Is Meat Sustainable
World Watch Magazine, 2004
Now, It’s Not Personal, But like it or not, meat-eating is becoming a problem
for everyone on the planet.
Ask people where they’d rank meat-eating as an issue of concern to the
general public, and most might be surprised to hear you suggest that it’s an
issue at all.
Whether you eat meat or not (or how much) is a private matter, they might say.
Maybe it has some implications for your heart, especially if you’re overweight.
But it’s not one of the high-profile public issues you’d expect presidential
candidates or senators to be debating—not up there with terrorism, the
economy, the war, or "the environment."
Even if you’re one of the few who recognize meat-eating as having significant
environmental implications, those implications may seem relatively small. Yes,
there have been those reports of tropical forest being cut down to
accommodate cattle ranchers, and native grassland being destroyed by
But at least until recently, few environmentalists have suggested that meat-
eating belongs on the same scale of importance as the kinds of issues that
have energized Amazon Watch, or Conservation International, or Greenpeace.
Yet, as environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the
human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major
category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—
deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate
change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities,
and the spread of disease.
How did such a seemingly small matter of individual consumption move so
rapidly from the margins of discussion about sustainability to the center?
To begin with, per-capita meat consumption has more than doubled in the
past half-century, even as global population has continued to increase. As a
result, the overall demand for meat has increased five-fold. That, in turn, has
put escalating pressure on the availability of water, land, feed, fertilizer, fuel,
waste disposal capacity, and most of the other limited resources of the planet.
To provide an overview of just how central a challenge this once marginal
issue has become, we decided to survey the relevance of meat-eating to each
of the major categories of environmental impact that have conventionally been
regarded as critical to the sustainability of civilization.
A brief summary observation for each category is accompanied by quotes
from a range of prominent observers, some of whom offer suggestions about
how this difficult subject—not everyone who likes pork chops or ribs is going
to switch to tofu without a fight—can be addressed.
Deforestation was the first major type of environmental damage caused by the
rise of civilization. Large swaths of forest were cleared for agriculture, which
included domestication of both edible plants and animals.
Farm animals take much more land than crops do to produce a given amount
of food energy, but that didn’t really matter over the 10 thousand years or so
when there was always more land to be found or seized.
In 1990, however, the World Hunger Program at Brown University calculated
that recent world harvests, if equitably distributed with no diversion of grain to
feeding livestock, could provide a vegetarian diet to 6 billion people, whereas a
meat-rich diet like that of people in the wealthier nations could support only 2.6
In other words, with a present population of over 6 billion, that would mean we
are already into deficit consumption of land, with the deficit being made up by
hauling more fish from the oceans, which are in turn being rapidly fished out.
In the near term, the only way to feed all the world’s people, if we continue to
eat meat at the same rate or if the population continues to grow as projected,
is to clear more forest.
From now on, the question of whether we get our protein from animals or
plants has direct implications for how much more of the world’s remaining
forest we have to raze.
In Central America, 40 percent of all the rainforests have been cleared or
burned down in the last 40 years, mostly for cattle pasture to feed the export
market—often for U.S. beef burgers. Meat is too expensive for the poor in
these beef-exporting countries, yet in some cases cattle have ousted highly
productive traditional agriculture. —John Revington in World Rainforest
The Center for International Forestry Research reports that rapid growth in the
sales of Brazilian beef has led to accelerated destruction of the Amazon
“In a nutshell, cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil’s Amazon
rainforests” says the Center’s director-general, David Kaimowitz. —
Environmental News Service
Grassland destruction followed, as herds of domesticated animals were
expanded and the environments on which wild animals such as bison and
antelope had thrived were trampled and replanted with monoculture grass for
large-scale cattle grazing.
In a review of Richard Manning’s 1995 book Grassland: The History, Biology,
Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer
James Risser observes:
“Many experience anguish at the wreckage of clear-cut mixed-tree forest,
destined to be replaced by a single-species tree farm. Few realize, says
Manning, that a waving field of golden wheat is the same thing— a crop
monoculture inhabiting what once was a rich and diverse but now ‘clear-cut’
Grassland covers more land area than any other ecosystem in North America;
no other system has suffered such a massive loss of life. —Richard Manning
Another solution [to grassland depletion in Africa] would be a shift from cattle
grazing toward game ranching. Antelopes, unlike cattle, are adapted to semi-
arid lands. They do not need to trek daily to waterholes and so cause less
trampling and soil compaction.
