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Meat and the Environment

Jasmijn de Boo is CEO of the Vegan Society and has eleven years experience in education and in the animal protection movement – including campaign management, research and policy development. She possesses expertise in several issues, including vegan nutrition and health; animals used in research, testing and education and alternatives; companion animals; farmed animals; and wildlife.

Jasmijn in ScotlandMany published studies and reviews selectively quote statistics and evidence in favour of the prevailing bias. An example of this type of bias was evident in Korthals's (2011) poor review in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics of the book Meat the Truth edited by Koffeman (2009). The book outlines facts about the environmental impact of the livestock sector on climate change. Korthals did not seem to like the idea of meat consumption moderation or abolition, as suggested in the book. Accordingly, in search of "positive aspects of livestock farming" he cited the justifications expressed in Fairlie's Meat, a Benign Extravagance. Scientific criticism is important, however Fairlie's arguments fell far short of such standards. His claims (which were not peer reviewed) just seem to serve his so-called 'intellectual' justification for eating animals. Believing in sustainable meat consumption is akin to denying the reality of the climate change already visible today.

Out of control

There are climate change naysayers, and those who believe climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery (Prof Hansen in The Guardian, 6 April 2012). Nasa climate scientist Prof Jim Hansen says that the latest climate models had shown the planet was on the brink of an emergency. Over the next few decades the effects of an out of control climate system will be disastrous for ecosystems, sea level and species extinction. Along with other scientists and economists, he calls for a worldwide tax on all carbon emissions. They believe a global levy on fossil fuels (oil, gas, shale gas and coal) "is the strongest tool for forcing energy firms and consumers to switch quickly to zero carbon and green energy sources".

Other leading scientists have expressed similar warnings, and focused on similar solutions. Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth that farming non-human animals for food is responsible for at least 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in CO2 equivalent (when all GHGs were converted to equivalent CO2 potential) (Steinfeld et al., 2006), is often ignored in scientists' and policy makers' recommendations. Other GHG emissions caused by the exploitation of other animals for food, such as methane and nitrous oxide, have a much higher global warming potential than CO2 (23 and 296 times respectively). 'Farmed' animals are also responsible for 64% of ammonia emissions, causing acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. In all, human farming of other animals is in the top three causes of all major anthropogenic environmental problems, from local water pollution to global climate change.

Jordan - all dried out Land grab and water shortage

The majority of CO2 emissions are caused by land-use changes, in particular deforestation caused by expansion of pastures and growing crops fed to cows, pigs, chickens and other animals killed at a massive scale (over 60 billion a year worldwide). In addition, overuse and subsequent declining soil fertility pushes people to find new land to expand the agricultural base. This may also lead to deforestation, which in turn causes soil degradation. This vicious circle makes current agricultural practice unsustainable. Continuing to intensify production on already degraded lands is not a sustainable solution. Rich countries, such as the UK, and other countries that rely heavily on animal protein, import tonnes of energy-inefficient feedcrops without paying for the consequences. This causes significant problems for many developing countries and biodiversity-rich nations.

Lugschitz et al. (2011) calculated that the EU average land consumption per capita (i.e. land used to produce the agricultural and forestry products consumed) is 1.3 hectares, while citizens of countries such as China and India require less than 0.4 hectares per capita. Nearly 60% of the land used to satisfy the demand for agricultural and forestry products in the EU comes from outside Europe. Germany and the UK each import products requiring more than 80 million hectares of land a year. This is neither fair nor sustainable.

Beef cattleIn addition, the production of animal products is responsible for nearly one-third of the total water footprint of agriculture globally (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2012). Water scarcity is likely to increase, and billions of people and animals will suffer as a result. The authors state that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value, and that it is more water-efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.

Less is more

Van Beukering et al. (2008) calculated that if all British people ate a meat-free diet seven days a week, they would save 91 megatons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, which would save as much as 254 million return flights from London to Ibiza, or eliminating all GHG emissions from 12.5 million households in the UK.

