Climate change and the effects of mankind on the environment are popular topics at the moment and will continue to increase in relevance as the extent of the damage done by humans becomes clearer.
One of the lesser mentioned issues however, is the impact of meat production on the environment. Not only is keeping livestock a very inefficient use of land:
160 kg of potatoes could be harvested on the same amount of land needed to produce 1 kg of meat
an adequate diet consisting of 80% plant-based foods and 20% meat requires 1,300m3 of water per year, while a purely vegetarian diet requires around half this amount) 1
but cattle also cause the most environmental damage of any non-human species through over-grazing, soil erosion, desertification and tropical deforestation for ranches, in addition to their gaseous emissions and manure products. More information on these issues is given in our brochure "The Ecological Consequences of Meat Consumption".
Some non-vegetarian organisations and institutions are finally beginning to realise this link, and the benefits of a plant-based diet are receiving a mention in some widely-read reports on climate change.
In 2006 the international nutritional organisation Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a report of over 400 pages on the connection between animal husbandry and climate change called Livestock’s Long Shadow –Environmental Issues and Options. The central statement of the press release from the United Nations was that:
the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.
Greenpeace International also published a report on 7 January 2008 called Cool farming: Climate impacts of agriculture and mitigation potential. The report states that:
Since meat production is inefficient in its delivery of products to the human food chain, and also produces large emissions of GHG (greenhouse gas), a reduction of meat consumption could greatly reduce agricultural GHG emissions.
For individuals wishing to reduce their GHG footprint, adopting a vegetarian diet, or at least reducing the quantity of meat products in the diet, would have beneficial GHG impacts.
Although the section on the impact of eating less meat is limited to one page, it is still a major step forward as it is the first time that Greenpeace International has recognised the effect of meat consumption on the destruction of the planet.
Unfortunately however, there are a lot of organisations that refuse to acknowledge the link between what they eat and the damage being done to the environment.
Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” makes no mention whatsoever of the impact of meat consumption on the climate changes that he highlights. Although the film’s website has one sentence about how eating less meat is one action that people can take to help the situation, this topic is ignored in the film and Al Gore himself is not a vegetarian. As a prominent campaigner against climate change and an influential man, Al Gore could make a major contribution towards reversing the problems he shows in his film if he were to lead by example and stop eating animal products himself.
The World Wildlife Fund only mention vegetarianism once on their entire website, and that is on the page regarding the Common Agricultural Policy. There is no mention of meat consumption in the very visible section of their website on climate change and they ignore changing to a vegetarian diet in their list of actions that people can take to help prevent global warming. Despite several emails to WWF asking why this is, no answer has ever been received.
Go to our page What can I do to help? to find out what action you personally can take to help prevent climate change.
You can also take our quiz to test your knowledge on the links between what we eat and the health of the planet we live on.
Further resources on climate change and environmental issues are available in our links section.
1 «Water – More Nutrition per Drop» and: Rockström, J., Gordon, L., Folke, C., Falkenmark, M., and Engwall, M.: «Linkages among water vapor flows, food production, and terrestrial ecosystem services», 1999, Conservation Ecology 3(2):5.