How to Eat Meat While Caring About the Environment

By Nat Eliason in Health

Published or Updated on Sep 01, 2020

There's no serious debate at this point about whether meat consumption as we've been doing it in the last ~50 years is harmful to the environment.

That doesn't mean eating meat is always harmful to the Earth, though. The mass-market meat production and industrialization of raising livestock is creating all kinds of problems, but can we eat meat in a way that's more sustainable and helps the environment?

The answer appears to be yes. Or at the very least, we can change our meat-eating behavior in a way that dramatically reduces our stress on the environment without cutting out meat entirely.

I've been researching this quite a bit the last few months, and I think I have some good steps anyone can take to be a "conscious carnivore." I'll go over the biggest concerns about meat's impact on the environment, what of them are the most legitimate, and how we can adjust our consumer behavior to be more environmentally conscious.

How Eating Meat Hurts the Environment

There are a number of different issues, some more accurate than others, that are levied against meat as a concern for the environment.

The main concerns are:

  • Water use: Producing meat uses a lot of water compared to plant-based-foods.
  • Land use: Grazing animals use a lot of land which we could otherwise use for growing crops, and we're clearing endangered land like rainforests to raise cattle.
  • Methane production: Animals, especially cows, produce a lot of methane which is contributing to greenhouse gases and global climate change.
  • Food use: We have to feed the animals that we eat, and feeding them uses up crops and food that could be used to feed humans.

Let's go through each one, and see where they're legitimate concerns.

Land Use

One concern is that if we didn't allocate so much land to animals, we could grow more crops. Animals use a ton of land, and if we didn't raise so many of them we could grow more food to feed the world.

The problem though is that 60% of agricultural land is grazing land. We can't farm on it. It's too rocky, dry, or lacks fertile enough soil for proper farming. If we removed animals, this land wouldn't be used for crops. It would be useless.

So how strong is the land use argument? Not very. Unless we start giving up farmable land for meat production, the land we're using is best for grazing animals anyway.

One legitimate concern would be feedlot or factory style farming condensing animals on farmable land instead of growing crops. That's a potential concern, but I'll cover some ways you can avoid it as a consumer later.

And what about the problem of rainforests being cleared in order to raise beef? This is a big problem in Brazil, so if you're Brazilian, you might want to avoid eating beef. And if you're in the US you should make sure that any beef you're eating doesn't come from Brazil too. Argentinian is better anyway. So this problem is pretty avoidable if you know where your meat is coming from.

Water Use

The stat you've probably hear some version of is that it takes anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 gallons of water to raise one pound of beef.

It's a shocking statistics, but it's obscuring the truth. There are three kinds of water in agriculture: Blue Water, Green Water, and Grey Water. Borrowing some definitions from "What is a Water Footprint?":

  • Blue Water is water that has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated, incorporated into a product or taken from one body of water and returned to another, or returned at a different time.
  • Green Water is water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired or incorporated by plants. It is particularly relevant for agricultural, horticultural and forestry products.
  • Grey Water is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. The grey water footprint considers point-source pollution discharged to a freshwater resource directly through a pipe or indirectly through runoff or leaching from the soil, impervious surfaces, or other diffuse sources.

Blue water is the precious resource we're mostly concerned with. It's not like we can drink the water stored in plants and in the soil. So if cows were drinking 1,800 gallons of blue water for each pound of beef that'd be a huge issue, but that's not what's going on.

Cows only get 2-8% of their water from Blue Water, the rest is Green Water that would have been there anyway. And the more grass-fed your beef is, the less blue water it uses since it's eating more natural plant matter.

So how much blue water does that come out to? It's about 280 gallons of blue water to make a pound of beef, though it may be as low as 50-100 for grass-fed. Which still sounds like a lot, but a food like rice takes about 66 gallons of blue water per pound. Nuts are wild: walnuts take about 339 gallons of blue water per pound, almonds are 503!

That's also not factoring in the food nutrients per gallon of water. A pound of beef has significantly more vitamins and nutrients than a pound of rice, not to mention all the protein.

So how much concern is there with water use? Well, it all depends on what else you're eating, and what kind of beef you're eating. And once again, there are some ways we can vary our consumption to make it more environmentally friendly, especially considering the stark difference between the water consumption of grass-fed beef (~2% blue water) and grain-fed (~8% blue water).

Methane Production

Now, a somewhat more legitimate concern. Methane production. This one is problematic, with some caveats.

Cattle raised in factory farms absolutely produce a lot of methane. But part of that is because of how they're being raised. Cattle dung in factory farmed settings is highly condensed which decreases the amount of oxygen the dung is exposed to, which leads to methane buildup. If cows are raised on more spread out pasture, their poop is less condensed which allows it to be better processed by the environment. The big difference is dung beetles, which tunnel through the cow poop exposing it to oxygen, thus reducing the methane production.

