Help the environment: Eat less meat [Commentary]

Livestock production is one of the world's largest contributors to environmental degradation

December 10, 2013|By Mark Hofberg

What can I do to help the environment?

As a master's student in conservation biology and environmental policy, I get this question often from my (mostly) left-leaning, but financially focused, friends. They generally understand that the environment is important, but with long work hours and an overflow "green" products and tips in the media, there is confusion about what is effective or even useful.

There is a simple way to help; one that does not require wearing hemp or even scrapping your car (although that would be nice): Eat less meat.

The production of livestock is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation in the world. From local soil erosion to global climate change, the problems this industry causes run the gamut in scale and scope.

Livestock are greenhouse gas producing machines, accounting for 37 percent of the world's human produced methane. Besides the animals themselves, the previously vegetated land cleared for pastures results in almost 10 percent of the entire share of human produced carbon dioxide. Manure produced by these animals emits another potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, which is almost 300 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. When it comes to global warming potential, livestock production accounts for 18 percent of "anthropogenic" emissions, those that result from human activity. In other words, almost a fifth of the human effect on climate is because of our addiction to meat — more than the entire transportation industry.

But the shadow of livestock production does not just fall on the climate.

In the United States, cattle ranching and other livestock industries pollute our rivers with lethal levels of nitrogen and wash fertile soil away. It is estimated that 55 percent of erosion and sediment in the U.S. is caused by livestock, resulting in huge fish kills and dead zones in our rivers and oceans.

Producing livestock is also a main driver of water shortage problems. It takes a monstrous amount of water, 100,000 liters, to produce just one kilogram of grain-fed beef. Compare that to a cash crop like soybeans, which only requires an average of 2,000 liters per kilogram of food.

Our addiction to beef has far reaching consequences beyond the United States, especially in some of the most ecologically sensitive and biologically diverse areas of the world. In the Amazon Rainforest, deforestation is mostly driven by a ranching industry that primarily is there to satisfy demand from developed countries. More than two-thirds of previously forested land in the Amazon Basin is now in pasture, land that would have remained in its natural pristine condition without pressure from livestock production.

Livestock production is simply an inefficient way to use arable land. It takes over 50 times as much energy to produce one gram of beef protein rather than one gram of plant protein — energy that comes from grain we have to grow (or import). In fact, the U.S. could feed 800 million more people just with the grain we feed to livestock.

It's a simple equation: The more meat we eat, the more damage we do to the environment. But where there is a serious problem, there is an opportunity to make a difference. Just by adjusting our diets, which are already meat-heavy, we could reduce erosion, sedimentation and water use while simultaneously making a huge difference in mitigating our effect on the climate. Eating a more vegetarian diet will also put less pressure on the biodiversity hot spots like the Amazon Rainforest and help feed the world.

What can you do?

I am not asking the entire United States to simply drop eating meat and pledge allegiance to vegetarianism. Not only would that be improbable, but such a quick switch would inevitably hurt the economy. My suggestion is to do what you can. If it means replacing pot roast with a chicken dish once a week, then go ahead (chicken production is more efficient and less land intensive than beef production). Everyone can make choices that help reduce our effect on the environment, and by eating less meat, you can be assured that you are helping the cause.

And who knows? Maybe you will like that roasted tofu at the organic market.

Mark Hofberg is a student at University of Maryland School of Public Policy. His email is

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