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The Environmental Impact of a Meat-Based Diet

The Environmental Impact of a Meat-Based Diet

I always knew that becoming a vegetarian would help prevent cruelty to animals but I was not aware of the environmental consequences of a meat-eating diet. The production of beef and other animal protein consumes huge amounts of natural resources such as water, fossil fuels and topsoil, while polluting our water and air. In fact, switching to a plant-based diet from a meat-eating diet is the single most important move I can make to help the environment, much more effective than turning off the water when I brush my teeth or recycling and reusing. (Although, I will always continue to conserve and recycle!)

One of the biggest environmental impacts of a meat-eating diet is the depletion of natural resources, particularly the consumption of vast amounts of water for livestock production. Today, there are more than 17 billion livestock in the world; that’s about triple the number of people. Raising these animals requires huge amounts of water, most of it used to irrigate the grains and hay fed to the animals. According to the Water Education Foundation, it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef in California. This is the same amount of water you would use if you took a seven-minute shower every day for six entire months. In contrast, only 25 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of wheat. Present human water consumption drains aquifers around the world. Water tables are dropping drastically and wells are going dry. The United States Geological Survey says that 40 percent of fresh water used in the U.S. in 2000 went to irrigate feed crops for livestock. Only 13 percent was used for domestic purposes including showers, flushing toilets, washing cars and watering lawns. Switching to a plant-based diet or reducing the amount of meat in your diet is by far the most important choice you can make to save water.

Raising livestock depletes other natural resources as well, including fossil fuels and topsoil. Aside from the cost of grains used to feed livestock you can also measure the cost of fossil fuel energy. Agricultural production uses ten percent of the energy used every year in the United States. David Pimentel from Cornell University explained it this way, 40 calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce one calorie of protein from feedlot beef while only two calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce one calorie of protein from tofu.

Topsoil is another vital natural resource being used faster than nature can replace it. The production of corn and soybeans, the major grains fed to livestock, causes massive soil erosion because those crops are grown in rows. The bare patches between the rows expose the topsoil to both wind and rain erosion. Pimentel has calculated that in Iowa one half of the topsoil has been lost due to farming over the past 100 years. It is estimated that we lose nearly 7 billion tons of topsoil every year.

Another natural resource that is being threatened today by the increased production of livestock is the rainforest. According to the Nature Conservancy, every second of every day one football field of rainforest is being destroyed. Much of this forestland is being cut down to farm and raise livestock, which is then exported to the U.S. and ends up in fast-food hamburgers. According to the Rainforest Action Network, 55 square feet of tropical rainforest are destroyed to make every fast-food hamburger made from rainforest cattle. This is an area about the size of a small kitchen and it is gone forever each time one of these hamburgers is eaten. It is even worse because with each square foot of rainforest gone, up to 30 different plant species, 100 different insect species and dozens of bird, mammal and reptile species are destroyed. The rainforests are so important because half of the species on earth live in them and the forests are vital to the world’s oxygen supply.

Additional impacts on the environment from a meat-eating diet are the pollution of our water and air. All of the livestock being raised throughout the world produce enormous amounts of manure and urine, which in turn pollute natural resources. Animal waste changes the pH of our water, contaminates our air; and the gases emitted are believed to be a major cause of global warming. To keep costs down, the modern animal farming practice is to raise livestock in feedlots and factory farms where thousands or tens of thousands of animals are crowded into small spaces. However, this makes the animal waste problem worse because of concentrated waste. Livestock in the U.S. produce 2.7 trillion pounds of manure each year. That’s about ten times more waste than was produced by all the American people.

What happens to all this waste? Some farmers spray the manure on nearby fields for fertilizer, however this can be expensive, does not provide the best nutrient balance for growing plants and can spread diseases carried in the waste to humans. Some farmers use manure lagoons as a “safe” way to store millions of gallons of animal waste. These lagoons, it turns out, are not so safe. In 1995, 25 million gallons of manure and urine spilled from a hog farm lagoon into the New River in North Carolina. More than 10 million fish were immediately killed and 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands were closed to shell fishing. In the Gulf of Mexico there is a 7,000 square mile “dead zone” where there is no aquatic life due to pollution from animal waste and chemical fertilizers. The pollution from factory farms and feedlots is happening throughout the U.S., and is beginning to happen throughout the world. If we decrease our consumption of animal products we can also decrease the threat of water pollution.