A recent study by the Sustainable European Research Institute (commissioned by the German Vegetarian Society (VEBU) and the Austrian branch of the international environmental activist network Greenpeace) found that meat alternatives have a lower environmental impact than meat. One kilogram of soy meat released about 350 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere compared with about 7,200 grams from the same amount of ground meat. The factors that were considered included water consumption, transport and the use of both renewable and non-renewable resources.

Therefore, alongside measures to curb energy consumption, solutions to avert climate change and halt biodiversity loss must include moving towards plant-based living. Based on Defra reports from 2006 and 2008, Stephen Walsh (2009) concluded that 'producing a basic vegan diet has about a third of the resource demands and global warming impact of a conventional diet – a substantial advantage, particularly in terms of land requirements'.

Under influence

In his interview with The Guardian, Prof. Hansen concluded that "we can't simply say that there's a climate problem, and leave it to the politicians. They're so clearly under the influence of the fossil fuel industry that they're coming up with cockamamie solutions which aren't solutions."

I would add that politicians and other decision-makers are also clearly under the influence of the agricultural sector, and lack concern for both future human generations and sentient non-human animals. A global levy on all animal products would not be misplaced in this context. However, policies and subsidies promoting plant-based living are by far preferable from an environmental and humanitarian perspective. And of course, plant-based living respects the animals' right to life and freedom.


Carrell, S. (2012). Nasa scientist: climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery. The Guardian, 6 April 2012.

Fairlie, S. (2010). Meat. A benign extravagance, HempShire: Permanent Publications.

Koffeman, N. (ed.) (2009). Meat the truth. Essays on livestock production, sustainability and climate change. Amsterdam: Nicolaas Pierson Foundation.

Korthals, M. (2011). Emotions, Truths and Meanings Regarding Cattle: Should We Eat Meat? J Agric Environ Ethics, DOI 10.1007/s10806-011-9334-2.

Lugschitz, B., Bruckner, M., Giljum, S. (2011). Europe's global land demand – A study on the actual land embodied in European imports and exports of agricultural and forestry products. Vienna: Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI).

Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A. (2012). A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products. Ecosystems, DOI: 10.1007/s10021-011-9517-8.

Steinfeld H., Gerber P., Wassenaar T., Castel V., Rosales M., de Haan C. (2006). Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.

Van Beukering, P., Van der Leeuw, K., Immerzeel, D. and Aiking, H. (2008). Meat the Truth: The contribution of meat consumption in the UK to climate change. Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Walsh, S. (2009). Environmental impact of vegan versus conventional diets in the UK. The Vegan. Birmingham: The Vegan Society.

Meat alternatives more climate-friendlier than meat, study finds:


Jo Homan's picture

my piece tomorrow

I am just writing my piece for tomorrow - reflections on Meat, a Benign Extravagance. Thank you, Jasmijn, for highlighting the more recent research on land use and water consumption, and the meat and dairy industry.

Paul Sousek's picture

How wrong can you be?

Jasmijn is clearly well rehearsed at putting forward arguments for vegan living and the article is well referenced.

However, her approach is IMO entirely wrong headed.

1. Humans have always killed and eaten animals, eversince they emerged as a species

2. Sentient non-human animals, wild or farmed, have no greater right to life than other wild creatures routinely prayed upon by other species. The concept of a 'right to life' does not exist in nature.

3. Farming is far more efficient and healthy when practiced as mixed farming, involving animals to convert plants indigestable to humans and to improve the soil in the process. Arable only farming without fossil fuels and fertilisers has poor productivity and tends to degrade soils over time.

4. The reason humans are causing global warming catastrophe is not their diet. It is their population explosion and the use of stored sunshine in fossil fuels, in that order.

5. We humans as a species on this planet need to find a way to reduce our numbers to the carrying capacity of the planet. This is variously estimated at between 1 and 2 billion, not 7 billion now or the 9 billion we are heading for.

It puzzles me that so many people seem to find the number of human beings currently on the planet in some way axiomatic and then try to fit systems around this number in an attempt to postpone collapse. We need to start thinking about this problem from the other end: What possible benefit is it to anyone or anything, including those sentient non-human beings, to allow or even strive for our population size to grow over the reasonable carrying capacity of the plant?

