Why Eating Meat Is Bad for the Environment and Climate Change, Explained

It’s becoming a well-known fact that beef is bad for the climate – but it’s important to understand the reasons why.

A Limousin breed calf on a Polish beef cattle farm looks into the camera.
Credit: Andrew Skowron / We Animals Media

Explainer Climate Food

Words by

It can be tempting to fall prey to dire climate warnings and imagine that our planet is doomed. But it’s important to keep what the research shows in mind: the food we eat is an area where even individuals can make a difference. Meat is a deeply beloved food around the world, and a regular part of billions of people’s diets. But it comes with a steep cost: our appetite for meat is bad for the environment and climate change — responsible for between 11 and 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and a constant drain on our planet’s water and land reserves.

Climate models suggest that in order to limit global warming, we’re going to have to seriously rethink our relationship to meat. And the first step to doing that is understanding exactly how the meat industry works, and how it’s impacting the environment.

The Meat Industry At a Glance

Over the last 50 years, meat has become significantly more popular: between 1961 and 2021, the average person’s yearly meat consumption jumped from approximately 50 pounds a year to 94 pounds a year. Although this rise took place all around the world, it was more pronounced in high- and middle-income countries, though even the poorest countries also saw a slight increase in per capita meat consumption.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that the meat industry is massive — literally.

Half of all habitable land on Earth is used for agriculture. Two-thirds of that land is used for livestock grazing, while the other third goes to crop production. But only half of those crops end up in human mouths; the rest is used either for manufacturing purposes or, far more frequently, to feed livestock.

In totality, if we take livestock crops into account, a whopping 80 percent of all agricultural land on Earth — or around 15 million square miles — is used to support livestock grazing, either directly or indirectly.

How Meat Production Leads to Deforestation

Our appetite for meat comes at a steep cost, and we’re not talking about the rising price of cheeseburgers. The meat industry takes a serious toll on the environment in a number of ways — cheap and abundant protein has fed many humans but also left our planet in significantly worse shape.

To begin with, meat is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation, or the clearing of forested land. Over the last 10,000 years, around one-third of the planet’s forests have been destroyed. Around 75 percent of tropical deforestation is caused by agriculture, which includes clearing land to grow crops like soy and corn to feed animals, and also land to raise farm animals.

Impacts of Deforestation

Deforestation has a number of disastrous environmental impacts. Trees capture and store massive amounts of CO2 from the air, which is important because CO2 is one of the most harmful greenhouse gasses. When those trees are cut or burned down, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This is one of the fundamental ways eating meat contributes to global warming.

In addition, deforestation destroys the habitats that millions of species rely on. This reduces biodiversity, which is necessary for our planet’s ecosystems to thrive, with some of the destruction known to wipe out entire species. A 2021 study found that in the Amazon alone, over 10,000 plant and animal species are at risk of extinction from deforestation.

How Factory Farming Pollutes the Environment

Of course, deforestation is only part of the equation. The overwhelming majority of meat is produced on factory farms — many of which are on previously forested land — and factory farms are terrible for the environment in a whole host of ways as well.

Air Pollution

It’s estimated that somewhere between 11 and 19 percent of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock. This includes emissions that come directly from the animals, such as the methane in cow burps and nitrous oxide in pig and chicken manure, as well as land use, and smaller sources, like the emissions from food transport or other equipment and facilities farms use in their operations.

Water Pollution

Factory farms are also one of the primary sources of water pollution, because synthetic fertilizer, manure, pesticides and other farm byproducts often end up flowing into nearby waterways. This pollution can cause harmful algae blooms, which can poison animals and humans alike; in 2014, an algae bloom in Ohio resulted in 400,000 people losing their access to clean drinking water for three days.

Soil Degradation and Water Waste

The way we farm is also responsible for soil erosion, which makes it more difficult to effectively grow crops. According to United Nations researchers, soil erosion could cause a loss of 75 billion tons of soils by the year 2050. The meat and dairy industries also extracts a massive amount of water to raise farm animals — producing just one pound of beef requires 2,400 gallons of water, for instance.

Debunking Meat Industry Misinformation

Despite the meat industry’s deleterious effects on the planet, its public relations campaigns have been hard at work to ensure we keep eating far more than a sustainable diet recommends. Here are some of the industry’s favorite myths, and the facts:

Myth #1: You Need Meat to Be Healthy

Even though leading environmental organizations say meat reduction is necessary for a sustainable diet, the meat industry has worked hard to promote the myth that humans need to eat meat. But this simply isn’t true.

Study after study has shown that Americans actually eat far more protein than we need. If anything, most of us don’t get enough fiber from fruits and vegetables. What’s more, meat is not the only “complete protein,” nor is it the only way to get enough Vitamin B12 or the only way to get sufficient iron. Ultimately, no matter how you slice it, meat just isn’t a necessary part of a healthy diet.

Myth #2: Soy Is Bad

Others defend meat consumption by arguing that soy is also terrible for the environment. But that partial truth is misleading — while it’s true that soy farming is a significant driver of deforestation — more than three-quarters of all soy produced worldwide is used to feed farm animals in order to produce meat and dairy. And while soy certainly requires a lot of water to farm, it requires exponentially less than dairy or meat.

Myth #3: Veg-Forward Diets Are Expensive

A common refrain is that advocating for vegan and vegetarian diets is classist, because these diets are more expensive and less accessible than eating cheap meat. And there’s some truth to this; produce is the cornerstone of a healthy vegan diet, and in some lower income communities, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is severely limited. On top of that, preparing whole foods like legumes and vegetables can take more time and practice, which can feel daunting at the end of a grueling work day. Still, there is good news: on average, whole food vegan diets are around one-third cheaper than the average meat-based one, a 2023 Oxford study found, and there are many community-based efforts to make the choice to eat more plants a far more accessible option.

The Bottom Line

The world continues to experience record-breaking heat that is ravaging crops, animals and people. While many things are responsible for bringing us to this point, it’s impossible to ignore the outsized role meat production has played, and the massive climate action opportunity available to us just by eating a little less meat and a little more plants. 

Our current levels of meat consumption simply aren’t sustainable, and a significant reduction (along with many other changes in policy and clean energy) is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Humans as a species don’t need to eat meat to be healthy, but even if we do, we certainly don’t need to eat it at the rates we currently are. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to eat a more plant-rich diet, be it vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian or something in between.

Support Us

Independent Journalism Needs You

Donate » -opens in new tab. Donate via PayPal More options »