Lowering meat consumption– Better for you and the environment

Mama said ‘eat your vegetables and fruit’ because she knew they were good for you.  But did mama know that eating vegetables, fruit and lowering your animal protein intake to 25% a day, is also good for the environment?

As industrial societies are currently on a trend to demand more animal protein such as beef, lamb, chicken and pork, etc., their environmental effects are negatively impacting the environment.  The waste produced from live animals that are raised intensely indoors, where uses of drugs and antibiotics are common place to help keep an animal healthy enough to eat, and to stop spread of infection and diseases, when excreted are polluting our environment at water sources and increasing greenhouse gases and methane in the atmosphere. 

“Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein.” (Pimentel 2003)  In water consumption alone, the amount of water needed to feed livestock and to produce the grain fed to livestock, is much more than farming fields of grain protein such as millet and sorghum.  In addition to this, the pollution that large scale meat production facilities produce can be brought to a manageable amount when we allocate more resources such as land and water to production of grain protein.  To conserve water, switching out meat production fields to crop fields grown for human consumption makes a lot of sense.

You may be thinking well I do love my burgers, and that is ok.  Meat production will still continue, however on a smaller scale and in manageable and sustainable ways that keep a balance with the environment.  We will need to replace the everyday animal protein consumption that Americans like, to more plant based proteins like pulses, and protein grains.  This means that animal protein would be eaten perhaps not every day but twice a week for example.  That would make your steak or lobster an even more special and delicious culinary occasion. 

Let’s say you are like me and believe that organic products and practices hold lots of benefits like better flavor and quality, kinder on the environment with use of less chemicals, and beneficial to the ecosystem where organic standards are practiced.  Well even with the best grass-fed approach to raising meat, the cost to the environment is expensive.  “…research also found grass-fed beef, thought to be relatively low impact, was still responsible for much higher impacts than plant-based food. “Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions.” (Carrington 2018)

When I lived in rural Costa Rica, our daily meal consisted of bread and papaya or eggs for breakfast, followed by beans and rice with plantains at lunch, followed by beans and rice, a vegetable, and small piece of beef or other meat at dinner.  Beans and rice are the main ingredients and protein source in the traditional diet, as meat is more costly.  Meat is also more costly for the environment.  “…beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and use 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and 36 times more land.” (Carrington 2018)

As for the best argument I’ve heard for reducing the amount of animal protein to 25% of our daily consumption, it’s all about the money…$500 billion that we can use to help all of us figure out our agricultural sustainability.  “Less animal protein demand along with production saves energy, pollution of land, water and soil and frees up money that can be used to repurpose land from meat production to vegetable protein and pulse production.  “at least $500bn is spent every year on agricultural subsidies, and probably much more: “There is a lot of money there to do something really good with.” (Carrington 2018)  For the most effective change in consumers, we’ll need to feel pressured into changing our dietary habits.  Scientists look to consumer power to choose, using labels and taxes to help curb our animal protein consumption.  “Communication could occur through a combination of environmental labels, taxes or subsidies designed to reflect environmental costs in product prices, and broader education on the true cost of food.” (Poore 2018)

by Desert Gardener


Carrington, Damian. “Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth”, The Guardian, 31 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth. Accessed 26 September 2020

Pimentel, David and Marcia Pimentel. “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment”, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 78, Issue 3, Pages 660S–663S, September 2003, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/78.3.660S. Accessed 27 September 2020.

Poore, J. and T.Nemecek.  “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers”, Science, 360 (6392), 987-992, May 2018, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216.  Accessed 28 September 2020.

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