At every stage of human population growth we appear to persuade ourselves that this current number of humans on the planet is the right number to be maintained and defended or even allowed to expand a little bit. That little bit soon becomes doubling as our population size faithfully follows the exponential growth curve. Our intelligence ought to allow us to look at that curve and realise that it is a curve that leads only to doom, vegan consumption or not.

Lets start thinking of possible methods, such as a world-wide maximum 2-child policy, of gradually reducing our numbers to the more acceptable numbers. Once our numbers begin to decline most of the other problems we suffer from will begin to disappear, too. The vegan v. balanced diet will no longer feature as a problem but will be reduced to a life style choice.

Steve Hanson's picture


The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments.   - Friedrich Nietzsche


Some of what I had to say has now been said by Paul so I will concentrate on solutions not problems.


So how to achieve balance which is the whole solution not a fragment presented to wrongly highlight one persons bias towards the consumption of animals for food.



Farmed animals are not a contributing factor for any of the earth’s present problems, farming methods used by greedy individuals and massive corporations with CEO’s at the helm are the only issue with farmed animals. I will concentrate on cows as did the author above; firstly they don’t have a carbon foot print if farmed close to the natural conditions of their ancestors, they are a natural part of our eco system. Cows simply cycle carbon like all animals on our planet, grass fed cattle unlike crops grown on factory farms don’t produce anymore carbon than they take in, crops grown using tractors fuelled by fossil fuels previously captured and stowed away by nature are responsible for as much as ten times their own weight in carbon release by the time they reach the shops.


Worming around

All land based animal’s increase the worm population in the soil beneath their feet by their own weight, the only exception to this is humans who tend to treat their waste products as pollution. So a one tonne bullock will be responsible for a tonne of worms in the soil, a tonne of soya will conversely be responsible for the violent murder by plough or wheel of 250,000 worms 6 or so small mammals who live under the soil or around it and contribute to the starvation of foxes and birds of prey who can’t find their food which is now interned in the soil.



Many well documented studies claim beef has the largest water footprint of all human food stuffs. Do cows drink voluminous amounts of water? Yes they do, and then they return it to the soil beneath their feet rich with nutrients and minerals to feed the grass, herbs, shrubs and trees and then those same plants transpire that water back to the atmosphere to make more rain cleaned ready to drink. You see it’s a cycle like all of nature.


Beef it up

Beef from cows fed exclusively on forage plants is documented as having anti carcinogenic properties, is also responsible for the diet of children who exhibit less dental malformations, as well as being an incredibly nutrient dense food. Conversely beef from cows fed on grains for as much as nine months of its life contains carcinogenic properties, contributes to dental malformation and is less nutritionally dense.



Now imagine how this system which can produce superior food looks. Imagine a landscape dissected by hedges separating the land in to one acre paddocks. Firstly the hedges will increase the available forage for the inhabitants by approximately 3m2 per linier meter; this will provide diversity in both forage and habitat. Then imagine half of those paddocks planted with a variety of large nut trees say 6 to 10 per acre the same paddock then produces more than one food crop. The trees provide shelter from sun and rain for grazing animals the animals provide the trees with much needed nutrients, The faeces of the grazing animals provides habitat for insect larvae, the insects and larvae provide food for wild birds or domestic poultry. Now imagine the second half of the paddocks planted with a variety of half size fruit or nut trees, these can only be under grazed by smaller animals like sheep, goats, ducks and geese but still productivity is increased and the system still has all the benefits of the previous one. Take away any element of these systems and you will decrease the productivity and potentially increase the pollution or waste.



The answer is not for the worlds to become vegan, the answer is for the world to reintegrate and become a balanced system again. In this system there will be room for everyone to eat what they want to eat without anyone wearing a moral crown which risks falling from your head when you’re too weak to hold your head up for lack of good nutrition.


That picture I asked you to imagine is my five hectare back garden; just my paddocks are only a quarter acre. Our system is still in its infancy now eight years in the making but it produces ten times more produce than the previous farmer with a hundred times more diversity.


Jo Homan's picture

yes, let's examine those faulty arguments and bias

Carbon All animals are part of the eco system. The problem is that there are too many cows (linked into Paul's argument about human population and the food we choose to eat). Not arguing for mechanised agriculture. Undug soil is a carbon sink which is why the polyculture/agroforestry approach is best.