The waste from factory farms gives off many harmful gases such as ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulfide, as well as clouds of dust and particles, which pollute our air. Since these farms are so large and often use huge manure lagoons the most obvious pollution is the horrible smell, which affects communities nearest the farms. The bad smell is the least of the dangers to the environment. In the U.S., animal farms are responsible for 73% of the ammonia released into the air. The ammonia can react with other gases in the air and cause respiratory problems and contribute to smog and acid rain. The particulate matter created from animal agriculture can also cause respiratory problems and can form a brown cloud effect that used to be found only near large industrialized cities.

Methane may be the most serious gas given off from livestock. In fact the meat industry is the number one source of methane throughout the world, releasing over 100 million tons a year. Methane is a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and causes the earth’s temperature to rise. Noam Mohr in his report on global warming says, “methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.” Theoretically by reducing the amount of meat eaten throughout the world we could slow down methane production and therefore global warming.

Yes, I am still very concerned about the mistreatment of animals, but I am also concerned with the loss of the rainforests, with the increasing threat of global warming, and with having clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. What can I, a 12-year-old American girl, do to make a difference? I will still choose to conserve water and electricity and to reuse and recycle whenever possible, but the single most environmentally important choice I can make is to eat a plant-based diet.


Comments on this Article

I know this is years later but in response to "Anonymous on Oct 06, 2009" what do you think those "beef from your backyard" eat? It takes over 4 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of beef. That sounds terribly inefficient. And that's not counting all of the damage that the beef causes on the environment, which is what this article is about. Great article Lillie! I just came across it and have been sharing it a lot!

How can one be a truly compassionate spiritual being and go along with the mass terror inflicted on millions of animals a year and the unnatural treatment of animals (from rape to murder alive). People may turn their head from the "ugly" material that is out there proving this, but that doesn?t eliminate the ugliness. Comparing humans of different religions and cultures to animals makes it possible for the masses to turn their head when a genocide happens like the Holocaust in Germany and in Africa, Russia and China. Are you seeing the connection here? One human murder or one beating of an animal is an outrageous crime and makes "breaking news," but millions of murders and tortures is just a statistic that might make page 20. People have little or no feelings and will menetally digest the news while eating a turkey sandwich and a cup of coffee and then go on with their business. Most people know damn well what goes on in an animal agricultural farm and dairy. As long as the screams, the stench, the moans of agony and the blood and guts are removed, the flesh is cubed in neat meal size proportions with a piece of parsley and wrapped in cellophane with a picture of a happy cow on the wrapper - their conscious is clean. In an age where we hear the word "compassion" and "humane" a lot, and then see it used as a weapon to destroy other civilizations and kill animals, we need to put the meaning back into the word. In order to have compassion, one must BE compassionate. Think Jesus, Gandhi, DaVinci, the Mother Teresa?s of the world. That is COMPASSION. To give one?s life for a friend or a cause, that is compassion. Please follow me on Facebook.....


Your article is so helpful and eyeopening. I am amazed that you are so young. I have been researching this topic for school and it is amazing how large the figures are for the impact of meat production.

Your article is so helpful and eyeopening. I am amazed that you are so young. I have been researching this topic for school and it is amazing how large the figures are for the impact of meat production.

This was the reason I went vegan some three years ago, and articulated better than I could ever try. Have you ever thought about speaking at schools? Theres no better way to inform and grab kids' interest than for someone their own age to address them.

In his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, Australian philosopher Peter Singer writes: "Killing an animal is in itself a troubling act. It has been said that if we had to kill our own meat we would all be vegetarians. There may be exceptions to that general rule, but it is true that most people prefer not to inquire into the killing of the animals they eat. "Very few people ever visit a slaughterhouse; and films of slaughterhouse operations are rarely shown on television...Yet those who, by their purchases, require animals to be killed have no right to be shielded from this or any other aspect of the production of the meat they buy. "If it is distasteful for humans to think about, what can it be like for the animals to experience it?" Peter Singer concludes in Animal Liberation that "by ceasing to rear and kill animals for food, we can make extra food available for humans that, properly distributed, it would eliminate starvation and malnutrition from this planet. Animal Liberation is Human Liberation, too." The number of animals killed for food in the United States is 70 times larger than the number of animals killed in laboratories, 30 times larger than the number of animals killed by hunters and trappers, and 500 times larger than the number of animals killed in animal pounds. "If anyone wants to save the planet," says Paul McCartney in a PETA interview, "all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That's the single most important thing you could do. It's staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty. Let's do it! Linda was right. Going veggie is the single best idea for the new century." The animal rights movement should be supported by all caring Americans.


