Vegetarianism and the Environment

As a vegetarian who believes that living a vegetarian life is more of a moral or spiritual issue than anything else, it is something I don’t often bring up in discussion with others.

However, I have seen so many stories and studies about its link to widespread environmental problems lately, I felt impelled to write about it a bit myself.

Image Credit: Hellebardius Fruits and veggies in a Barcelona market

Fruits and veggies in a Barcelona market

Perhaps most notably, according to a recent study by NASA, eating meat is essentially the third largest net contributor to climate change pollution in the world (behind using motor vehicles and burning household biofuels — mostly wood and animal dung). Additionally, in total, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study from a couple years ago found that livestock production was responsible for 18% of humanity’s greenhouse gas pollution globally and a more recent study published in the journal World Watch found that it was responsible for at least 51%!

If you look at the issue of energy alone (table below via Lloyd Alter of Treehugger), you can see that the energy required to produce one pound of meat is drastically more than the energy required to produce one pound of fruits or veggies.

energy required to produce one pound

As Praveen Ghanta says, “The data above indicate the huge difference in energy required from one end of the food spectrum to the other. Roughly twenty-five times more energy is required to produce one calorie of beef than to produce one calorie of corn for human consumption.”

Brighter Planet produced a great report recently (a couple charts from it below) examining the relationship between food and carbon emissions in the US as well. The bottom line is, if you want to help the environment, cut meat out of your diet today.

carbon footprint food group

carbon footprint diet vegan vegetarian omnivore

Despite all of these environmental problems related to eating meat (and there are at least as many health issues — note that the ADA now recommends a vegetarian diet), global meat production (which has tripled in the past three decades) is expected to double by 2050 if current trends continue.

The new two-volume  report that makes this forecast, Livestock in a Changing Landscape, comes to these key findings:

  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth’s land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of Earth’s total arable land.
  • Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
  • Although 1 billion poor people derive part of their livelihood from domesticated animals, commercialized industrial livestock has displaced many small, rural producers in developing countries, like India and China.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (the beef, pork and poultry industries emit large amounts of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases).
  • The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter, with much of the world’s pastureland degraded by grazing or feed production, and with many forests clear-cut to make way for additional farmland.
  • Feed production requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels.
  • Animal waste is a serious concern, since only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are actually absorbed and the rest pollute lands and waters.
  • Total phosphorous excretions of livestock are estimated to be seven to nine times greater than from humans.

Unfortunately, rather than address the broad externalities of livestock production, US government subsidizes it. The charts below, by Stephen McDaniel at Freakalytics, show that the US government heavily subsidizes meat and dairy while hardly giving a helping hand to fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.


Nonetheless, you still have a choice and you can probably still save money switching to a vegetarian diet (especially if you include the health benefits of doing so). So, if you want to make a big green step, start on a vegetarian diet, or even a vegan one!

  • Jason

    Choosing a diet that you’re comfortable with – vegetarianism or omnivore – is a difficult choice. You have to decide what you value most: your health or the environment.

    Vegetarianism is clearly the most eco-friendly diet. However, humans are designed to be omnivores and flourish with a diet that includes meat.

    It’s a tough decision and often reflects your priorities. You don’t necessarily have to be 100% vegetarian if environmental reasons concern you. Reducing red meat consumption or having several vegetarian days per week are options that benefit the environment.

  • Zachary

    Jason, many people think this, but it is becoming common knowledge now that a vegetarian diet is actually healthier. In fact, the the American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends a vegetarian diet now:

    And, as this fun video explains, humans are NOT designed to eat meat:

  • Jennifer

    Fruits and vegetables need fertilizer to thrive. Animals provide that. Employing proper methods of animal production and decreased meat intake can actually achieve a perfect balance, for people and nature.

  • bushidoka

    One niggly detail that often gets overlooked – pastured beef is way more efficient than feedlot beef, but your figures above do not account for this. According to Diet for a Small Planet feedlot beef consumes about 8x the resources as pastured beef. And pastured beef consumes only about 3x the resources as plants. So still wasteful, but not nearly as bad.

  • Katie

    I just wanted to comment that I think vegetarianism is an excellent thing to consider for social/ethical reasons and for health as well. Americans especially eat too much meat from the wrong sources. However, I do think it is important to note that tofu has its energy costs as well, and especially if you live in the UK, it can be quite detrimental to the environment to create it ( While meat is very bad for the environment, we must remember that there is the option of local, pasture raised meat, which the USDA has stated produces 2 calories of food for every one calorie of energy input. Not to mention pasture land is better for the environment than monoculture cropland often associated with soybean production, the animals receive a far better quality of life than they would in CAFOs, and the meat itself is better for us because it tends to be leaner and have more nutrients than CAFO meat. There are some great statistics available here ( So, if you eat meat, get local, pasture raised or if you eat beans also try to go with local small farms that utilize better farming practices than large scale monocultures!

  • Nathaniel

    @Jennifer and Jason – I eat MOSTLY a vegetarian diet, for that reason. I always encourage people to reduce their meat consumption, not necessarily stop eating meat altogether. However, if/when people are able/willing to totally cut meat out of their diet, all the better.

    @Zachary – In the second paragraph you write, “…I have seen so many stories and studies about its link to widespread environmental problems…” In the preceding paragraph the only subject to which you had referred was “a vegetarian life”. The pronoun “it” in your second paragraph thus refers to “a vegetarian life”, when in actuality i believe you meant for “it” to refer to “eating meat” (or “a carnivorous life”). minor detail, i know, and i’m sure i look like a jerk for pointing it out, but it had me a tad confused at the start. nice article…spread the word!!

  • Taylen

    i just wish they could come up with better processes for producing meat. i mean, this can’t be the most efficient ever…and i really like chicken (sorry, can’t help myself)!

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  • http:/ Gerrit Botha

    Right on Zachary

    I think this is a great article. You’re preaching to the choir with me; I’ve been vegetarian for 20 years. My children are a living advertisement for vegetarianism. All three teenagers were born teenagers and have never eaten meat and don’t want to either. Keep spreading the good word,

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