How Eating Less Meat Helps Fight Climate Change


A row of cattle in a barn

There’s been a lot of talk about how eating less meat can help stop climate change and you might be wondering if this is true and how the whole thing works. I did some research to find out.

More than 100 scientists from 52 countries have done the research and have found that eating less meat will help fight climate change. Here are 5 key ways it will do that:

  1. less deforestation
  2. less methane (a greenhouse gas) produced
  3. fewer emissions from transportation
  4. less fertilizer needed
  5. reduced water usage

But how exactly does this work and how much of a difference can what you decide to put on your plate make? Quite a bit as it turns out.

Choosing to Eat Less Meat is a Powerful Way to Battle Climate Change

Reduce, reuse, recycle, ride the bus, and eat less meat! You may be very familiar with the first 4 ways to fight climate change and help our planet but not quite as familiar with how eating less meat comes into play.

Eating less meat sort of comes into the “reduce” aspect of the equation. We usually think about “reducing” as not using as much packaging or buying as much “stuff” so we have less waste. And if you think about it on a food and caloric level, using a cow to “package” up our nutrition rather than directly eating the grains the cow was fed, there’s a lot more packaging and waste around that food source.

“For every 100 calories that we feed to animals in the form of crops that are edible for humans, we receive, on average, just 17–30 calories in the form of meat.”

slowfood.com

It’s also much more energy-intensive and water-intensive to raise a cow to eat than it is to raise vegetables and grains to eat. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

An image of huge lily pads in the Amazon rain forest
Amazon Rain Forest

1. The first key way that eating less meat will help stop climate change is that there will be less reason for deforestation.

Forests and rainforests, in particular, are really good at converting carbon dioxide into the oxygen we need to live AND storing carbon so that it doesn’t contribute to climate change.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research,  “3,769 square miles of rainforest were lost to deforestation in a 12-month period ending in July” of 2019. This number is up a great deal from the 2018 numbers and is at the highest level since 2008.

More than 60% of deforested land in Brazil will end up as pastureland.

The Amazon rainforest has been called “the lungs of the planet” because it provides 20% of the oxygen for the entire Earth. So seeing this deforestation happening is very sobering.

As a quick reminder, here is how the whole carbon cycle works:

A graphic showing how the carbon cycle works

The current government in Brazil is putting less money into stopping deforestation and is more concerned with economic growth. Much of the deforestation in Brazil is done to make room for cattle. So what used to be land that served as an awesome “carbon sink” to help store carbon dioxide is now being use to making room for animals which actually make climate change worse because they produce methane. This is like double jeopardy.

“Reducing deforestation alone can stop annual emissions equivalent to twice those of India’s, scientists found.”

Justin Worland – Time Magazine

2. The second way that eating less meat will help fight climate change is the release of less methane into the atmosphere.

Cows are very gassy animals. It has to do with their 4 chamber stomach and what they eat. You might think of it like being in a bunkhouse with a bunch of guys who’ve eaten 3 helpings of baked beans around the campfire. Got the idea? There’s a lot of gas going on there. Except with cows, most of the methane (about 95%) is coming from their burps.

Be that as it may, methane is very important when it comes to greenhouse gases. It doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide but it has a greater warming impact. Methane has a 34% more powerful when it comes to warming the planet than carbon dioxide. So focusing on methane as part of the problem and cutting down on the methane being produced isn’t as just as important as cutting down on carbon dioxide. It’s even MORE important.

Methane causes about 25% of climate change, according to Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund. And Livestock is thought to be responsible for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Other sources of methane include landfills, and leaks in the oil and gas industry (which is the main cause) as well as deteriorating plastics, like plastic grocery bags. Another reason to be sure to take your reusable bags!

A cow at a fence

3. The third way that eating less meat can help reduce climate change is potentially reduced emissions from transportation.

The greenhouse gas emissions from transportation account for almost 29% of the total in the U.S. per the EPA. So a lot of the climate change problem is related to transportation – cars, trucks, planes and the rest.

Livestock production requires significantly more transportation than the production of other non-animal based food products. That makes sense when you consider that oftentimes with large scale cattle production feed is not grown right where the cattle are, but is shipped by truck or train long distances to the farm.

Then the cattle are shipped off to be slaughtered. Then the meat is shipped to the warehouse, then to the store, where the consumer picks it up and drives it home. There are a few extra steps here that aren’t involved in the shipping of non-animal food sources.

So eating less meat will decrease the amount of greenhouse gases released from transportation sources like trucks and trains.

A corn field with a large tractor

4. The fourth way that eating less meat can help fight climate change is that less fertilizer will be needed.

Cattle and hogs are often raised on crops like corn that require a lot of fertilizer and pesticides to be able to grow at the highest levels of production. Globally, over 30% of cropland is used to produce feed for livestock.

Producing fertilizer, it turns out, also adds methane to the atmosphere. Not only does the fertilizer industry use natural gas to power the plants that produce the fertilizer, natural gas is actually one of the ingredients in some fertilizers like ammonia fertilizer. Methane is a large component of natural gas.

Natural gas is often touted as being a “cleaner” fossil fuel. But this isn’t really the case.

“But natural gas is largely methane, which molecule-per-molecule has a stronger global warming potential than carbon dioxide,”

John Albertson, professor of Environmental Engineering – in ScienceDaily.com

In fact, in a recent study scientists found that ammonia fertilizer plants were actually emitting 100 times more methane than their self-reported estimate. More striking was the fact that the emissions just from this relatively small industry were higher than the “EPA estimate for all industrial processes in the United States.” (ScienceDaily.com)

Less methane released into the air is key for stopping climate change. Not needing as much fertilizer to grow crops for animals will definitely help.

