Meat’s Disastrous Impacts, Categorized

cows-californiaIt’s disturbing how animal agriculture seems to play, at best, a supporting role and, at worst, no role in critical discussions about anthropogenic harms to our planet and health.

Even the socially progressive often dismiss it as a nonfactor — “I just don’t really get it”; “There are so many other problems”; “Just let me eat meat!” — and many deeply committed environmentalists have their eyes fixated elsewhere.

We pull an extra layer of wool over our eyes, afraid to face this most inconvenient of truths — that animal agriculture is, in most estimates, the single greatest contributor to climate change and, more often than not, most other environmental harms.

It produces more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector, consumes more water than all other uses combined, and requires more land than any other use in the world.

It’s also an enormous source of pollution, contributes largely to our public health epidemic, obesity, and engenders atrocious human abuses worldwide.

See the tables below for a full breakout of the impacts.

It’s a difficult reality to swallow, especially because swallowing meat is so enjoyable. Food consumption is intensely personal, our habits ingrained early. As a toddler, what we are fed is what our body learns it needs to survive.

Many estimates report that the modern American eats between half and three-quarters of a pound of meat per day, up from about a third of a pound in 19091. Other estimates actually put consumption above ¾ of a pound daily2.

Either way, from an early age, we are eating far more than the USDA’s recommendation of 4 ounces a day (this includes red meat, poultry, and fish)3, which itself is far more than what many health professionals are now advocating. Some suggest eating meat only twice a week and, in addition, others advocate excluding red meat entirely.

However, telling the average American they should vastly reduce their meat consumption is like telling a Bostonian they should only watch two Patriots games a year. Even many environmentalists lead contradictory lives, like a concussion activist from San Francisco who organizes boycotts of football but herself has season tickets to Levi’s Stadium.

The dissonance we face is nearly insurmountable.

But Americans are also not a group to shy from a challenge. We have that going for us. We just need to apply the same ferocity to this issue that we do to brainstorming updates for Snapchat.

And it’s imperative that we do. This is not a minor, isolated problem. This is enormous.

More than to the skeptics and creatures hitched to habit, I speak to all fellow environmentalists who have yet to make a lifestyle change— if we are incapable of accepting this reality and walking the walk, with the same zeal that we gobble up Priuses and Teslas, we are in no position to deal out death and judgment on anything.

If we demand renewable energy legislation, lambasting climate deniers and rallying hundreds of thousands to protest oil pipelines; if we demand shorter showers and water-saving home appliances, even when domestic consumption accounts for a mere 5-10% of all water use; if we demand a stop to deforestation for paper products, lumber, oils, or otherwise — if we demand all this, but don’t push for reduced meat production with the same fervor, we are being hypocritical.

We’ve been tiptoeing around the brink of a great revolution in the way we conceive of food’s role in our lives. Let us take the plunge, wholeheartedly.

In the tables below, I’ve compiled the most powerful statistics about meat, broken into impact categories. Take a look and ask yourself if it’s justifiable to continue on this path.

If you are appalled, as I am, then the short-term action to take is simple: eat less meat.



18 – 51%

Depending on the estimate, animal agriculture and its byproducts are directly responsible for anywhere from 18%C1 to 51%C2 of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The lowest in this range (18%) is still more than the entire transportation sector, which accounts for 13% of GHG.


In 2014, the United Nations (UN) Climate Summit, historically conservative in their estimates, reported that the global food industry as a whole is responsible for 50% of all GHG emissionsC3. If we were to take this number as gospel, it still aligns with the range above given that livestock are responsible for the majority of the food industry’s impacts.

65%, 296,  150

Livestock are responsible for 65% of human-related nitrous oxide emissions, a GHG with 296 times the global warming potential of CO2, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 yearsC1.


Livestock are responsible for 18% of all emissions of methane (literally by burping and flatulating), a GHG with 86 times the warming potential of CO2 over 20 yearsC4. This is nearly equal to U.S. methane emissions from natural gasC5.

1 Cow’s Methane = ½ a Car

The warming potential of one cow’s annual output of methane alone is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasolineC6. The average American drives about 13,400 miles a yearC7. At an average fuel economy of 25.5 mpg in May of 2015C8, that’s the equivalent of driving 6,000 miles, almost half of one American driver’s entire annual impact.