Antelope dung comes in the form of small, dry pellets, which retain their
nitrogen and efficiently fertilize the soil. Cows, in contrast, produce large, flat,
wet droppings, which heat up and quickly lose much of their nitrogen (in the
form of ammonia) to the atmosphere.An experimental game ranch in Kenya
has been a great economic success while simultaneously restoring the range.
—Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Gretchen C. Daily in The Stork & The
Fresh water, like land, seemed inexhaustible for most of the first 10 millennia of
civilization. So, it didn’t seem to matter how much a cow drank.
But a few years ago, water experts calculated that we humans are now taking
half the available fresh water on the planet—leaving the other half to be
divided among a million or more species. Since we depend on many of those
species for our own survival (they provide all the food we eat and oxygen we
breathe, among other services), that hogging of water poses a dilemma.
If we break it down, species by species, we find that the heaviest water use is
by the animals we raise for meat.
One of the easiest ways to reduce demand for water is to reduce the amount of
meat we eat.
The standard diet of a person in the United States requires 4,200 gallons of
water per day (for animals’ drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing,
washing, cooking, etc.). A person on a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons a
day. —Richard H. Schwartz in Judaism and Vegetarianism
A report from the International Water Management Institute, noting that 840
million of the world’s people remain undernourished, recommends finding
ways to produce more food using less water. The report notes that it takes
550 liters of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread in developing
countries…but up to 7,000 liters of water to produce 100 grams of beef. —UN
Commission on Sustainable Development, “Water—More Nutrition Per Drop”
Let’s say you take a shower every day…and your showers average seven
minutes…and the flow rate through your showerhead is 2 gallons per
minute…. You would use, at that rate, 5,110 gallons of water to shower every
day for a year.
When you compare that figure, 5,110 gallons of water, to the amount the Water
Education Foundation calculates is used in the production of every pound of
California beef 2,464 gallons, you realize something extraordinary. In
California today, you may save more water by not eating a pound of beef than
you would by not showering for six entire months. —John Robbins in The
Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and the World
Waste disposal, like water supply, seemed to have no practical limitations.
There were always new places to dump, and for centuries most of what was
dumped either conveniently decomposed or disappeared from sight. Just as
you didn’t worry about how much water a cow drank, you didn’t worry about
how much it excreted.
But today, the waste from our gargantuan factory farms overwhelms the
absorptive capacity of the planet. Rivers carrying livestock waste are
dumping so much excess nitrogen into bays and gulfs that large areas of the
marine world are dying (see Environmental Intelligence, “Ocean Dead Zones
The easiest way to reduce the amount of excrement flowing down the
Mississippi and killing the Gulf of Mexico is to eat less meat, thereby reducing
the size of the herds upstream in Iowa or Missouri.
Giant livestock farms, which can house hundreds of thousands of pigs,
chickens, or cows, produce vast amounts of waste. In fact, in the United
States, these “factory farms” generate more than 130 times the amount of
waste that people do. —Natural Resources Defense Council
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, livestock waste has
polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers and contaminated groundwater in
dozens of states. —Natural Resources Defense Council
Nutrients in animal waste cause algal blooms, which use up oxygen in the
water, contributing to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where there’s not
enough oxygen to support aquatic life. The dead zone stretched over 7,700
square miles during the summer of 1999. —Natural Resources Defense
Energy consumption, until very recently, may have seemed to most of us to be
an issue for refrigerators, but not for the meat and milk inside.
But as we give more attention to life-cycle analysis of the things we buy, it
becomes apparent that the journey that steak made to get to your refrigerator
consumed staggering amounts of energy along the way.
We can begin the cycle with growing the grain to feed the cattle, which
requires a heavy input of petroleum- based agricultural chemicals. There’s the
fuel required to transport the cattle to slaughter, and thence to market. Today,
much of the world’s meat is hauled thousands of miles. And then, after being
refrigerated, it has to be cooked.
It takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed
beef in the United States. Some of the energy was used in the feedlot, or in
transportation and cold storage, but most of it went to fertilizing the feed grain
used to grow the modern steer or cow. To provide the yearly average beef
consumption of an American family of four requires over 260 gallons of fossil
fuel. —“Meat Equals War” website of Earth Save, Humboldt, California
It takes, on average, 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of
meat protein for human consumption, [whereas] it takes only 3.3 calories of
fossil- fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human
consumption. —David Pimentel, Cornell University
The transition of world agriculture from food grain to feed grain represents a
new form of human evil, with consequences possibly far greater and longer
lasting than any past wrongdoing inflicted by men against their fellow human
beings. Today, more than 70 percent of the grain produced in the United
States is fed to livestock, much of it to cattle. —Jeremy Rifkin, Los Angeles
Times, 27 May 2002
Feeding grain to animals is highly inefficient, and an absurd use of resources.
—Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba
Global warming is driven by energy consumption, to the extent that the
principal energy sources are carbon-rich fuels that, when burned, emit carbon
dioxide or other planet-blanketing gases. As noted above, the production and
delivery of meat helps drive up the use of such fuels.
But livestock also emit global-warming gases directly, as a by- product of
digestion. Cattle send a significant amount of methane, a potent global-
warming gas, into the air. The environmental group Earth Save recommends a
major reduction in the world’s cattle population, which currently numbers
about 1.3 billion.
One ton of methane, the chief agricultural greenhouse gas, has the global
warming potential of 23 tons of carbon dioxide. A dairy cow produces about
75 kilograms of methane a year, equivalent to over 1.5 [metric] tons of carbon
dioxide. The cow, of course, is only doing what comes naturally.
But people are inclined to forget, it seems, that farming is an industry. We
cleared the land, sowed the pasture, bred the stock, and so on. It’s a human
business, not a natural one. We’re pretty good at it, which is why atmospheric
concentrations of methane increased by 150 percent over the past 250 years,
while carbon dioxide concentrations increased by 30 percent. —Pete
Hodgson, New Zealand Minister for Energy, Science, and Fisheries
There is a strong link between human diet and methane emissions from
livestock…. As beef consumption rises or falls, the number of livestock will, in
general, also rise or fall, as will the related methane emissions. Latin America
has the highest regional emissions per capita, due primarily to large cattle
populations in the beef exporting countries (notably Brazil and Argentina).
—United Nations Environment Programme, Unit on Climate Change
Belching, flatulent livestock emit 16 percent of the world’s annual production
of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. —Brian Halweil and Danielle
Nierenberg in State of the World 2004
Fight Global Warming With Your Knife and Fork
—Article by Elysa Hammond in Sustainablebusiness.com
Food productivity of farmland, as noted above, is gradually falling behind
population growth. When Paul Ehrlich warned three decades ago that
“hundreds of millions” of people would starve, he turned out to have
overstated the case—for now. (Only tens of millions starved.) The green
revolution, an infusion of fertilizers and mass-production techniques,
increased crop yields and bought us time. That, combined with more
complete utilization of arable land through intensified irrigation and
fertilization, enabled us to more or less keep pace with population growth for
A little additional gain—but only a little—may come from genetic engineering.
Short of stabilizing population (which will take another half century), only one
major option remains: to cut back sharply on meat consumption, because
conversion of grazing land to food crops will increase the amount of food
(Some argue that grazing can use land that is useless for crops, and in these
areas live- stock may continue to have a role, but large areas of arable land are
now given to cattle to roam and ruin.)
Let’s say we have 20,000 kcal [kilocalories] of corn. Assume that we feed it to
cattle (as we do with about 70 percent of the grain produced in the U.S.)….
The cow will produce about 2,000 kcal of usable energy from that 20,000 kcal
of corn (assuming 10 percent efficiency; the efficiency is actually somewhat
higher than that, but 10 percent is easy to work with and illustrates the point
reasonably). That 2,000 kcal of beef would support one person for a day,
assuming a 2,000 kcal per day diet, which is common in the
If instead people ate the 20,000 kcal of corn directly, instead of passing it
through the cow, we would be able to support more people for that given unit
of land being farmed; not necessarily 10 times more, because people are not
as efficient as cattle at using corn energy, but considerably more than the one
that could be supported if the corn were passed through the cow first.
So, we could support more people on Earth for a given area of land farmed if
we ate lower on the food chain—if we ate primary producers instead of eating
herbivores (corn instead of beef). Or, we could support the same number of
people as at present, but with less land degradation because we wouldn’t
need to have so much land in production…. —Patricia Muir, Oregon State
While 56 million acres of U.S. land are producing hay for livestock, only 4
million acres are producing vegetables for human consumption. —U.S.