Oh my god, I wish I had your initiative and intelligence and sheer brilliance at age 12. I wish all or our world leaders had it too, then the world's state wouldn't be at such unease. Great article. I will try my best to follow in your foot prints.

Great work Lillie

Wow, you are a star Lillie, a voice that should be heard by all!! And I am going to make my daughters' read this as well, have only got to get chicken out of their diets and have succeeded in opening their eyes to vegetarianism, and all the wonderful tastes to explore!! xxx

Wow its great to have the best of everything a veggie should know.Well done child,we will get together and try our best to save the Planet-Earth.And let live all beings let live and live in harmony.May peace be always with you.

Wow, I love your article Lillie. You're really inspiring and you've inspired me to become a vegtarian :) Thanks for opening my eyes and keep on bieng brilliant!

i absolutely love your article it is really helping me with my science researche project, i myself am too a vegetarian and your article just made me believe even more that im doing the right thing

i live in Canada near a feedlot and packing plant, and would it not be better for the environment if we ate beef from our backyard, and not tofu from California

this article really helped with a paper i ad to write, for a 12 year old you are very smart, congrats.

wow!! i'm 14 and i was born vegetarian and i could never have talked about being a vegetarian the way you did. keep up the good work!! :D

This article is amazing! Thank you so much. You helped me write an essay on "The impact a meat-based diet has on the environment", you made it so much easier! Thank you once again so very much! PS. Don't worry I refrenced you and some quotes. :)

Hey, I think this article is very informative and I commend you for informing others. I think your choice is neat and the article is epic. The reason I am commenting is because I quoted you in my paper on vegetarism and my english teacher pointed out that in the statement "I always knew that becoming a vegetarian would help prevent cruelty to animals but I was not aware of the environmental consequences of a meat-eating diet." a comma is needed between animals and! I did not single you out for it though, I told her it was my mistake!!! :) Thanks for the information and a great source. Continue with your awesomeness!!!

Impressive rhetoric, and wonderful presentation of your ideas. You are an incredible writer--persuasive and adamant without being duly unreasonable. Keep writing, keep opening the eyes of the world!

woowwweiiess, you are one smart guurrll... darling i became a vegetarian when i was in year three and you have jsut totally confirmed for me that i made the right decision

I totally agree:) I am also twelve and I have a very strong standing on vegetarianism. Thanks for furthering the effort!

your logic is flawed

Eating less meat saves water as well! Check it out:!.html

this is perfect, helped me write my essay! giving credit where credit is due, thank you!

This helped me write my paper too! Thanks!

Can someone give me exact stats to this question: One meat eating person takes up this much space/resources per year (broken down) One vegan person takes up this much space/resources per year (broken down)

Thank you for this article Lillie. It is very informative and will certainly help me for my report on vegetarianism.

Thank you, Lillie for sharing! Keep shining! 1 <3

I wish there was a way to share this on Facebook. I keep a page, "The Everyday Environmentalist," and I would love to share it on that page. I liked it, but now I can't find it on my timeline or newsfeed.

I love your post! I have been a vegetarian for a very long time now. I learned a few years ago the horrible effects of meat production on the environment... I want to share your post, but with no sources cited, I can't share with good faith. Anyhow, thank you so much for writing this and letting people know.

Hello Lillie, Great post! I used to be a vegetarian... until I found out what goes on behind the scenes of the dairy and egg industries, and then quickly concluded that the only way and correct moral and common sense choice is to be a vegan. Sure, being a vegetarian is much better than eating meat, but veganism is the answer. I only wish I'd found out earlier about this. I simply hadn't finish my research. Feel free to read my detailed article on dairy to get the whole picture: The dairy and meat industries are linked. You can also find plenty of resources and information on the egg industry and what it does to chickens and the environment. It's horrible. And, like meat, totally unnecessary and unjustifiable. Us humans don't eat meat, dairy or eggs. Animals are here with us, not for us. There are many great educational videos out there, you can check some out on my site: Keep up the good work :)

I am with you, 100%, Lilly! Thank you for researching all this and posting it. I found it very valuable in making our sales pitch for MATCH® vegan meats!

Very informative and relevant article. Vegetarian life style is the sensible and respectful natural way to live.

