The Environmental Impacts of Meat-Eating

Climate change—which is thought to be anthropogenic (human-caused) by the vast majority of climate scientists—is projected to have serious impacts on the environment that we depend on, and thus, on our health. For example, it is projected that climate change will increase the frequency of major storms like Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy; cause sea level rise, and thus serious suffering, in many areas including very rich (New York City) and very poor (Bangladesh) areas; cause water scarcity (this is particularly relevant to Colorado); and increase the prevalence of many diseases and disorders, including malaria, diarrhea, and asthma. An incredibly important question that we now face is, what, if anything, can we do to slow the effects of climate change?

On my most optimistic days, I tend to think that there are things that we can do to slow the effects of climate change (on pessimistic days, I tend to think we’re in serious trouble no matter what). I do my best to take up some of these actions: for example, I try to compost and recycle what I can; this semester, I didn’t buy a parking permit to coerce myself into biking to campus more often; for recent home renovations, I tried my best to buy environmentally friendly items like energy star appliances and recycled materials. While I think that these actions are beneficial if repeated on a large-scale, there’s one action that, if we’re serious about slowing the effects of climate change, we ought to do: reduce our consumption of, or cease all together, eating meat.

I know how bad that sounds. For most Americans, including me, eating meat is a deeply engrained piece of our culture. Even if one is convinced that meat-eating is, in most cases, wrong (and I’m thoroughly convinced that it is), ceasing something so central to our culture is difficult. But we ought not let what is difficult stand on the way of what is right. After all, no one would be convinced that, since ending institutional slavery in the US in the 19th century was difficult, we might as well not have bothered. Instead, we ought to try, as much as we can, to do what is right, independent of how hard it is. That being clear, now comes the difficult part: arguing convincingly that eating meat is wrong.

There are very convincing reasons to believe that eating meat is wrong, especially in the fashion that we produce it, because it causes extreme suffering. My goal is not to make this argument here; rather, I hope to argue that it is wrong because the negative environmental impacts of producing meat are great. Consider some facts about the way that we produce food:

(1) It is estimated that one pound of beef uses between 2500 and 5000 gallons of water; a pound of chicken requires 815 gallons of water. If you know anything about water issues, especially in the western US, you see how much of an issue this is. By contrast a pound of rice requires 400 gallons of water, a pound of potatoes requires 30 gallons and a pound of lettuce requires 15 gallons.

(2) It is estimated that one pound of beef requires almost a quarter of a gallon of oil. A full sized cow requires almost 300 gallons.

(3) The emissions produced by an 8 oz. steak are equivalent to the emissions produced by driving 14 miles.

(4) Since most of the cows that we eat are fed an unnatural diet of corn and grains (rather than grass), they tend to be very gassy (that’s right—they fart a lot). The methane released from cows is thought to be a significant contributor to climate change.

(5) The waste from concentrated animal feeding operations produces some nasty waste, which includes antibiotics, hormones, chemicals, and ammonia and heavy metals. This waste is known to pollute waterways and drinking water.

These facts lend a lot of support to the following claim: Meat production is detrimental to the environment, is a contributor to climate change, and thus, is detrimental to human health. Since it is plausible that we ought not support what is detrimental to human health, if follows that we ought not eat meat (or, at least we ought to greatly reduce our consumption).

What do you think of this argument? Are you convinced of the conclusion? If not, then it must be that, either some claims are false or the argument form is bad. Which is it? Feel free to share by emailing me at


1 Comment

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One response to “The Environmental Impacts of Meat-Eating

  1. Climate change is a worry, and the problem is, those with expertise have no power, and those with power have no expertise.
    Greed will always blind, and governments are easily swayed by blind power.
    Governments are voted in by the people to govern “for” the people, not “for” big business.
    This cartoon refers;

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