New Study Reveals the Carbon Footprint
of Meat-Eaters, Vegetarians & Vegans

August 4th, 2014

Climate Week NYC is less than two months away. And as governments, businesses and individuals will gather to focus on ways to find low carbon solutions, one answer is right on our plate. Quite simply: eat less meat.

According to a study from Oxford University, as reported by the Washington Post, the difference in environmental impact between a heavy meat eater (defined as someone who eats more than 3.5 ounces per day as many Americans do) versus a light meat eater is significant.

meat and your carbon footprint

Image Source: The Washington Post

And one of the leading factors impacting the environment is the industrialized meat industry. Slow Food neatly sums up the environmental impact of modern, commercial meat production in its just-released newsletter, Too Much At Steak. “The quantities of manure that the animals produce are so excessive that they become pollutants. The feed is produced by intensive cropping methods, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away, using environmentally damaging mineral fertilizers and pesticides. Industrial livestock production pollutes water, soil, air with excess nutrients from manure and fertilizers and is a large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”

That consumers aren’t more aware of the problem isn’t surprising, it’s a bit of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue for most of us. It’s hard to imagine the cost of livestock production on the environment unless you live near a commercial feedlot. But if the effects of meat production on the environment aren’t in plain sight, it has been appearing a lot in the nation’s headlines, as food advocates, researchers and entrepreneurs have all taken notice of the issue and are doing their part to drive awareness.

“Beef itself is the priciest livestock out there, if you’re looking at its environmental costs.” commented Flatow during “What’s The Real Cost of Your Steak.” “According to the USDA, there are 87.7–almost 88 million– head of cattle in the US. Feeding, raising, processing all those cows takes a huge amount of resources.” The fact is, there is one head of cattle for every three Americans, and keeping this system going requires a lot of area to grow feed. “In the US, 47% of the entire surface area is devoted to food production,” points out Gidon Eshel, Research Professor, Environmental Science and Physics, Bard College. “Foods that we consume directly like vegetables, fruits, nuts, takes just a few percent, 4-5% tops. All the rest, something like 42% of the entire surface area of the nation, is to feed livestock.”


Photo: Nico Piotto/Getty Images

Looking at the issue in terms of its total cost, according to Mark Bittman, is crucial to coming to solutions. “If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us,” he writes in “The True Cost of a Burger“, listing some of ‘costs’ as carbon generation, obesity, and risk associated with cardiovascular disease and mortality, “we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or—ideally—both.”