Department of Commerce, Census of Agriculture
A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 89 percent of U.S.
beef ground into patties contains traces of the deadly E. coli strain. —Reuters
Animal waste contains disease-causing pathogens, such as Salmonella, E.
coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform, which can be 10 to 100 times more
concentrated than in human waste. More than 40 diseases can be transferred
to humans through manure.
—Natural Resources Defense Council
Lifestyle disease, especially heart disease, might not have been regarded as
an “environmental” problem a generation ago. But it’s now clear that the vast
majority of public health problems are environmental, rather than genetic, in
nature. Moreover, most preventable diseases result from complex
relationships between humans and the environment, rather than from single
Heart disease is linked to obesity resulting both from excessive consumption
of sugar and fat (especially meat fat) and from lack of exercise facilitated by
car-oriented urban design. The environmental problems of suburban sprawl,
air pollution, fossil-fuel consumption, and poor land-use policies are also all
factors in heart disease.
The irony of the food production system is that millions of wealthy consumers
in developed countries are dying from diseases of affluence—heart attacks,
strokes, diabetes, and cancer—brought on by gorging on fatty grain-fed beef
and other meats, while the poor in the Third World are dying of diseases of
poverty brought on by being denied access to land to grow food grain for their
families. —Jeremy Rifkin, Los Angeles Times
Who says meat is high in saturated fat? This politically correct nutrition
campaign is just another example of the diet dictocrats trying to run our lives.
—Sam Abramson, CEO, Springfield Meats
Not only is mortality from coronary heart disease lower in vegetarians than in
non-vegetarians, but vegetarian diets have also been successful in arresting
coronary heart disease. Scientific data suggest positive relationships
between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk for obesity, coronary artery
disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and some types of cancer. —
American Dietetic Association
He is a heavy eater of beef. Me thinks it doth harm to his wit. —William
Shakespeare in Twelfth Night
The average age (longevity) of a meat eater is 63. I am on the verge of 85 and
still work as hard as ever. I have lived quite long enough and am trying to die;
but I simply cannot do it. A single beef-steak would finish me; but I cannot
bring myself to swallow it. I am oppressed with a dread of living forever. That
is the only disadvantage of vegetarianism. —George Bernard Shaw (1856–
Biodiversity loss and threat of extinction:
Above and beyond the destruction of forests and grasslands for cattle
ranching, and the creation of oceanic dead zones by manure-laden runoff, the
growing traffic in bush-meat is decimating the remaining populations of
gorillas, chimpanzees, and other primates that are being killed for their meat.
As the planet becomes more crowded, poor populations are increasingly
venturing into wildlife reserves looking for meat—and not always just for their
own subsistence. In these areas, it’s not enough just to say “eat less meat.”
Here, the long-term solution will depend on stemming the building of logging
roads (which facilitate more rapid invasion by hunters) and stronger
protections against poaching and black-marketeering of bushmeat.
The real trouble has come in the last 10 years or so, as the big multinational
companies, particularly European companies, are opening up the [central
African] forest with their roads. Hunters from the towns can use the logging
trucks to go along the roads…. They shoot everything from elephants down to
gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, monkeys, birds—everything.
They smoke it, they load it on the trucks and take it into the cities, where it’s
not to feed starving people—it’s where people will pay more for bushmeat
than for domesticated meat…. The pygmy hunters who’ve lived in harmony
with the forest world for hundreds of years are now being given guns and
ammunition and paid to shoot for the logging camps. And that’s absolutely
not sustainable. The animals have gone, the forest is silent, and when the
logging camps finally move, what is left for the indigenous people? Nothing.
—Jane Goodall in Benefits Beyond Boundaries, a film by Television Trust for
the Environment shown on BBC in 2003
Albert Einstein, who was better known for his physics and math than for his
interest in the living world, once said:
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival of life on
Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. ”
We don’t think he was just talking about nutrition. Notice that in this article we
haven’t said much at all about the role of meat in nutrition, even though there’
s a lot more to talk about than heart disease.
Nor have we gone into the ethics of vegetarianism, or of animal rights. The
purpose of those omissions is not to brush off those concerns, but to point
out that on ecological and economic grounds alone, meat-eating is now a
looming problem for humankind.
You don’t have to have any conscience at all to know that the age of heavy
meat-eating will soon be over as surely as will the age of oil.
Published in World Watch Magazine,
Article: Is Meat Sustainable?