricultural output in industrialized nations goes towards raising animals for human consumption.
- 26% of earth’s surface (that isn’t covered in ice or water) is used for grazing.
- About one-third of all arable land on earth is used for feed crop production.
This environmental impact of the livestock industry is a major cause of soil erosion, soil degradation, and metabolic waste. This is a side effect of a meat-eating lifestyle that cannot be matched by vegetarianism – it takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based diet than someone on a meat-based diet.
“Ranching-induced deforestation is one of the main causes of loss of some unique plant and animal species in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America as well as carbon release in the atmosphere.” – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
With the lack of land mentioned above, producers of livestock often cut down forests to create “new” arable land for feed and grazing. The problem with this is that forests play a valuable role in ecology – they act as sinks for carbon emissions and as habitats for ecological diversity.
This environmental impact leads to both changes in the carbon cycle (thereby affecting global and local climates) and the gradual weakening and destruction of forest ecosystems.
Methane and Nitrous Oxides are two greenhouse gasses released in massive amounts by the process of raising animals. These are also two of the most dangerous greenhouse gasses for the environment and are two of the top contributors to global climate change. In fact, the livestock industry produces more air pollution than all the cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes in the world combined. More than 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from raising animals and the byproducts they produce.
There are two aspects to a meat eater’s effect on freshwater resources – water consumption and water pollution.
Per-pound, it takes about 6 and a half times more fresh water to raise cattle than it does to grow rice, and as much as 125 times as much to grow cattle than to grow potatoes. In fact, 90% of the average, meat-consuming family’s water use is from food consumption. In a world where 780 million people don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water, this is an environmental and humanitarian impact of meat-eating that cannot be ignored.
On the other hand, not only does eating meat consume water, it also pollutes the clean water we have access to. Because it requires so much feed to raise livestock, feed production usually involves the use of chemical fertilizers. The agricultural runoff that results is the number one source of pollution in our waterways. The fertilizers used to grow feed such as cereal and fodder release large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen into waterways, weakening and eventually destroying entire aquatic ecosystems (such as the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico).
The hidden cost of hamburgers. It isn’t an attack on burgers; it’s a look at the hidden costs we don’t always like to look at.
The Other Side: What’s Good About Meat Production?
While all of the effects that have been addressed so far have been negative, it wouldn’t be fair to present them without addressing the good things that come out of meat production. It’s worth mentioning that there are quite a few economic and social benefits that come with eating meat. Because these don’t relate to the environmental impact of the meat industry, we won’t go into these here, but you can read more about that perspective here.
The conversation can’t be all “meat is bad”. Our ability to raise livestock for food is part of what helped us to get where we are today. There are two very heated sides to the debate, and it’s a mistake to think one is totally wrong.
Why Does it Matter?
We only get one environment, and a lot of people believe that there’s not much we, as individuals, can do to help it or harm it. However, the facts show that a meat-eating diet is drastically more harmful to the environment than a plant-based diet. This is one aspect of our environmental footprint that we, as individuals, have power over.
Keep in mind; the goal of this article is not to evaluate which diet is “better” and which is “worse”. There are pros and cons to both sides that aren’t addressed here. For the intents and purposes of this article, the question is only “Which diet is worse for the environment?”
In light of this, the facts point to the conclusion that vegetarianism is decidedly better for the environment than eating meat. In fact, the process providing for a meat eater’s diet trumps the vegetarian’s diet in environmental impacts such as deforestation, land degradation and overuse, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water consumption and pollution, and reduction of biodiversity.