Global meat production and supply chains contribute to climate change and environmental issues. Before animal meat and animal products get to your table, feeding, farming, processing, and shipping cause significant environmental impacts. These, therefore, increase your carbon footprint. To reduce the impact of this industry on the planet, you can eat less meat.
Research shows that livestock production contributes about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions5. Apart from that, the waste from commercial livestock sometimes leaks into waterways, causing water contamination.
This entails choosing a plant-based diet filled with foods that have less impact. Reducing your meat intake also provides certain health benefits for you.
The consumption of less animal-based diets significantly impacts the environment and your holistic wellbeing. Science and many of those that have made the switch regard a reduction in the amount of animal-derived foods and embracing plant foods and their derived proteins as a good thing. Beyond meat, the change also includes being conscious of animal-derived products like milk and eggs.
People often prioritize reducing the global carbon footprint when it comes to significant world change regarding environmental issues. As a result, this begins with individual changes.
However, over the years, many research papers have suggested that what we eat is also worth considering. Studies have pointed out that eating less meat has many benefits to the planet. Heavy meat consumption means heavy meat production.
Below are some of the reasons why people must take action to eat less meat. The commercial livestock industry affects the environment in the following ways:
Meat production and processed meats emit more greenhouse gases, pollution, and deforestation than choosing to eat more plant-based foods. The majority of meat-based foods come from rearing commercial livestock.
Studies have shown that meat production significantly contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond meat, other livestock products such as milk also play a role in this environmental change.
Meat from cattle is responsible for the most emissions. It contributes about 41% of the livestock industry’s emissions. This is followed by cattle milk which is responsible for 20%, pig meat contributes 9%, buffalo beef and milk contribute 8%, and chicken and its eggs contribute 8%. Without adequate changes in diet, these numbers will only keep increasing, thereby contributing to global warming.
As much as people believe the change-makers are those in power, individual and household decisions affect production. A continued increase in meat consumption and animal products will only lead to further production.
Since factory-owned farms are abundant, their production methods are on a large scale. Feeding, manure processing, and transporting these animal products cause environmental changes.
As a result, ‘meat reducers’ and environmental advocates suggest we reduce meat consumption and embrace more alternatives to animal-based foods and protein.
Another detrimental effect of wide-scale meat consumption and production is the issue of deforestation. Livestock rearing is one of the reasons why this is on the rise.
Due to the demand for meat, livestock rearing requires vast land use. Additionally, farmers require land to grow grains and other food items to feed these animals. In a bid to acquire more land for rearing, they cut down trees in forests.
About 20% of the Brazilian Amazon has been wiped out due to various human activities. Two of the most prominent are cattle rearing and soybean farming4.
Issues like this reduce the number of trees, a major environmental problem. Trees trap carbon; without them, we will release enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In turn, this contributes to global temperature rises and climate change and goes on to affect soil quality and quality of living.
Apart from this, the destruction of forests for animal rearing also affects wildlife and biodiversity through habitat destruction. Further, increased demand can result in animal welfare concerns at factory farms and across less ethical supply chains. Due to this never-ending chain, experts are advocating for less meat and animal protein and more plant-based diets.
One of the reasons animal-heavy diets are not the best for the environment is their contribution to pollution. This takes place at various levels of meat production. The concept of consuming less meat might seem daunting, but when you evaluate the effects, the effort to switch is important.
Livestock farmed to produce meat contributes the highest phosphorus and nitrogen pollution worldwide8. This is primarily due to the excessive use of synthetic fertilizers, grain feed, and manure. Apart from depleting soil nutrients, this can also affect human health.
Several studies show that waste from livestock factories sometimes flows into waterways, contaminating the water supply. Although manure from animals is used as fertilizer for food growth, the bacteria from it can leak into local water supplies.
Researchers have shown these leakages negatively affect well-being and health. One of the ways to curb the pollution caused by this industry is a diet and lifestyle change. This means a shift from consuming a large amount of meat to less meat or a meatless diet.
Foods like meat and diets filled with dairy products are resource-intensive on the planet. However, studies also show that less meat consumption and more plant-based diets significantly benefit human physical well-being. So, when you eat fewer livestock-based meals, it improves both your health and the planet.
Modern lifestyles, ample choice, and affordable products generally mean that people and communities tend to consume more meat and milk than the body needs. Some fill their diets with plenty of animal-based food, leading to an unhealthy diet.
Some people also consume more proteins than their body requires. They then rely heavily on animal-derived proteins in their diet. This overconsumption is one of the reasons animal products are on the rise7.
Red and processed meats and dairy are common foods that people rely on for protein. A recent study revealed that people who consume red meat or processed meat are at a higher risk of heart-related diseases1. These include stroke and heart attacks. As a result, there is a need to shift from animal-based to plant-based diets.
Another study revealed that people who prioritize plant-based or pro-vegetarian diets over animal-based foods have a reduced risk of heart disease. They have a 19% lower risk of heart diseases and 11% lower risk of all-cause mortality2.
Plant-based diets include fruits, beans, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. As a result, such diets are low in meat and dairy products. For their protein intake, they rely more on plant-based protein sources. Such diets usually require less cooking and processing, thereby preserving food nutrients. These foods are also often easy to digest.
