eating meat

”It's clear that meat and cheese reduction is a powerful climate-mitigation strategy for all restaurants and institutions that want to reduce their environmental impact” 

—Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth

Your burger may be tasty, but it’s rough on the environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that livestock accounts for 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually (7.1 gigatons of CO2 per year, if you want to get technical). And although most animals raised for food have some sort of negative environmental impact, cattle raised for beef and milk are the worst culprits, representing 65 percent of total livestock emissions. The science is straightforward: Minimize your consumption of conventionally raised feedlot beef, and you’ll save water and reduce methane gas and carbon emissions.

Understanding meat production

To better understand the impact of eating meat, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tracked the resources required for both animal and plant-based protein sources. The organization took a “cradle-to-grave” approach by assessing each food item “based on the greenhouse gas emissions generated before and after the food leaves the farm—from the pesticides and fertilizer used to grow animal feed all the way through the grazing, animal raising, processing, transportation, cooking, and finally, disposal of unused food,” according to the EWG. lamb

After analyzing 20 common foods, EWG researchers had two important findings. One, plant-based foods had the smallest carbon footprint. Plant-based, protein-dense foods such as lentils, beans and organic tofu required significantly lower emissions than animal products, including fish, poultry and even eggs. Secondly, researchers discovered that not all animal-based foods are created equal—good news for those who don't want to completely cut meat out of their diet. The most resource-intensive foods studied by the EWG were lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon—mainly because many farming operations employ chemical fertilizer, feed sourced from elsewhere, fuel, pesticides and copious amounts of fresh water to raise such animals.

The impact on your health, environment and wallet

Some meat production—such as holistically managed animals like pasture-raised cattle, pasture-raised bison and organically raised poultry, eggs and dairy—can positively impact carbon sequestration. But on the whole, environmental groups argue that reducing meat consumption is the easiest and most important step you can take to fight climate change.

“95 percent of Americans eat meat. We’re not going to turn them all into vegetarians or vegans,” says Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology at Friends of the Earth, an international environmental organization. “But people can have a big impact on health, environment and their wallet by reducing overall meat consumption.”

Friends of the Earth recently studied how the Oakland, Calif., school district’s two-year commitment to reduce meat and dairy consumption in school lunch affected the environment. The group found that limiting meat, poultry and cheese over two years shrank the district’s carbon footprint by a whopping 14 percent and saved 42 million gallons of water, the amount required to fill 63 Olympic-sized swimming pools—significant for a rain-strapped state like California. “While our study focused on school food, it’s clear that meat and cheese reduction is a powerful climate-mitigation strategy for all restaurants and institutions that want to reduce their environmental impact,” says Hamerschlag. The study even calculated the carbon emissions for various school lunch meals served to children. For example, beef hot dogs had a carbon footprint seven times higher than a vegan recipe for tofu veggie stir-fry.

The lesson

Even if you aren’t willing to fully eliminate meat from your diet, swapping in plant-based meals or reduced-meat meals even a few days per week can make a measureable difference.