Meat, is it bad for the environment?

Date: 30-06-2011

The following claims have been made about eating meat:

  • Meat eating uses up anywhere between 5-10 times more land than eating vegetables.
  • The production of 1 kilo of beef uses up 100,000 litres of water.
  • 18% of greenhouse emissions are due to livestock.

If these claims are true then this is clearly a serious issue on our increasingly crowded planet. Are these claims accurate though, and if not what damage is really being done by the livestock industry?

Sorting the meat from the chaff!

Frankly there are some rather questionable figures that get bandied about by such groups as PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals) and many others. These overstate the effects that meat husbandry has on the environment and fail to note the complexities of the issue. These crucial details include some of the following:

  • We need to distinguish between different kinds of meat. Chickens, pigs, cows, sheep and ostriches are all farmed in different ways that have different impacts on the environment. Some animals are quite efficient environmentally if reared properly. For instance pigs will naturally live on left over vegetable and meat scraps that would otherwise go to waste. Some animals such as sheep and goats will graze on marginal land that is unlikely to have any potential as arable land.
  • For any given animal there are alternative ways of farming them. For instance grass fed cows will in general have a lower environmental impact than grain fed animals. The reason being that the grass fed cows live on pasture land that needn't be potentially arable. Grain fed cows will need their grain grown on arable land and then need to live in another space themselves.
  • International regulations can cause major problems1. For instance European pigs now need to be fed twice as much grain as they did 20 years ago. Why? Well partly due to supermarket rules, partly large feed producers preferring increased amounts of grain as they can't handle food waste easily, and perhaps the most important, the knee-jerk reactions to the BSE and foot and mouth crises by the EU.
  • Another important factor is where in the world you live and what season it is. It would be absolute lunacy for an Inuit in Northern Canada to eat a predominantly vegetarian or vegan diet in their winter. Clearly the most available and nutritious source of sustenance is seals and fish and big game such as elk. Even a study in the New York area based on current land use patterns did not come out with vegan or vegetarian diets as the most efficient way of feeding the population there3.

Addressing the claims above.

  • The claim that meat eating uses 5-10 times more land than veganism appears doubtful. The overall excess land use attributable to animals could be as little as 1.4 to 1 and not the 5-10 to 1 cited by many groups, according to an insightful book by Simon Fairlie1 "Meat: a benign extravagance". This figure could be further improved if the farming model used by the rich Western countries changed to feed pigs on residues and waste. Cattle on straw, stovers2 and grass from fallow areas.
  • The claim that 1 kg of beef using 100,000 litres of water is wrong. It's more like 100 litres. The claim assumes that all water, whether from rain or mains supply, falling on cow pasture land disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.
  • The claim that 18% of greenhouse gases are due to livestock, also fails to live up to scrutiny. This UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s claim, attributes all deforestation for cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle. Actually it is mostly due to logging and land speculation. It assumes one-off emissions are ongoing pollution and greatly underestimates fossil fuel consumption by intensive arable farming.

Clearly the environmental case against meat is not as strong as most people think. In my view if we are concerned about the environment, which I certainly am, then we need to focus much more on how we obtain our food rather than whether it is meat or vegetable.

How to eat environmentally.

One of the best things is to try and eat local foods. If that isn't growing your own you will often find that your local greengrocer sources vegetables from local allotments and farms, especially in the main growing and cropping seasons. Equally your local butcher will have contacts with local farms that you are very unlikely to find in local supermarkets.

If you find yourself in the supermarket then do try to buy produce from your own country. This should help, although there are cases of produce being shipped to depots abroad and then returning to their country of origin to be bought and consumed. That's the great supermarket economy folks!

Organic food is sometimes worthwhile also. Organic certification was introduced in order to differentiate the foods produced in more traditional, less intensive ways. As such it should help, but not necessarily if the organic food is from another continent. Also organic standards vary and of course there are a significant number of fraudulent producers who use organic certification when they are not obeying the organic rules. Bear in mind also that many non-organic foods are in fact organic. Many small scale operations cannot afford the time or money to go through the organic certification process. We should remember that organic food is just the food that our grandparents and great grandparents were eating all the time.

When it comes to organic I tend to prefer local if possible and then organic from a supermarket. If I am in a supermarket then it is the meat and dairy produce that I will prioritise when it comes to buying organic. This is mainly to reduce the risk that animals have been treated inhumanely. I tend to buy very little pre-packaged produce anyway and when it comes to fruit and vegetables I go by smell and appearance if at all possible.

The ethics of it all

So in conclusion the last two of my articles have concluded that meat is generally a good food both for our health and for the environment. The caveats being to not over consume too much of one type of meat, especially smoked produce and to avoid meat that has been treated inhumanely or shipped long distances either when alive or dead.

There are of course valid reasons for not eating meat. I would include among these a respect for the life of other animals, a wish not to impose any suffering on fellow animals and also a myriad of possible medical conditions that make some meats impossible for people to eat. However I don't think it is valid for most people to give up meat for health reasons or to save the environment.


  2. stovers are left over stalks and leaves from harvested grain products such as wheat, maize and soya.