But even with the factory farmed methane, it's not a huge chunk of the greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA estimates that all livestock make up about 3.9 percent of all GHG emissions, and that all of agriculture makes up about 8.4% of GHG emissions.

And to answer a common follow-up question: yes methane is much heavier than CO2 and a more potent pollutant, however this chart uses a standardized measure called "MMT of CO2 EQ", which includes all greenhouse gasses in one standardized weight.

On top of that, most increases in methane specifically are coming from fossil fuels and wetlands rice farming. Not animals.

So there is some concern with the methane production, but it's a very small part of the total greenhouse gas footprint, and it can be significantly reduced by raising animals in less condensed settings.

Food Use

Okay this one definitely has some merit. If we're eating animals, those animals also need to eat things right? So if we're growing food to feed animals, it's kinda inefficient to feed those animals just to feed ourselves.

In the case of chicken and pork, this concern is 100% legitimate.

Properly raised, chickens would run around hunting small animals, worms, seeds, and have a highly varied diet of things we wouldn't eat. If you've never seen a chicken hunting a mouse, check it out. They really are little dinosaurs.

Pigs would eat anything you have lying around that you toss their way, including your own poop (yes, seriously). They'd eat leftover scraps, dead plants, animal carcasses, whatever you put in front of them. They're great recyclers.

But now, unless you're buying your chicken and pork from a small farm feeding the animals properly, they're being raised on feed from corn and other human-edible grains. So we're growing crops on land where we could grow human food, and then feeding those crops to pigs and chickens to eat them. And worse, this isn't even the food they're supposed to eat. When you go to Chipotle and they brag about how their chicken and pork are raised on a "100% vegetarian diet" that's a big warning that their animals are unhealthy. Neither chickens nor pigs are supposed to just eat plants.

Of all the environmental concerns around eating meat, this one seems the most legitimate. It's pretty silly to grow tons of corn just to feed it to pigs and chickens when they aren't supposed to be eating an all corn diet in the first place. The chicken and pork industry are seriously messed up, and it's exceptionally difficult to get either without contributing to a broken system that's hurting the environment, treating animals terribly, and producing a lower quality product as a result.

That's not necessarily as true for beef, though.

Chickens and pigs are monogastric. They have digestive systems fairly similar to ours where they consume something, it goes into their stomach, they digest it, and bam, energy.

Cows, along with Elk, Camels, Goats, Sheep, Bison, Deer, and Giraffes, are ruminants. Ruminants have a multi-chamber stomach that allows them to break down food in a completely different way than we can, which is why they can survive on just grass their entire life if they wanted.

The process is fascinating and a little gross. Basically they can ferment food in their stomach, puke it back into their mouth to chew it some more, then digest it again, to get more and more nutrients out of it. This is why you see cows "chewing" all the time even when they aren't eating. They just threw up some fermented food from earlier to keep working on it. Yummy.

The cool thing about ruminants is they can eat a ton of food you and I can't. Grain-fed cattle only get about 10% of their diet from grain that's edible to humans. The other 90% of their diet is grass and leftover crop matter that we can't eat. So unlike pork and chickens which are taking away food and cropland that could support humans, cows are clearing up plant matter that we can't eat anyway and turning it into food we can (beef).

And if you're fortunate enough to go hunting, or know someone who hunts, you can also eat deer, elk, and bison that are eating 100% food humans wouldn't be eating. So the food use concern is definitely warranted with chicken and pork. It's much less of a concern for beef and other ruminants.

Ways To Adjust Your Eating Habits to Reduce Environmental Impact

We've covered the main ways that eating meat can legitimately harm the environment.

Methane production: If you buy poorly sourced meat, especially from highly concentrated feed lots, their feces are producing a somewhat substantial amount of methane that's not great for the environment.

Land use and harm to farmlands: Again, if farms are concentrating animals in feed lots on land that could otherwise be used for farming, buying from them is definitely hurting our ability to grow food and potentially depriving farmland of essential nutrients.

Food consumption: Pork and chickens eat a ton of food that is grown for them that humans could be eating, or where we could be growing other crops that are more nutritious for us.

Step 1: Buy from Farms that Raise Animals Regeneratively

Regenerative Agriculture has been growing in popularity as a term to describe farms that are raising their animals in ways that help restore the environment instead of destroy it.

It's a broad term, but the idea is that through proper management of a combination of crops and animals, you can help improve the land health and sequester carbon back into the soil at a greater rate than your animals are polluting the environment.

The strongest evidence for the ability to do this comes from White Oak Pastures, a farm in Georgia that has been trying to raise their animals this way for 20+ years.