Nutrition experts reveal that plant-based meals are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Apart from ensuring a lower risk of heart problems, these meals can also help reduce bad cholesterol and problems associated with high blood pressure.
A plant-based diet rich in leafy greens, whole grains, and healthy oils like olive oil, nuts, and legumes provides these health benefits. There are also different sources of plant-based foods, which is something to pay attention to. Some are highly processed while others are not. For this reason, nutritionists often recommend brown rice over white rice or wheat bread over white bread.
Eating better for the environment and your health doesn’t have to be daunting. You can gradually ease into a diet that includes less meat and animal-based foods like dairy.
Although there’s some advocacy for complete meatless diets, the immediate switch doesn’t have to be extreme. A bit of a shift can begin to make a significant difference. If a complete meatless diet scares you at first, you can start by consciously reducing your meat consumption. Bear in mind that this should also include a reduced intake of dairy and other animal-based products.
As mentioned in prior sections of this article, a diet of low amounts of meat, especially red meat, is generally healthier. You’ll be reducing your carbon footprint, helping to ensure the maintenance of the natural environment, and enjoying health benefits. Ready to take action? Here are some ways to switch your diet for yourself and the environment:
Why not set limits such as the popular ‘Meatless Monday’ concept? This movement is a way to encourage people to embrace meatless days at least once a week without avoiding meat entirely.
As time goes on, this can grow into more days without eating meat or at least fewer portions of animal-based products in your meals. Or meat eaters can choose only to eat meat on a specific day of the week.
When you reduce your reliance on meat proteins, you’ll be combating climate change and taking steps to help prevent chronic diseases.
This doesn’t mean a complete switch to veganism. Instead, a plant-based diet can mean more portions of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts.
Rather than having meat as the center of your meals, you add more plants to your plate. Also, instead of animal protein, you gradually add more plant-based or vegan protein sources.
These include beans, tofu, nuts, green peas, and quinoa. For example, you can increase plant-based eating by adding lentils or mushrooms to your favorite ground meat recipes - it's just as delicious and helps reduce your intake. A plant-based diet will additionally help you reduce your grocery bill.
If you’re purchasing products of animal origin, you should pay attention to those certified organic. This ensures that the production processes and supply chains are sustainable. For instance, certified organic poultry comes from farms that don’t use synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. These livestock rearers also only feed the animals with organic food.
Buying organic and sustainable products also goes for other food items. Try to buy locally to trace the origins of even your plant-based food options effectively when making purchases. Also, you should continue to keep an eye on food miles for a better planet. Berries flown in from half a world away make for a poor environmental choice.
Another tip is to purchase only grass-fed beef. This refers to beef from livestock-fed grass, unlike conventional grain-feeding.
Grass-fed livestock is known to be better for health and the environment. The meats produced are leaner and have greater levels of good fat. In cultures where the people primarily consume beef, a switch to meat from grass-fed animals is said to contribute to dietary intakes of healthier essential fats6 compared to grain-fed. However, this should still be consumed in moderate portions.
Reducing your meat consumption is an excellent way to shift the global demand for animal-based foods. What you eat has a significant impact on your environmental footprint and also your wellbeing.
By reducing your animal food consumption, you’re taking a stance to mitigate the problems caused by beef production. Whether you’re adding more vegetables to your diet, adopting beans as protein, or even trying beef alternatives, your action matters.
Instead of embarking on this journey alone, try out the tips with a friend. This way, you can explore new food recipes in a fun and creative way with someone. Also, you’ll be encouraging someone to help the environment.
Zhong, V. W., Van Horn, L., Greenland, P., Carnethon, M. R., Ning, H., Wilkins, J. T., ... & Allen, N. B. (2020). Associations of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry, or fish intake with incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. JAMA internal medicine, 180(4), 503-512.
Kim, H., Caulfield, L. E., Garcia‐Larsen, V., Steffen, L. M., Coresh, J., & Rebholz, C. M. (2019). Plant‐Based diets are associated with a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all‐cause mortality in a general population of middle‐aged adults. Journal of the American Heart Association, 8(16), e012865.
Persson, M., Henders, S., & Kastner, T. (2014). Trading forests: Quantifying the contribution of global commodity markets to emissions from tropical deforestation. Center for Global Development Working Paper, (384)
Cao, S. (2014, April 30). Cattle ranching and soybean cultivation as drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, and on-going policy responses. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.14288/1.0075586
Gerber, P. J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., ... & Tempio, G. (2013). Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
McAfee, A. J., McSorley, E. M., Cuskelly, G. J., Fearon, A. M., Moss, B. W., Beattie, J. A. M., ... & Strain, J. J. (2011). Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n-3 PUFA in healthy consumers. British Journal of Nutrition, 105(1), 80-89.
Searchinger, T., Waite, R., Hanson, C., Ranganathan, J., Dumas, P., Matthews, E., & Klirs, C. (2019). Creating a sustainable food future: A menu of solutions to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050. Final Report. World Resources Institute (WRI)
Greenpeace Research Laboratories Technical Report (Review). (2012, March). Ecological livestock. [PDF]. Greenpeace
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.