Worming around Never heard that about worms. I agree that digging up soil is bad for soil life - remember that all those animals have to be fed plant matter as well, adding to the amount of digging. It's interesting that you use the phrase 'violent murder' in this context but not when you're talking about livestock. It's interesting that you defend a farming system that is already leading to the death of plenty of wild animals who are  poisoned, hunted, fenced out etc.

Water Although water consumed by farm animals does indeed go back into the system (often in a problematic, polluting form) but because animals consume lots of plants, they end up consuming a larger proportion of water per calorie of energy produced by them, compared to plants i.e. that water could be used to produce more calories of plant food than meat food. There is a limit to the amount of fresh water being cycled in the system and many of us are facing serious water shortages. Using it to produce plant food is more efficient, especially if it's grown in polycultures where there isn't bare or dug up earth which constantly loses water.

Beef it up Using health as an argument for eating meat flies in the face of reality. Beef is only nutrient dense because of the huge number of inputs. I don't think Western populations face a crisis of calories or that there is a world shortage of food. Remember that lots of plants that could be eaten by humans are fed to livestock.

Integration Yes, like the nut trees. Nothing wrong with animals living there too. No, don't see the need to eat the animals.

Conclusion "Moral crown" interesting phrase you've chosen there. "you're too weak to hold your head up for lack of good nutrition" highlights "one person's bias".

Jo Homan's picture

responding to Paul

1. no reason for continuing to do so now that we have knowledge and choice

2. By this logic humans should be just as happy to eat other humans.

3. Incorrect, all energy comes from the sun, doesn't have to pass through animals first. Using livestock that energy gets converted into body of animal and is hugely inefficient. Where's your evidence that arable farming degrades soil? This would only happen if organic matter were being constantly removed. I'd argue for polyculture/agroforestry - as occurs in nature. Not cow and grass monocultures.

4. Evidence? Diet and human population are related. No one is arguing that diet is the only thing to be addressed.

5. ditto above

Having a vegan diet isn't a problem.

JoelT's picture

Reply to Paul and Steve

This seems to have developed into almost the same structure of argument as can be found all over the web:

Jasmijn’s article is well written and factual (thanks for the read by the way) given how most of our meat is currently produced, although to be fair she does fail to point out that livestock production can be done in a sustainable manner on certain types of land.

But Paul and Steve: while jumping on this oversight with numerous facts about sustainable animal farming, neither of you have pointed out that these sustainable methods couldn’t possibly supply North American’s and Europeans with their current 80 to 120kg’s of meat per year – this consumption would have to be reduced.


Also Paul: although overpopulation is clearly a massive problem, our huge overconsumption per person in the West is an equally big problem – you say the carrying capacity of the planet is only 1 to 2 billion, but that’s only if we all live like middle class Americans. We could easily support all 7 billion of us if we in the West lived on fewer resources, and we could be equally healthy and happy (for example, is consumer culture really making anyone happier?) Overpopulation should never be used as a scapegoat for our responsibility to reduce consumption in the West.

As for your points (1) and (2), I just don’t think they stand as reasons to eat meat:

(1)  There are many things humans have done for much of their history (enslaving other human beings, discriminating against women, etc.) but of course this doesn’t make them right.

(2)  That doesn’t really imply we have the right to their life, unless our life depends upon that source of nutrition I guess.

And just because animals can be reared sustainably doesn’t mean we have to eat meat – milk and eggs have all the nutrition we need from animal products, including the often cited pitfall of vegan diets: Vit B12.

I really don’t believe there is any moral argument for eating animals – those of us that eat meat generally do so because we like to, and don’t have a moral objection to doing so.

So eating meat is at best an amoral pleasure.

And for the record, personally, I’m undecided upon weather I think killing an animal to eat it is immoral.


Finally, Steve: “too weak to hold your head up for lack of good nutrition”? You need to be careful throwing this claim around at any random vegan…

(Although I suppose some of them may sometimes be found to be a little weak, what with recovering from the ultra-marathons and all that.)