Reduce NH4 = Immediate Impact

The 2014 UN Climate Summit reported that “international efforts to reduce [short-lived climate pollutants like methane] can have immediate impact and slow the increase in global temperatures expected over the next 35 years by as much as 0.6°C while benefiting people’s health.”C9


Global emissions for agriculture are expected to increase 80% by 2050, most of which comes from increased meat consumptionC10.


80 – 90%

Agriculture altogether is responsible for 80-90% of freshwater consumption in the U.S.W1


Feed crops for livestock alone consume 56% of water in the U.S.W2


One quarter-pound hamburger requires 625 gallons of waterW2. That’s equal to showering 4 minutes every day for 80 days.

140 billion vs. 76 trillion

Fracking’s water consumption ranges from 70-140 billion gallons of water annuallyW3 while animal agriculture’s consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annuallyW4.


Californians use 1500 gallons of water per person per day. Close to half is associated with meat and dairy productsW5.

4,200 vs. 300

Another estimate: the standard diet of a person in the U.S. requires 4,200 gallons of water per day, while a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons a dayW6.

5.2 vs. 45

Worldwide, humans drink 5.2 billion gallons of water a day and cows drink 45 billion gallons of waterW7.



Livestock and livestock feed require one-third of the earth’s ice-free landL1.


Another estimate: livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total landL2, and comprises 87% of all the land used for agriculture in the U.S.L3


Nearly ½ the contiguous U.S. is devoted to animal agricultureL4.


One third of the planet is desertified, with livestock as the leading driverL5.

37,000 vs. 375

On 1.5 acres, you can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food, or 375 pounds of meatL6.

260 million

About 260 million acres of forest have been cleared to create cropland that produces feed for animals raised for foodL3.


The meat industry is directly responsible for 85% of all soil erosion in the U.S.L3.

80%, 95%, 8.7 billion

In the U.S., 80% of the corn and 95% of the oats we grow are fed to livestock. The world’s cattle alone consume enough calories to feed 8.7 billion peopleL3.


In Latin America, 70% of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazingL1.


65 million years

We are currently experiencing the largest mass extinction in 65 million years, driven in large part by the devotion of land to animal agricultureS1.


Every day, 137 plant, animal, and insect species are lost due to rainforest destructionS2.



2500 = 411,000

A farm with 2500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 peopleT1.

130+ times

Giant livestock farms, which can house hundreds of thousands of pigs, chickens, or cows, produce more than 130 times the amount of waste of people in the U.S.T2.


Worldwide and in the U.S., we are currently wasting about 40% of all the food we growT3.


At 21% of the total, food comprises the largest chunk of waste in our landfillsT4.

Homes, 33%, 25%

Our homes are the largest sources of food waste, where we throw away edible leftovers and let food rot in our fridges. The NRDC reports that 33% of all the meat and 25% of all the seafood we buy goes to waste in our homesT5.



In Brazil, 1,100 land activists have been killed in the past 20 yearsH1.


There are $414 billion in externalized costs from animal agricultureH2.


In the U.S., 80% of antibiotics are sold to fatten livestock and treat illnesses that result from horrible living conditionsH3.

21 vs. 135

Worldwide, humans eat 21 billion pounds of food each day while cows eat 135 billion poundsH4.


About 80% of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals that are eaten by western countriesH5.

2/3, 1/3, 1/20, 3/4

More than two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are considered overweight or obese, more than one-third are considered obese, more than 1 in 20 have extreme obesity, and almost 3 in 4 men are considered overweight or obese H6.

Impacts Obesity

Over-consumption of meat in the U.S. is directly linked to obesity because of: 1) meat’s high-energy and high-fat contentH7; and 2) its linkage to a heightened appetite and, specifically, an appetite for more food with high-energy contentH8.

Increased Risk of Cancer

“The World Health Organization has classified processed meats – including ham, salami, sausages and hot dogs – as a Group 1 carcinogen which means that there is strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer. Red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork has been classified as a ‘probable’ cause of cancer”H9.


Blog Body



Climate Change






Habitat and Species Loss




Human Impact


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