There are many different reasons why people decide to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet ranging from religion, cruelty to animals, “health,” environmental factors and more. The idea behind Sustainable Health is to take a good hard looking at our behaviours, and consider the impacts they have on our health, the healh of our local community, and the health of the planet.. Therefore, we must explore the sustainability of eating meat.

There is no argument that large scale factory farming is terrible for the environment and bad for the animals. In no way do we support this style of agriculture. We all have a choice to make when purchasing animal products. When we choose local pasture-raised animal products, we are voting against the large factory farming organisations. As individuals, we have the power to support the companies and people doing the right things.

Protein provides us with the building blocks of life—helping us build lean muscle, connective tissue, hair, blood, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and more. We must be eating enough of this essential macronutrient if we want to feel strong, energised, and healthy.

As we age, dietary protein intake impacts our lean muscle mass, strength, and is correlated to all causes of mortality, including many chronic diseases [17] like cardiovascular disease and stroke, hypertension, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Many of these diseases reduce our ability to maintain lean muscle and increase the rates of protein degradation, creating an even higher demand for protein. This is one of the reasons why it’s essential to eat more protein as we age. If you want to learn more about the benefits of animal-protein versus plant-based sources, I recommend Dr Mark Hyman’s Podcast with Dr Gabrielle Lyon.

Lets get back on the topic of eating meat and the environmental impacts.

What about the environmental impacts of livestock?

One of the primary reasons many people go vegetarian/vegan is their concern about environmental impact. Unless you’ve been living under a cabbage leaf, we have all heard claims about red meat being harmful to the environment due to the carbon footprint, water consumption, erosion and desertification. Just this week thew UN released a report saying we should eat less meat. But is this the case?

What is the actual carbon-footprint of livestock?

Back in 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Association published that livestock produces more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation combined or 18% of all greenhouse gases [1]. This statistic has since been cited frequently in the media as a way to stop us from eating red meat. It turns out that the research was quite biased in its calculations, resulting in some very bad calculations. One of the researchers admitted [7] that the study was not a fair comparison. A more accurate analysis of the data resulted in livestock contributes less than 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions [2].

The research didn’t stop there, as new research has discovered that grazing cattle can help remove carbon from the atmosphere [3]. Another separate study showed that grasslands are capable of sequestering more carbon than any other ecosystem, and livestock can enhance the sequestering of carbon into the plants and soil. Additional research has shown grazing cattle can reduce the land’s natural emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that environmentalists agree is more damaging than carbon dioxide [4]. The media hype around this is far less attention-grabbing and hence it's not common knowledge.

What if grass raised livestock could significantly enhance carbon sequestration to levels more significant than their greenhouse gas emissions? Under certain circumstances, livestock is carbon negative [5].

What about livestock “water footprint”?

The next most common environmental argument against livestock is water consumption. The media has told us that livestock use significant amounts of water, which is terrible for the environment. Some studies have shown water usage figures anywhere between 209 L/kg of meat to 105,400 L/kg of meat [8]. Why the significant difference?

One main reason is the geographical location. When comparing feedlots in the US to pasture-raised livestock in Australia, the results are very different. Another common factor is how the researchers interpret “water use.” Feedlot animals are the most water-intense, as they are typically fed on grains and soy and the water to grow the crops is correctly added to the calculation. However, water can come from natural rainfall or for irrigation methods, and many studies do not distinguish the difference. Why does this matter? Some researchers consider 100% of the rain on the field is used solely by the livestock, which makes no sense at all due to runoff, evaporation, and absorption into the soil. There are also farms that do no use any form of irrigation and the livestock survive soles on the water from rainfall.

An Australian study published in 2010 measured the water usage of three different production systems in southern Australia over two years. They classified ‘water use’ as water that was “removed from the course it would take in the absence of production or degraded in quality by the production system.” Things like rainfall and evaporation weren’t counted towards the total ‘water footprint’ of livestock unless the water quality was somehow reduced when it reentered the water cycle. This approach gives a more accurate picture of the impact livestock production has on water resources.

The results of this study indicate that the water used to produce red meat in southern Australia is 18–540 L/kg. The range depends on the system, reference year, and whether we focus on source or discharge characteristics. Compared with the earlier studies that suggested 15,000L/kg on average. Another US study using similar measures concluded that livestock consumed 3,682 L/kg, which is significantly higher than the Australian study. However, the US typically uses more irrigation and feeds more of its livestock on crops.

