An Ethical and Sustainable Guide to Eating Meat

Lee Johnson




Eating meat has a substantial negative effect on the environment, but you don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian to reduce your impact. Choosing more environmentally-friendly meats like chicken instead of beef, being careful where you source your food, and reducing your consumption can make a big difference.

Too protect the environment, a great option is to go vegetarian or vegan.

As University of Oxford researcher Joseph Poore put it, following a vegan diet is “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”

By removing your dependence on the meat trade, you’re discouraging intensive farming of animals and dramatically lessening your environmental impact.

But I know what many of you are thinking: What if I don’t want to give up meat? Is there any way to reduce my environmental impact while still enjoying the occasional steak?

Admittedly, accomplishing this as a meat-eater is harder, but there are steps you can take to reduce the impact you’re having on the planet. This will still mean changing some of your diet, but you can still make a substantial difference if you’re dedicated to making a positive change.


How the Meat Trade Impacts the Environment

People often say that reducing your meat consumption or going completely vegan is the best thing you can do to help the environment, but why is that the case? There are many points that can be raised to explain the problem, but the following explanations give a good overview of the nature of the problem.


1 – Meat Uses a Lot of Water

The easiest way to understand the greater environmental impact of meat is realizing that animals are fed crops that also need to be grown. Rather than eating crops, you need to grow crops to feed to animals to then eat the animals, leading to more waste over the whole process. This is the reason animal products require more water than plant-based products. Beef, for example, uses around 15,400 liters of water per kilogram of edible meat produced; pork is close to 6,000 liters/kg; and chicken takes around 4,300/kg. In comparison, vegetables use about 300 liters/kg, and fruits use about 1,000 liters/kg.


2 – Cattle Produces Methane, a Potent Greenhouse Gas

Ruminants like cows and sheep – that eat grass – tend to be the worst when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the bacteria in their stomach that allows them to digest grass creates methane as a byproduct, and methane is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of the greenhouse effect. Translating the environmental impact into “CO2 equivalent” amounts – that is, an equivalent effect to the stated mass of CO2 – cows release about 16 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat, and sheep release about 13 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat.


3 – Freshwater Fish Farming Also Produces Methane

Although it’s for a different reason, freshwater fish farms are also significant sources of methane. These farms are the source of almost all the fish in Europe and two-thirds in Asia, but as excrement and unconsumed feed sinks to the bottom of the pond, the oxygen levels drop dramatically and this environment is ideal for methane production. Consequently, farmed fish is about as bad as poultry and pork when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, despite often being assumed to be environmentally friendly.


4 – Meat Accounts for 83 Percent of Farmland Used, but Only 18 Percent of Calories

Producing 18 percent of calorie intake for the human population and about 37 percent of protein, meat manages to use up a whopping 83 percent of farmland used. In addition to this already unflattering statistic, livestock is responsible for about 58 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and 57 percent of all water pollution. The amount of damage to the environment is wildly out of step with the nutrition and energy we get from it.



5 – The Best Meat and Dairy Are Worse for the Environment Than the Worst Veggies and Cereals

Even if you take the positive step of moving towards more sustainable forms of meat, there is still bad news compared to being a vegetarian or vegan. The unfortunate truth is that even the most sustainable forms of livestock and dairy are still less sustainable than the worst offenders out of cereals and vegetables.


6 – Meat Contributes to Deforestation

With a large proportion of farmland taken up by meat production, it also takes a big share of the blame for ongoing deforestation, which is largely caused by agriculture. Once the trees have gone, chances are they’ll never come back, but they are a vital ally in the fight against climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and only emit oxygen.


7 – Livestock Causes 14.5 Percent of All Emissions (as Much as the World’s Cars, Planes, Boats, and Trains)

The level of greenhouse gas emission from livestock is a substantial chunk of total emissions – about 14.5 percent of total manmade emissions – identifying it as one of the most important sources of greenhouse gases to reduce. The most shocking part of this fact is when you compare it to emissions from transportation, in the form of all of the world’s cars, planes, boats and trains, the meat trade is responsible for an equivalent amount of emissions to all of these combined.


