If you’re concerned about the environment, you may wonder whether to continue eating meat.

Food production has environmental impacts because it uses water and land. Therefore, eating foods that are made with fewer resources (and don’t significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions) is often said to be better for the planet.

Plant foods are generally considered more eco-friendly than meat and animal products, and vegan or vegetarian diets are often labeled as sustainable.

However, there are many points to consider when evaluating the environmental impact of meat. In fact, there may be ways to eat meat more sustainably — and eat less of it — without giving it up completely.

This article examines the nuances of meat’s environmental footprint, then discusses tips for eating meat on an eco-friendly diet.

a farmer in a field with cowsShare on Pinterest
Noelia Ramon/TellingLife/Getty Images

Raising animals for food requires large amounts of land and water. It also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through animal feed, manure, and methane that’s expelled via burping (1).

In fact, livestock are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. Furthermore, raising livestock industrially leads to deforestation, soil erosion, freshwater contamination, and air pollution (1, 2).

Beef is said to have a larger environmental impact than dairy, pork, fish, eggs, or chicken, but the footprint of these foods varies based on how they’re produced (3).

Whole, minimally processed plant foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and olive oil have among the lowest environmental impacts (3).

Still, it’s difficult to compare every type of animal and plant product. Some plant foods, such as certain nuts and highly processed items, have much larger environmental impacts than other plant-based options.

It’s also important to consider the scale of meat production — small farms versus feedlots — when assessing meat’s ecological impact, as there are many nuances in the debate about livestock’s role in climate change.

Spotlight on beef’s environmental impact

While the meat industry typically uses more resources and contributes more to climate change than plant foods, certain meat production methods are more sustainable than others.

Plus, although beef is widely viewed as worse for the environment than other meats, some analyses suggest otherwise.

For example, beef is produced more efficiently in the United States than in most other places in the world. Innovations like better breeding and feed additives help farmers use fewer cattle to feed more people and decrease environmental impacts (4, 5).

Adjusting dairy cows’ diet to include a specific type of seaweed has been shown to improve digestion and reduce methane emissions by up to 60%. In beef cattle, the reduction in methane emissions from seaweed supplements may be up to 80% (6, 7).

Current research suggests that U.S. beef production contributes to 3.7% of national greenhouse gas emissions and under 0.5% of global emissions. The entire agriculture industry comprises 10% of U.S. emissions, while the transportation industry makes up 29% (8, 9, 10).

Proper management of cattle may have environmental benefits

Although beef cattle production emits more greenhouse gases than poultry, pork, or dairy, most U.S. cattle are raised on land that’s unfit for growing veggies and other plant foods. Using this land to raise meat may be considered an efficient way to feed people (9).

Additionally, beef and other meats have health benefits. Meat is very rich in protein and contains essential micronutrients.

Many communities in the United States and across the world rely on livestock for both nutrition and jobs.

Plus, some people may not have access to nutritionally sufficient plant-based diets, meaning that a lower meat intake may harm their nutrition and livelihoods. Eating meat may also be an integral part of their culture or traditions.

Finally, well-managed cattle can help keep soil and land healthy. Proper grazing techniques may make land more resilient to floods and keep carbon in the soil instead of emitted into the atmosphere.

These techniques involve grazing cows on long grasses while preventing them from overgrazing or degrading soil with their hooves. As a result, the grasses maintain healthy, long roots that can handle water and sequester carbon in the ground (11).

Grazing cows may also help prevent wildfires by decreasing the grass available to catch fire (12).

Spotlight on CAFOs

All food production has some degree of environmental impact, which largely depends on the production method.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) — known as feedlots in the beef industry — have many negative environmental effects (13).

Animals in CAFOs are kept in close quarters and not allowed to graze. Not only does their manure contaminate the surrounding land, water, and air, but the crowded conditions are also a breeding ground for disease and infection that can spread to humans (14).

Grass-fed, grass-finished, and pasture-raised meat and animal products are generally considered more eco-friendly than meat raised in CAFOs and feedlots.