You are what you eat. In other words you become the "dumb" animal you eat, which is wonder you are too stupid to stop eating meat. You are addicted to a sensual pleasure, which has no nutritional merit and terrible consequences of poor health and environmental devastation. Meat eaters are literally killing the plant eaters, while being willing to subject themselves to all types if disease, pain and suffering, for a simple temporary pleasure of "taste" which plant eaters do not share, in fact most plant eaters don't like the taste of meat and usually have I mediated negative side affects if they do eat some meat.Does this sound crazy, well it is, because meat eating not only causes physical disease, but mental, emotional and spiritual degradation. How stupid is that! The only way to save the environment and human life is a substantial and immediate reduction of meat eating and it's wasteful production system. If you are eating meat you may also not be aware of all these negatives, because you have lost your sensitivity, intuition and rational thinking ability-You have become what you eat, a dumb animal...Please break this negative habit for the sake of not only your future but that of the entire human race and the Earth such gives us our life.

This is an excellent article, very good facts. I also liked your non opinion based attitude. I became a vegetarian when i was 7 years old.

This article is plagued by falsehoods that remove credibility from the author. Most especially ridiculous is the claim that up to 100 species of insects and dozens of species of birds are destroyed forever with EACH SQUARE FOOT of rainforest wiped out.

These Facts I think, hope are Exaggerated ,or we are in big trouble..

Such a well-spoken and detailed article, Lillie!! And this is so amazing that you have converted to a plant-based lifestyle so early in age! I stopped eating meat at age of 14, and I only wished I would have stopped earlier! Also, I applaud you for having a mind of your own and standing up for what you believe in (I understand that there are lots of haters out there.)

A lot of people are out there saying if we all become vegetarians. We will cause more damage by eating soy, tofu, etc. I dont eat any fake meat replacements . It's the thought of eating meat that makes me sick. Why would I want to pretend I'm eating meat. Plus, if we don't have millions of animals on the land. We can use that land for fruits and vegetables . We can also use the same land the farmers use for animal feed. God knows there's plenty of that land. Further more. Crops regrow and we can have two harvests with one plant most years. Plus, no more thousands of barrels of blood, bones and waste. Humans that eat a vegan diet don't put out waste as much as meat eaters. We would be healthier . Most of all, the animals will stop being tortured and slaughtered. No more animals living in fear and pain. Meat eaters need to face it and stop trying to defend what they're doing. It's wrong and maybe we'll all realize it someday. Meat eaters flip out when faced with the reality of how meat gets to their table. I can only hope people realize this in the coming years .

Maryann. I completely agree with most of what you say, and you are of course entitled to your opinion about meat substitutes. I've been a vegetarian (97% vegan) for many years, and I've never thought of them as meat substitutes, and just enjoy them for what they are. That said, I think it's good to have such products for those people making the transition from meat-eater to vegetarian. Zommie. I understand what you're saying, but I think it's more to do with conditioning, and people just grow up with meat being a normal part of their diet. And of course the realty of it all is kept well hidden from everyone, and for obvious reasons, In fact it's romanticised into this picture of rural bliss..... Greg. The article is NOT plagued by "falsehoods" at all, just one simple error, which I'm sure everyone else who read the article realised. But then maybe you have an agenda.... Sounds like it to me when you use emotive words like 'plagued' and 'falsehoods'.

I forgot to respond to Jaime in my post. Unfortunately Jaime, the facts - and figures - are NOT exaggerated, and we ARE in big trouble, and especially so with the advent of genetically engineered - or genetically modified - crops in the past twenty years or so. Please check out websites like sustainablepulse and GMwatch and seedfreedom for more information. And also documentaries like The World According To Monsanto on youtube. Taking action to stop climate change is of the upmost urgency of course, but stopping the takeover of the world's farming and food system by the corporate elite is even more urgent in the short term. Tens of millions of acres of arable land around the world are used to grow GM crops such as soya to feed to livestock (which is not only unnatural for them, but also detrimental to their health), and cutting down on meat (and dairy products) or giving up meat altogether (and eating only organic dairy products) is the single most effective thing we can do to stop the spread of these totally unnatural products.

It's refreshing to hear a 12 year old that's so educated on these matters....i would recommend the documentary 'cowspiracy' it's not a blood and guts type one (there's just a small horrible bit in the middle!). It's really educational and I wish I could remember all the facts from it! There's a good site called 'teen vgn' you'd love too, Good luck...

First let me say I am a vegan. Now there is something wrong with the math in this article. The average cow provides 715 pound of meat. 715 X 2464 = 1,761,760 gallons of water per cow. That would mean the cow used about 3,000 gallons per day. Assuming about 18 months from birth to slaughter. I find that difficult to believe.

I wish everyone could read this article. I have just decided to become vegan a month ago and this article is why. I did it for the environment initially but of course after much research I did it for the animals too. Thank you and continue spreading the word!