When a lifecycle analysis of their farm was done, it showed that the organic matter in the soil actually increased, and that they were offsetting at least 100% of the beef emissions as well as 85% of the farm's total carbon emissions. That included cow farts, manure emissions, farm activities, slaughter, transport, and the carbon sequestration in the soil and plants.

Now I will say there's one big caveat with the White Oak study. There haven't been many other studies done on the success of regenerative farming, and as Zach Bitter pointed out on the Joe Rogan Experience, this White Oak study is a little overused. It's also worth mentioning that this study was commissioned by General Mills when they bought Epic Provisions, because Epic was claiming that the meat they were buying from White Oak Pastures was supporting the environment. So General Mills's researchers had a strong interest in backing up Epic's claims to avoid any legal ramifications. I'm not saying the study is necessarily completely unreliable, but if Coca-Cola published a study on the potential health benefits of Coke I'd be a little suspicious. I really want to see more of these LCAs done to confirm how successful RegAg really is.

That said, White Oak is definitely raising their animals exceptionally well and you'd have a hard time finding better raised meat. So if you want to eat meat that at the very least is doing the least harm to the environment, buying from them or Force of Nature is a great way to support the environment while eating meat.

You can also look for local ranches that are raising their animals in more sustainable ways through a service like EatWild. Or, if you have access to a good local organic butcher, buy through them or ask them for recommendations of ranches to visit. Just be sure to double check that they're actually sourcing good meat.

Step 2: Eat More Beef than Chicken or Pork

It's pretty clear from my research that chicken and pork are harder on the environment, and harder on our food system. While it's outside the scope of this article, there's also good reason to be much more concerned about the healthiness of chicken and pork too, primarily because of what they're eating.

But our consumption habits have been moving away from beef and towards more chicken. This is probably because of the whole fat-free movement and fears about red meat. Again, outside the scope of this article, but based on my research those fears are very overblown and not worth acting on. Chicken are fed an awful, unnatural diet, and end up creating much less nutritious meat compared to beef as a result.

Meanwhile, cows are eating food that we can't eat anyway, and upcycling it into tasty burgers and steaks. If you want to eat meat that helps the environment, beef is a much better pick.

Step 3: Look for Other Certifications For Environmentally Friendly Food

This one isn't specifically related to meat consumption, but it fits with the ideas in this article so I wanted to throw it in.

There are a growing number of certifications you can look for on foods or suppliers that help you understand whether something you're eating is good for you and the environment.

One example is the Bee Better Certification. A lot of crop production, almonds for example, is awful for bee populations, but there are ways to raise these crops in a way that helps support bee populations. This is a cert those farms can get to show they're being mindful of these dying pollinators.

Another one would be looking for labels showing something is Glyphosate-free. This is fairly nascent now, but I suspect it will get more popular in the next 5-10 years. Glyphosate is better known as Round-Up, the weed killer used in most industrial farms that is giving people cancer. A lot of plants you buy, and foods made from plants, have some glyphosate in them and there's pretty much a 0% chance you want that in your body.

This is another reason why beef might be better than pork and chicken. There's not strong evidence that glyphosate gets stored by pork and chicken, but they do consume quite a lot of it, which could be harming their health. Beef, meanwhile, have been tested and there's no noticeable difference in glyphosate concentration in their meat whether or not they were fed feed with glyphosate in it.

Step 4: Consider Hunting or Making Friends with a Hunter

If you want to get to the point of eating meat with the maximum environmental benefit, consider taking up hunting. Or make friends with someone who hunts who will share some of their meat with you.

Most hunted meat needs to be harvested: we've driven out the natural predators to deer, elk, moose, or we have an overpopulation of invasive species like boar. Those animals can be ethically harvested and consumed, or they can die a painful death from starvation. Even if you didn't grow up hunting you can find intro to hunting trips to start learning how to do it, and you might be surprised to find it can be a really rewarding experience.

Obviously this would be the biggest change of anything I've listed, but I went ahead and included it since if you really want to eat meat as ethically as possible, this is the best way.

Eating More Environmentally Friendly Meat

The more consumers are willing to pay a bit more for environmentally friendly meat, the more progress we'll be able to make in that area. Factory farming is bad for the environment, yes, but that doesn't mean you have to give up meat consumption entirely.

Hopefully there's more research done around the potential for regenerative agriculture so we don't have to overly rely on the one White Oak study. More research in this space would give the claims around the potential for regenerative agriculture much more credit.

But in the meantime, finding local farms raising their meat responsibly, eating more beef than chicken and pork, and using your grocery budget to support farms and ranches trying to care about the environment more than maximum profitability is a great way to eat meat while caring about the environment. And exploring getting into hunting might not hurt either.

Footnotes

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