8 – The Meat Trade Creates Pollution and Possibly Contributes to Antibiotic Resistance

While agriculture in general – including the production of plant-based foods – is a source of pollution due to fertilizers, pesticides and other factors, the fact that 30 percent of all crops are ultimately fed to livestock means that meat takes a substantial proportion of the blame. Eutrophication of water bodies, for example, results from an excess of nutrients and things like animal excrement and leftover feed. This leads to overgrowth of algae and plants, using up all of the oxygen in the region and having serious impacts on other aquatic species. Antibiotic resistance is also a serious problem, and it’s expected that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is partially responsible for this.


9 – Meat Consumption Is Expected to Rise Worldwide

The final fact is probably the most worrying of all. As more nations become wealthier, meat consumption worldwide is expected to increase. This is likely to be a substantial increase, too, estimated as a doubling of consumption in the next four decades. This means all of the problems identified above will be doubled in impact unless something drastically changes.


How to Eat Meat More Sustainably and Ethically

The facts above show that if you’re going to continue eating meat, your contribution to the issues surrounding global climate change is going to be bigger than if you became vegetarian or vegan. However, that doesn’t mean the only way to reduce your impact is to make such a drastic change in your lifestyle. You can actually make a substantial difference by just thinking about how you eat meat and your relationship with food in general. Here are simple suggestions you can use to make a difference without saying goodbye to meat altogether.



Ways to Make Eating Meat More Ethical and Sustainable


1 – Reduce the Amount of Meat You Eat

The simplest change you can make is cutting the amount of meat you eat, even if it’s only by a small amount. There are many ways you can do this, but the more meat you cut out, the less you contribute to the global issues caused by the meat trade. You can choose a reducetarian or flexitarian diet, both of which are effectively mainly plant-based diets but ones that incorporate some meat on occasion. If you switch to only eating meat on weekends, for instance, you’ll cut your contribution to the issues by over 70 percent. Similarly, you could choose to incorporate meat into your main meal – ideally with a smaller portion than you’d usually go for – but not have any for lunch or breakfast.


However, even following a simple and minimal approach like “Meat-Free Mondays” can have a significant impact, cutting your consumption by over 14 percent. Ideally, though, you can try to cut your meat consumption by about half (to about 100 grams / 3 oz per day), which can even be accomplished by reducing your portion size. You’ll never do as much as a full-time vegetarian or vegan, but you can still make a positive contribution to solving the problem, all the while enjoying meat.


2 – Choose the Right Meats

When you do eat meat, the choices you make about what type of meat can make a huge difference. As pointed out above, sheep and cows contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than other animals like chickens and pigs, so these should be avoided from an environmental perspective.


So when you eat meat, reduce your environmental impact by choosing chicken and avoiding beef, mutton or lamb. While beef costs the environment 16 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat, pork is closer to 8 kg per kg of meat, and chicken comes in at an impressive 4.4 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of meat. Pork would be better from an environmental perspective, but pigs are particularly intelligent animals, so recommending this is an eco-friendly alternative to beef has other issues.


Fish is about as good as chicken, and – while regularly incorporating it into your diet won’t be easy – mussels have a carbon footprint that’s about 20 times smaller than chicken. Other good ideas from both an ethical and an environmental perspective are oysters, scallops, and sea snails. Shrimp is a fine choice ethically, but crustaceans are the worst seafood from an environmental perspective.


Simply switching a beef meal for a chicken meal would lead to a 3.6-fold reduction, and you’ll see similar benefits if you incorporate any seafood (besides shrimp or lobster) as an alternative, as well as much bigger ones if you use mussels.


Author Bio:


Lee Johnson is a U.K.-based writer affiliated with Fresh n' Lean.  He has a degree in physics and loves food, cooking, science and sustainability. He has written on related topics since 2012.

As a flexitarian, he is passionate about helping people think more about their diet and shift to a more ethical and environmentally-friendly approach to eating. Through research and writing, he aims to show the benefits of switching to a more plant-based diet, and how anybody can make the change with ease.


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PorscheBryan (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Adonyi Gabor (Pxhere, Creative Commons)

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