Imagine taking 6-20 plates of food and dumping them in the trash, perfectly fresh and edible. Off they go to the landfill. Obviously, none of us would behave so wastefully.
And yet that’s precisely the effect each time any of us consumes meat, since the vast majority of the calories consumed by a chicken, pig, or other animal goes into keeping that animal alive (or into producing bones, blood, and other parts humans don’t consume). Only a small fraction of those calories is turned into flesh.
And that’s just the pure “calories in, calories out” equation. When you factor in all the extra stages of production that are required for meat relative to grains and legumes, the anti-environmental nature of meat consumption becomes even more stark: First, you have to grow many times more corn, grain, and soy (with all the required tilling, irrigation, crop dusters, poisons, and so on), than would be required if we ate the plants directly. Then you have to transport all that grain and soy to feed manufacturers, in gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing 18-wheelers. Then you have to operate the feed mill (again, using massive amounts of resources), truck the feed to the factory farms, operate the factory farms, truck the animals many miles to slaughterhouses, operate the slaughterhouses, truck the meat to processing plants, operate the meat processing plants, truck the meat to grocery stores (in refrigerated trucks), and keep the meat in refrigerators or freezers at the stores.
With every stage comes significant additional energy needs, and with that energy use comes air and water pollution, and massive greenhouse gas production. Of course, grains and legumes require some of these stages too, but they cut out the pollution spewing factory farms and slaughterhouses, as well as multiple stages of heavily polluting tractor-trailer trucks. And as was already noted, they also require a fraction of the calories (and tillers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) from crops, since those crops are turned directly into food rather than funneled through animals first.
The vast inefficiency of funneling crops through animals means that eating meat is —according to the United Nations — “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”
For space, I’ll look briefly at just two of those issues:
Eating Meat Causes More Global Warming Than Everything Else Combined
When United Nations’ scientists evaluated the vast quantity of resources required for meat production, they came to the conclusion that eating meat causes almost one-fifth of all global warming, which is forty percent more warming than all cars, trucks, planes and other forms of transport — forty percent more than all transport!
World Bank and International Finance Corporation agricultural economists Dr. Robert Goodland and Jeffrey Anhang, however, point out in a study published by the WorldWatch Institute (and cited by Bill Gates), that meat “has been vastly underestimated as a source of greenhouse gases, and in fact accounts for at least half of all human-caused greenhouse gases.” For one thing, the U.N. ignored respiration, which is a huge cause of warming (these are domesticated animals who would not exist if they weren’t being raised for meat). Once you crunch the numbers more scientifically, the proportion of global warming caused by farm animals surpasses fifty percent — that’s right, as much as all other human sources of warming combined. This alone should cause everyone who cares about climate change to cut back (or out) animal product consumption.
The Meat Industry Causes Global Poverty
Because meat is so resource intensive, competition is created for crops “between affluent meat-eaters and the world’s poor” (WorldWatch). As Oxfam’s Ben Grossman-Cohen explains,
It takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, oil and other resources to produce meat, significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of food. . . If we don’t reduce our environmental footprints as we increase production, poor people … will be the first to suffer. Eating less meat is a simple way to reduce the pressure on global resources and help ensure that everyone has enough to eat. To say it simply, eating less meat helps fight hunger.
What About Eating Meat That Isn’t From Factory-Farmed animals?
The U.N. and WorldWatch reports indict the inefficiency and waste that are inherent in meat production. No matter where meat comes from, raising animals for food will require that exponentially more calories be fed to animals than they can produce in their flesh, and it will require all those extra stages of CO2-intensive production as well. Only grass-fed animals eat food from land that could not otherwise be used to grow food for human beings, and even grass-fed animals require much more water and create much more pollution than soy, oats, or wheat (and most are raised in climates where they’re only eating exclusively grass for a fraction of the year).
It’s true, of course, that vegetables are also resource intensive. But the substitute for meat is not broccoli, bananas, or bok choy. Vegetarians needn’t consume any more fruits and vegetables than meat-eaters; we consume more grains and legumes as a substitute for meat. Eating these crops directly, rather than feeding them to animals so that humans can eat meat, requires exponentially fewer resources and causes exponentially less global warming and pollution.
Every time we eat meat, it’s as though we’re throwing away 6-20 calories worth of grains and legumes for every calorie we take in. Plus, we’re contributing to exponentially more water use, desertification, air pollution, global warming, global poverty, and more.