Food and Cuisine

Published on April 2nd, 2010 | by Zachary Shahan


Vegetarianism and the Environment

As a vegetarian who believes that living a vegetarian life is more of a moral or spiritual issue than anything else, it is something I don’t often bring up in discussion with others.

However, I have seen so many stories and studies about its link to widespread environmental problems lately, I felt impelled to write about it a bit myself.

Image Credit: Hellebardius Fruits and veggies in a Barcelona market

Fruits and veggies in a Barcelona market

Perhaps most notably, according to a recent study by NASA, eating meat is essentially the third largest net contributor to climate change pollution in the world (behind using motor vehicles and burning household biofuels — mostly wood and animal dung). Additionally, in total, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study from a couple years ago found that livestock production was responsible for 18% of humanity’s greenhouse gas pollution globally and a more recent study published in the journal World Watch found that it was responsible for at least 51%!

If you look at the issue of energy alone (table below via Lloyd Alter of Treehugger), you can see that the energy required to produce one pound of meat is drastically more than the energy required to produce one pound of fruits or veggies.

energy required to produce one pound

As Praveen Ghanta says, “The data above indicate the huge difference in energy required from one end of the food spectrum to the other. Roughly twenty-five times more energy is required to produce one calorie of beef than to produce one calorie of corn for human consumption.”

Brighter Planet produced a great report recently (a couple charts from it below) examining the relationship between food and carbon emissions in the US as well. The bottom line is, if you want to help the environment, cut meat out of your diet today.

carbon footprint food group

carbon footprint diet vegan vegetarian omnivore

Despite all of these environmental problems related to eating meat (and there are at least as many health issues — note that the ADA now recommends a vegetarian diet), global meat production (which has tripled in the past three decades) is expected to double by 2050 if current trends continue.

The new two-volume  report that makes this forecast, Livestock in a Changing Landscape, comes to these key findings:

  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth’s land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of Earth’s total arable land.
  • Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
  • Although 1 billion poor people derive part of their livelihood from domesticated animals, commercialized industrial livestock has displaced many small, rural producers in developing countries, like India and China.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (the beef, pork and poultry industries emit large amounts of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases).
  • The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter, with much of the world’s pastureland degraded by grazing or feed production, and with many forests clear-cut to make way for additional farmland.
  • Feed production requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels.
  • Animal waste is a serious concern, since only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are actually absorbed and the rest pollute lands and waters.
  • Total phosphorous excretions of livestock are estimated to be seven to nine times greater than from humans.

Unfortunately, rather than address the broad externalities of livestock production, US government subsidizes it. The charts below, by Stephen McDaniel at Freakalytics, show that the US government heavily subsidizes meat and dairy while hardly giving a helping hand to fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.


Nonetheless, you still have a choice and you can probably still save money switching to a vegetarian diet (especially if you include the health benefits of doing so). So, if you want to make a big green step, start on a vegetarian diet, or even a vegan one!

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to and click on the relevant buttons.

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