As societies around the world become more prosperous, meat consumption levels tend to increase. It is estimated that meat production will rise significantly 1 to meet growing demand for a projected world population of 9.8 billion by 2050. 2 Because industrial meat production is resource intensive, the environmental impacts of such an increase in meat production will be high.
One way we can decrease our foodprint is to eat pasture-raised, rather than factory farm-raised (grain-fed), animal products. We call this approach the “less meat, better meat” strategy.
Daily protein requirements range from 40 to 70 grams for people who are not very physically active. 3 Yet average American protein consumption far surpasses that, at 120 grams of protein 4 per day from animal or plant-based protein sources. While people in wealthy countries in general tend to over-consume animal products, in this regard the American diet is excessive.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, as of 2015, Americans ate about 189 pounds of meat per year. 5 Even though this recent figure is down from its peak of 200 pounds per person per year in 2000, 6it still places Americans at or near the top of per capita global levels, with meat consumption being about three times that of the global average. 7
The same outsized consumption rate for Americans also extends to other animal products. In 2015, we consumed about 628 pounds of dairy and cheese and 33 pounds of chicken eggs. 8
With a world population projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, 9 meat production will need to increase to meet the projected demand. An increasingly industrialized system has become the way that meat and animal products are supplied on this vast scale. While industrialized agriculture in the US may excel at generating high yields through technology and efficiencies of scale, it has spawned the ubiquitous, concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) model (also called factory farms), which comes with deleterious hidden costs.
The true cost of cheap meat is not paid for by the consumer directly at the time of purchase but paid collectively in externalized costs like environmental degradation and public health problems. Yet this goes largely unnoticed by shoppers and society at large. Factory-farmed meat has degraded the soil, water and air, harmed the health and wellbeing of workers and the general public and harmed animals. The problems with producing meat on a vast scale are summarized below.
By comparison to most any other food, meat production has a massive environmental footprint, using or exploiting enormous amounts of resources like land, crops, water, energy and more. For instance, one pound of beef requires about 1,800 gallons of water, while the same amount of pork requires about 719 gallons. By contrast, tofu requires about 303 gallons. 10
For climate-warming greenhouse gases, beef generates 15.23 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e/kg) while pork generates 4.62 kilograms of CO2e/kg. (Tofu generates 0.70 kilograms of CO2e/kg.) 11 (For more information on the “carbon dioxide equivalent” measurement, and more about the impact of meat production on the environment, read How Our Food System Affects Climate Change.)
Further, the high-input requirements of water and energy for irrigation and synthetic fertilizers that go into crops (like corn and soy) to feed animals are immense.
Factory farms generate large volumes of animal waste, which are stored in onsite lagoons. These manure ponds emit noxious air pollutants like ammonia and potent greenhouse gases like methane. When over-applied to farm fields as sprayed fertilizer or from leaking or broken lagoons, this untreated waste can end up as runoff in our waterways. This makes for toxic waters, filled with bacteria, antibiotics, nitrogen and phosphorus, all of which in turn cause harmful algal blooms and dead zones.
Soil, likewise, is damaged by industrialized meat production because of accumulated agrochemicals (like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) and farming practices like heavy tilling and heavy machinery used to grow feed crops over giant swaths of US land. In factory farming, the concentration of animals can also lead to soil compaction (if the animals are actually raised outdoors). 12In both industrial crop farming and animal rearing on CAFOs — throughout the food chain, in fact — soils tend to be stripped of nutrients and polluted by detrimental industrial processes.
Healthy native landscapes of grassland and rainforest are natural carbon sinks, absorbing greenhouse gases and keeping soil intact. However, huge land areas, from native US grasslands 13 to indigenous rainforests in Brazil, have been plowed under or chopped down to grow feed crops and raise animals. When landscapes are changed by industrial means, soil erodes, and the land’s ability to sequester carbon is lost. Biodiversity also suffers, with serious damage to if not the extinction of many species of plants and animal.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) 14 are legally defined as agricultural operations with more than “1000 animal units,” where animals are raised in confined situations and all production processes take place on a small land area. Animal welfare conditions in these facilities are poor and induce stress, because animals cannot move at will, cannot exhibit natural behaviors such as grazing, pecking or rooting, and are fed and grown at unnaturally fast rates.
Huge quantities of livestock and poultry are raised in CAFOs in the United States, with a total number of “units” (a measurement used to standardize different types of animals based on weight) pegged at 28.5 million in 2012; this is an increase from 23.7 million in 2002. 15
Factory farms cause community problems, such as foul air and water, heavy chemical use and truck traffic, to name a few. Industrial agriculture systems can also cause problems for small farmers and ranchers and their workers. Consolidation of agriculture (and specifically animal agriculture) into ever larger outfits has led small farmers and ranchers to buy into often unfair contract farming 16 models that are part of the greater vertical integration system. This leaves farmers, ranchers and their workers little room to operate outside the boundaries of their contracts, even if they want to operate more sustainably or humanely.
The good news is that consumers can lessen their own environmental impact of meat consumption by following a two-part strategy: “less meat, better meat.” But what does this mean?
Eating “less meat” does not mean that you must permanently give up meat and become vegan or vegetarian (if you don’t want to). For instance, simply buying and eating smaller portions of meat at each meal is a straightforward reduction technique.
Meat can become less central to the plate, with legumes, grains or vegetables taking center stage. Home cooks can use smaller bits of meat, like smoked turkey wings or bacon, to flavor a vegetable-centered dish, instead of using whole cuts of turkey or pork. Another option is eating “blended meat,” where ingredients like mushrooms, onions, bread crumbs and seasonings are added into burgers and other meals with meat.
Meatless Monday is a common meat-reduction strategy that is practiced worldwide. By taking a day off from meat, you can decrease your own meat consumption by one-seventh (or nearly 15 percent) and essentially decrease by the same amount the very problems associated with meat production and consumption. Extending this further is the “flexitarian” 17 approach, where one’s diet is based primarily on plant-based foods and proteins, yet with flexibility to have meat, fish and dairy on occasion. Another approach is the Reducetarian 18 diet, which targets lowering consumption of meat and other animal products by a lot or a little, depending on personal preference and motivation.
Further along the meat reduction continuum is weekday vegetarianism, a strategy where one eats meat on the weekend but not during the week. Mark Bittman also proposed Vegan Before 6 (VB6), 19 a meat reduction strategy where one eats no animal products before dinner (which can also be adapted to vegetarian instead of vegan). Then, of course, there is always the option of eliminating meat entirely, and maintaining a fully vegetarian or vegan diet.
What does “better meat” mean in this context? “Better” refers to how meat is produced and how animals are raised. Pasture-based livestock and poultry farming is:
Pastured-raised animal products are often more expensive than the conventional, industrial meat sold in most grocery stores, 22 but consumers can use the money saved from buying less meat to purchase better meat (and more produce, legumes, etc.). It is also worth remembering that paying more for pasture-raised meats means paying for the food’s “true cost,” 23 including environmental and health benefits. If you cannot afford to buy or cannot locate better, pastured meat, you can focus on eating less meat.
When “less meat” and ‘better meat” are practiced together, they benefit farm and ranch workers, public health, society at large, animals and the environment. By reducing meat and dairy consumption, people can shrink their environmental foodprints, including the impact on water, greenhouse gases, soil, nitrogen pollution and more. 24, 25