A sewage treatment plant

5. The fifth way that eating less meat will help stop climate change is that will reduce our water usage.

While using less water seems like a good idea for its own sake since clean water is a such precious resource, using less water will also help fight climate change. Why?

A staggering “23% of the fresh water available on the planet is used for livestock farming” (SlowFood.com). It takes a lot of energy to deliver water where it needs to go. For example, in California, 20% of the electricity used in the state goes to pumping, delivering and disposing of water. Producing energy generally relies on fossil fuel usage in the U.S. and most other countries and that means more greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, many cattle are not raised in California, and you may be thinking, well the cows in Montana drink from the river and there isn’t really a waste removal system needed, etc. But many cattle are raised in factory farms and this is extremely water-intensive.

The statistics vary depending on who you ask but a solid estimate is that it takes about 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. This is decreasing as some beef producers are working to reduce water usage. But this is still a serious concern.

Slaughterhouses that process the cattle also require a lot of water and that water used by slaughterhouses does require energy to pump, deliver and dispose of.

Eating less meat will save water and the greenhouse gas emissions from the energy it takes to supply that water.

“We don’t want to tell people what to eat. But it would indeed be beneficial, for both climate and human health, if people in many rich countries consumed less meat, and if politics would create appropriate incentives to that effect.”

Hans-Otto Portner, Co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Why is it important?

If you’re reading this article I can assume that you already care about the Earth and climate change and are interested in knowing what you can do to help fix the serious crisis we are entering.

1.5 degrees celsius vs. 2 degrees celsius. That doesn’t sound like much difference. But that’s the amount of change we’re trying to fight to make a difference in the fate of our Earth.

We need to keep warming to 1.5 degrees or less or we’ll experience severe droughts, floods, heat and poverty for 100s of millions of people according to the world’s leading climate scientists. You can read the whole IPCC report here or a summary here.

Keeping 100s of millions of people from poverty seems like a worthwhile cause to me.

Air pollution over a city

Why bother when there are so many other contributors?

I’ve heard the argument that it doesn’t even make sense to cut back on eating meat because industrial polluters and transportation emissions cause so much more greenhouse gas emissions than eating a hamburger does.

Yep, that’s true. But it reminds me of the old often-told story of the man walking along the beach with a friend and seeing a bunch of starfish that have washed up on the shore. One after the other he bends down to pick one up and put it back into the water. His friend asks, “Why are you bothering? You can’t save them all.” And the man says, “But I can save this one.”

I don’t have control over how much corporate pollution there is other than by repeatedly telling my government representatives that they need to keep clean air laws in place and writing letters and making calls and maybe doing some protesting in front of corporations who are known polluters.

BUT – I do have control of what food I buy and what food I eat. And it is easy as anything to eat less meat. A lot of change has been made through the power of the purse. Where we put our money makes a difference.

I’m not saying you should never eat any meat ever again. If you’re a meat-lover then just cut back. Even a little less meat, say 2 meatless days a week, can help make a difference. Will it solve the climate crisis? By itself, no. But it’s a start and we need to start fixing this problem now!

“Today, emissions from land use — think of practices like agriculture and logging — cause nearly a quarter of human induced greenhouse emissions, according to the report, authored by scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N. climate science body.”

Justin Worland – Time Magazine

What to eat instead?

People worry about not getting enough protein if they don’t eat meat or if they eat less meat. Beans and pulses are great choices for non-meat days. Think dry beans and peas like kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, butter beans, navy beans. If you’re worried about not getting a “full protein” profile, eat a whole grain with your meal, like brown rice or whole wheat, and you’ll be just fine.

Soy can also be a great form of protein for some people as long as it’s not GMO. Try marinating your own tofu so you know what all the ingredients are and then saute it with some vegetables.

Nuts are a very good source of protein as well. So chop up some walnuts and put them on top of a big fresh salad and call it dinner.

Pea protein is becoming pretty popular in plant-based milk and protein drinks so that’s something to try as well.

A note about almond milk. While this plant-based milk is hugely popular and I would favor it hands-down over animal milk, it’s important to remember that almonds take A LOT of water to grow and since they are often grown in water challenged areas, like California, it would be better to just eat your almonds straight. That way you’ll get some protein from them as well!

Non-Meat Choices Popping Up in Fast Food Places

It’s been so interesting to see how popular non-meat choices like the Impossible Burger have become. Burger King has an Impossible Whopper, which I have to say is pretty tasty and Dunkin Donuts has rolled out a non-meat sausage patty for its breakfast sandwiches, too. So you won’t necessarily have to break the fast-food habit in your quest to quit eating as much meat. (Which may be a bonus or not!)

What kind of impact does your diet have on climate change?

If you are wondering what impact your particular diet has on the planet as far as the carbon footprint it leaves you can try out a cool interactive tool at the BBC News website here to find out.

Thanks!

Thanks so much for reading this and for caring about climate change! The choices we make matter. Every little bit helps and the Earth really needs our help now!

Resources:

https://time.com/5646787/ipcc-climate-change-land-report/

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46459714

https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190606183254.htm

https://phys.org/news/2019-01-scientists-breathalyze-cows-methane-emissions.html

https://www.edf.org/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIwo6hv7fb3QIV04uzCh2mxw0qEAAYAiAAEgI8afD_BwE

https://ideas.ted.com/methane-isnt-just-cow-farts-its-also-cow-burps-and-other-weird-facts-you-didnt-know-about-this-potent-greenhouse-gas/

https://www.slowfood.com/much-meat-eat/explosion-of-animal-farming/the-hidden-costs-of-meat/

https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/oct/11/greenhouse-gas-water-use-emissions

https://modernag.org/water-conservation/climate-change-and-your-hidden-water-footprint/

https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/

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