When we start to compare water use for livestock against the water and oil used for food waste around the world we have to start to questions why livestock get such a bad wrap? Some researchers attribute 25% of total freshwater use, and about 300 million barrels of oil use, per year for food waste alone [14].

What about erosion and desertification?

Another media misconception is that livestock cause erosion and desertification, which is far from the truth. Allan Savory’s TED talk on the subject it’s well worth a listen.

Savory argues that despite the popular belief that livestock cause desertification, livestock can help to reverse desertification when their grazing patterns are managed correctly. Savory says livestock may be our best hope for restoring land that is currently unusable. Savory grew up in Africa, and he has spent several years testing different grazing methods and achieved some impressive results. In his TED talk, Savory shows pictures of land that has been completely restored using intensive grazing methods.

A 2011 study supports Savory’s ideas that a specific grazing pattern increased the water content of the soil [9]. Other studies show neutral impacts and further studies that suggest the opposite. It's hard to argue for or against, but it has been shown that livestock is not always harmful to the land and in some cases they can be beneficial. If farmers are using sustainable methods to take care of their land, and their livestock, there should be no concern about erosion and desertification.

Grass-fed meat vs. Grain-fed meat?

Some people believe that grain-fed animals are better for the environment because they take less time to mature. The argument is that grass-fed animal consumes more resources and produce more methane over their lifespan [10].

As we now know, cattle on grassland can be carbon negative, while cattle in feedlots are not. Grass-fed livestock is significantly more water-efficient. There is the argument that feedlot cattle produce environmental hazards with pollution from their manure, antibiotics, and pesticides. Studies that looked at the bigger picture concluded: "pastured cattle are much more environmentally friendly than their feedlot counterparts” [11,12,13].

This comes back to the initial point we made at the beginning of this post about choosing your animal products wisely. It’s safe to say that animals raised on natural pasture, are not nearly as harmful to the environment as they are made out to be by the media and conventional wisdom. Red meat may not be the most environmentally friendly food on the planet, but it’s certainly not the worst when you consider the large scale production, packaging and transportation of processed foods which are also significantly worse for our health than meat (a topic for another time perhaps).

Before you change your diet up to save the world, you might also like to look into the impacts of landfills [15], wetlands and rice paddies [16], or the global transportation of foods - should we be eating avocado on toast all year round? Maybe we should start purchasing only locally grown foods, limiting food waste, and removing packaged and processed foods from out diet before becoming a vegetarian/vegan environmentalist? Maybe we should use public transport, invest in renewable energy, no go on as many holidays what require flying.

There are many elements to the environmental crisis we are currently facing and pointing the finger at meat being the main concern is not supported by science. We have the technology to build electric cars, replace coal with renewable energy and to stop transporting product on a global scale, and yet we are still digging for oil and eating avocado on toast all year round.

  1. Cow 'emissions' more damaging to planet than CO2 from cars, The Independent, Geoffrey Lean, 2006

  2. Chapter 1 - Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contribution to Climate Change, Maurice E.Pitesky, et al, 2009

  3. Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States, Nathan Pelletier, et al 2010

  4. Livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions: impacts and options for policy makers, Tara Garnett, 2009

  5. Grazing-induced reduction of natural nitrous oxide release from continental steppe, Benjamin Wolf, et al, 2010

  6. Cattle “Emissions”, Pete B, 2012

  7. Sear UN body to look at meat and climate link, BBC News, Richard Black, 2010

  8. Accounting for water use in Australian red meat production. Greg M. Peters, et al, 2010

  9. Effect of grazing on soil-water content in semiarid rangelands of southeast Idaho, K.T.Weber, et al, 2010

  10. Environmental consequences of different beef production systems in the EU, Thu Lan T.Nguyen, et al, 2009

  11. Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States, Nathan Pelletie, et al, 2010

  12. Global environmental costs of beef production, Susan Subak, 1999

  13. Ecology and vegetarian considerations: does environmental responsibility demand the elimination of livestock?, J D Gussow, 1994

  14. The Progressive Increase of Food Waste in America and Its Environmental Impact, Kevin D. Hall, et al, 2009

  15. The influence of atmospheric pressure on landfill methane emissions, P.M Czepiel, et al, 2003

  16. Methane emissions from rice paddies natural wetlands, lakes in China: synthesis new estimate, Huai Chen, et al, 2012

  17. Role of Dietary Protein and Muscular Fitness on Longevity and Aging, Barbara Strasser, et al, 2017