Farmers who produce these types of meat aim to restore ecosystems and reduce environmental impacts on soil and water. For example, they manage manure better than CAFOs and may use grazing techniques that promote healthy, flood-resilient land.

Still, some claim that grass-fed and -finished meat may contribute more greenhouse gas emissions than other types.

Grass-fed cows have a longer life than feedlot cows, thus releasing more methane via belching over their lifespan. In addition, if more people choose to eat grass-fed beef, the number of cattle and amount of land needed to produce this meat may increase (15, 16).

That said, some studies note that the increased emissions are offset by the carbon that grazing cows sequester in the soil (17).

Summary

The environmental impact of meat is generally greater than that of plant foods. Meat production uses large amounts of land and resources, but some techniques related to raising animals may help maintain healthy ecosystems.

Analyzing the environmental impact of meat is complicated.

While some environmental advocates suggest that you should completely avoid meat and animal products to combat climate change, many other considerations support keeping animal products in eco-friendly diets.

In general, eating more whole, minimally processed plant foods is a step in the right direction. These foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Limiting overall meat intake and choosing sustainably raised animal products is also helpful.

Here are some tips for incorporating meat as part of an eco-friendly diet.

Choose meats that are grass-fed or pasture-raised

Check the label before purchasing meats, limiting or avoiding products that have been raised in a CAFO or feedlot.

If the label doesn’t specify grass-fed or pasture-raised, it’s likely from a CAFOs.

If you’re able to talk to the farmer directly, such as at a farmers market, you can inquire about the sustainability techniques he or she uses.

Although grass-fed or pasture-raised cows may have higher lifetime methane emissions than conventionally raised cattle, the overall impacts upon the local ecosystem are much lower — and potentially even positive.

Invest in a meat share

Local farms may offer meat shares that let you purchase a package of sustainably raised meat that you pick up each week, month, or quarter.

Reduce your portions of meat

Incorporating meat in small amounts, such as in a side dish or as a garnish, may help you cut back on your overall intake.

Experiment with making meals that primarily comprise plant foods but feature small amounts of meat, such as salads with beans as the main protein source plus a few slices of chicken or stir-fries with plenty of veggies and grains and a small amount of beef.

Set a realistic goal for reducing your meat intake

Don’t force yourself to cut out meat all at once. Instead, try the following suggestions to eat less meat without eliminating it from your diet:

  • Try Meatless Monday — an international movement that encourages people to go meat-free on Mondays to decrease their meat intake.
  • Eat meat only at dinner.
  • Prepare fully plant-based lunches.

Pick an option that works for you and go from there.

Spread out one serving of meat over several recipes

You can add small amounts of meat to countless recipes without it taking center stage.

For instance, 1 pound (454 grams) of ground beef can be spread across burgers, tacos, and soups.

You can make burger patties with beans, a whole grain, and a small amount of beef, then alter your favorite taco recipe to use half mushrooms and half beef. Finally, cook the rest of the beef in a bean-based chili.

Focus on adding new plant foods to your diet rather than restricting meat

If you’re struggling to reduce your meat intake — perhaps due to convenience or habit — focus on new foods you can try instead.

Browse food blogs and cookbooks for plant-forward recipes and make it a goal to try a new dish each week. For example, if you’ve never tried lentils, experiment with dal or lentil-heavy grain bowls. Lentils can also be used to make meat-free “meatloaf” or stuffed bell peppers.

Summary

Choosing grass-fed and pasture-raised meats, limiting your meat intake, stretching a single serving of meat over several dishes, and making plant foods the center of your meals allow you to support the environment without eliminating meat from your diet.

Like all foods, meat takes resources to produce. While it generally has a higher environmental footprint than plant foods, the full picture is more nuanced.

Animals raised in CAFOs affect soil, water, air, surrounding communities, and global warming far more than pasture-raised and grass-fed animals. Growing plant foods, on the other hand, is generally considered more eco-friendly.

If you’re interested in following an eco-friendly diet, try moderating your meat intake and eating more whole, minimally processed plant foods. When you eat meat, try to choose pasture-raised, grass-fed, or sustainably raised options.