The world is eating too much meat, but some countries are undeniably ahead of others. The average American, for example, consumes around 274 pounds of meat per year. Cutting back on this amount can make a significant impact on the planet, there’s no doubt. But when it comes to a more sustainable diet, is simply reducing meat consumption enough? Here’s why it’s worth considering cutting out meat completely—but also why a true planet-friendly diet isn’t just about what you eat, it’s about how you eat.
The impact of reducing meat on the planet
Over the course of one year, one cow will belch around 220 pounds of methane into the atmosphere. The greenhouse gas, which is formed in the digestive systems of ruminant animals, is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating up the atmosphere.
In America alone, there are more than 29 million cows farmed for beef alone. You do the math, but that’s a heck of a lot of methane.
According to the United Nations, animal agriculture is associated with 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not just methane, but also carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, too.
Farming animals for food is also a leading driver of deforestation—in the last six years, more than 800 million trees in the Amazon were felled to make room for beef farming. And it is a major contributor to water pollution, air pollution, and ocean dead zones, too. In 2017, one report linked toxins that flow into the water from major meat producers like Tyson Foods to fueling the worst dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cutting back on meat consumption, particularly in the West, can make a big difference to this impact. For example, in 2022, one study suggested that replacing one-fifth of the world’s beef proteins with mushroom meat could cut deforestation in half by 2050. “The good news is that people do not need to be afraid they can eat only greens in the future,” lead researcher Florian Humpenöder said at the time. “They can continue eating burgers and the like, it’s just that those burger patties will be produced in a different way.”
Another study in 2022, conducted at the University of Bonn in Germany, noted that for the planet to survive, wealthy nations must cut their meat consumption by at least 75 percent. “If all humans consumed as much meat as Europeans or North Americans, we would certainly miss the international climate targets and many ecosystems would collapse,” study author Matin Qaim, a professor at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn, said in a statement. “We therefore need to significantly reduce our meat consumption, ideally to 20 kilograms or less annually.”
To make a bigger difference: go vegan for the planet
Reducing meat is an important step towards a more planet-friendly diet, and it’s becoming more popular than ever. In April 2022, research from Beneo GmbH evaluated more than 12,000 consumers across 10 countries and found that around one in four identify as flexitarian.
Flexitarians—who eat predominantly plant-based, but still consume animal products now and then—have been vital for the growth of the plant-based food market, which, by 2030, is predicted to rise to a market value of more than $162 billion.
But it’s important to note that a growing body of research suggests that going totally vegan is the best dietary choice a person can make for the planet.
In spring 2023, research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that a vegan diet is more beneficial for the environment than a Mediterranean diet, which, with its emphasis on plant-based foods and small amounts of meat and dairy, falls in line with a flexitarian style of eating.
“This result clearly supports the concept that meat and dairy consumption plays a critical role, above all, in terms of damage to human health and ecosystems,” the researchers said in the study.
“Diet has an impact on both health and the ecosystem. In our work, we have compared two sustainable diets with very similar nutrient compositions but with substantial differences in their total environmental impacts,” they continued. “The replacement of a small calorie quota (10.6 percent) represented by animal foods with plant foods showed significant improvement in the total environmental impact, especially for ecosystems and human health.”
In 2018, the most comprehensive analysis on food production, conducted at the University of Oxford, came to a similar conclusion, noting that a vegan diet was the “single biggest way” a person could reduce their impact on the planet. “Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” said lead researcher Joseph Poore at the time. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
To go even further, cut down on food waste and shop local
A planet-friendly diet isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about how the food is sourced, and how it’s disposed of afterward.
It’s not always possible to buy fresh, locally sourced fruits and vegetables, but if you can, this will also help to reduce your impact on the planet even further—especially if you buy what’s in season. This means that the food has had to travel far less distance, reducing transportation emissions and the amount of energy needed to store and chill produce.
It’s also important to pay attention to the amount of food waste we produce. According to Our World In Data, food waste is responsible for six percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, around one-quarter of the calories the food system produces end up being spilled, spoiled, or otherwise wasted by retailers, restaurants, and consumers.
But there are ways to cut down on the amount of food we throw away. Only buying what we need, cooking smaller portions, saving leftovers, and composting are just a few ways to make sure food products—and all the resources and energy it took to produce them—aren’t completely wasted. For even more tips on how to cut down on food waste, find low-waste vegan chef Max La Manna’s advice here.