When it comes to the causes of environmental destruction and overconsumption of resources, the meat industry is at the top of the list. Meat production uses massive amounts of water and land, and leaves behind devastating amounts of pollution and greenhouse gases. America’s livestock industry — particularly through grazing on public lands — is one of the greatest threats to endangered species and habitat.
The United States consumes more meat than almost any other nation in the world. Every meal is an opportunity to reduce our environmental footprint, and by choosing to eat less meat, we can choose a healthier future for wildlife, the planet and people. Take our Earth-friendly Diet Pledge now.
Highly processed food products, including soy, do have a negative impact on the environment. Soybean plantations are responsible for deforestation, soil erosion and pesticide runoff, all of which threaten wildlife habitat and biodiversity. In some cases the carbon cost is also high as the soybeans travel from the plantations to processing centers to your grocery store. All of these environmental costs apply to meat as well, and tend to be much higher for producing animal protein than plant protein. In addition, the vast majority of soybean crops are grown for animal feed, not direct human consumption, so eating less meat will ultimately lessen the impact of soy on the planet, too.
It can be misleading to compare a plant-based diet high in soy to a meat-based diet from local, organic sources. When all things are equal — for example, comparing locally sourced meat to locally sourced vegetables — the meatless options come out far ahead for the environment and wildlife. Bottom line: The most Earth-friendly diet is plant-based from local, organic whole foods.
While “grass-fed” beef is arguably more humane for livestock animals and doesn’t produce the massive manure pits and runoff found at factory farms or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), it isn’t as sustainable for wildlife or the planet as many people believe, especially when the need to feed a human population of billions is taken into account. By destroying vegetation, damaging wildlife habitats and disrupting natural processes, livestock grazing wreaks ecological havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests alike — causing significant harm to species and the ecosystems on which they depend. And the diets of many “grass-fed” herds are often supplemented with water-intensive crops like alfalfa. Studies have also shown that grass-fed cattle emit more methane than those raised on grain feed.
There are many important reasons to support local agriculture, but replacing meat one day per week with plant-based food saves more greenhouse gas emissions than eating an entirely local diet that includes meat.
There are simply too many people eating too much meat for any form of meat production to be considered sustainable. As population and demand continue to grow — while our natural resources dwindle — the only way to protect the environment and wildlife is to dramatically reduce meat consumption.
Cows, pigs, chickens and sheep can all be directly dosed with pesticides to prevent pest infestation in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that exist on factory farms. But perhaps more important is the extent to which animals are exposed to crop pesticides through their food. Pesticide residues are found in meat and animal byproducts, including, disturbingly, long-banned pesticides like DDT. So we are essentially dousing animal food with so much pesticide that the animals feeding on it can have higher levels in their tissue — what ultimately becomes a burger or steak — than plants grown for your supermarket produce department. (Read more.)
Although many people don’t consider fish to be a type of meat, when it comes to food with negative impacts on the environment and wildlife, reducing seafood needs to be part of the equation to “take extinction off your plate.” Overfishing has depleted many marine species, like bluefin tuna, to the point of imperilment, putting fragile ocean ecosystems at risk. The unintentional capture of species — known as “bycatch” — is a major threat to marine life, including sharks and loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles.
Meanwhile, fish farms are just another form of feedlot, with many of the same problems seen in livestock factory farms. Farmed fish are fed wild fish, so they are closely tied to the ocean ecosystem. Fish farms are also a source of degraded habitat from dredging and drilling; water pollution from feces and chemicals; and invasive species when farmed fish escape their cages.
Our oceans are not able to sustain the appetite of our growing global population at our current level of consumption and with our current fishing practices. By eating less or eliminating meat and fish from our diets, and choosing more plant-based meals, we can improve the health of the oceans and the planet.
For those who choose to eat fish, the most important thing is to avoid species already threatened by overfishing, like bluefin tuna. Small-scale fishing with gear that’s friendly to marine mammals is preferable, but we need improve the management of fisheries worldwide to drastically reduce bycatch and overfishing before any type of fish can be considered a truly sustainable source of protein.
A lot of people worry that they won’t get enough protein if they reduce their meat consumption. But the average American eats almost twice the daily recommended intake of protein. Plus it’s easy to meet your daily protein needs from plant-based sources. Nuts, beans, seeds, tofu, tempeh and quinoa are all meatless sources of protein that are easy to prepare and easy on your budget. (Choose organic where possible.) Protein can even be found in vegetables, such as spinach (2.1 grams per 2 cups raw) and broccoli (8.1 grams per one cup chopped).
As much as 40 percent of food produced in the United States is thrown away. That’s not only a waste of the food itself and the money spent on it, but it’s also a waste of the land, water, fuel, packaging and other resources that went into producing the food in the first place. And as food decomposes, it releases methane, which directly contributes to climate change. Learn more about how food waste harms wildlife.
There are a number of ways to address food waste, from educating consumers to increasing opportunities to donate excess food and expanding composting programs. However, one of the greatest sources of agricultural waste is meat production. More than half of the grain grown in the United States is fed to livestock, and nearly half of the water used goes toward raising animals for food. Plant protein uses significantly less land, water and fossil fuels than animal protein, so by choosing to reduce your meat consumption, you’re already a step ahead in reducing your overall food waste.
Many environmentalists underestimate the impact of reducing meat consumption. Nearly 60 percent of the carbon footprint of the average American diet comes from animal products, and meat is responsible for land degradation, water pollution, and the direct endangerment and death of wildlife.
Climate change, water scarcity, deforestation, pollution and species extinction are problems that affect all of us. We’re each responsible for our own environmental footprint, but it’s also important to live by example and help educate those around us on how to live more sustainably.
Check out our 12 Ways to Live More Sustainably.