Ever wondered the exact resources you're saving by adopting a more plant-based diet? Here are the top six ways that conventionally raised meat affects our environment in comparison to plant-based proteins. Prepare for a jaw drop.
Agriculture covers 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, and more than half of that is dedicated to livestock grazing. Of the remaining cropland, an astonishing 33 percent is used to grow foods that feed livestock—not humans! Thirty-two billion acres of habitat are converted to pasture and cropland every year to accommodate these huge numbers; 2 acres per person. Comparatively, plant-based diets require less than half an acre annually.
Agriculture accounts for 87 percent of the water consumed annually in the United States, with meat production using a large portion of this number. It takes nearly 400 gallons of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef, making its water footprint 20 times larger than that of plant-based foods like starches. Pork and chicken may have smaller footprints, but they're still larger than most plant-based foods. (On average, producing 1 kilogram of vegetables requires 82 liters of water.) As droughts plague regions across the world and climate change destabilizes precipitation patterns, the extreme water usage involved in producing meat shouldn't be overlooked.
Phosphorus is a big component of many chemical fertilizers, and it's also prevalent in manure (which livestock produce a lot of!). In fact, one dairy farm produces the same amount of sewage as a small city. When surplus phosphorous runs off agricultural lands, it can cause algal blooms and "dead zones" that are harmful to marine ecosystems. Reducing your meat intake will not necessarily reduce nutrient pollution from fertilizers since these are used on conventionally grown plants, too, but it will decrease the amount of phosphorus-rich manure entering waterways.
As it stands, our modern food system is extremely fossil-fuel intensive. And factory farming is especially dirty in this regard. Meat production uses eight times as many fossil fuels as plant-based agriculture. Livestock is responsible for a shocking 18 percent of our total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Most of the grains we grow are actually used to feed livestock, not humans. Yep that's right: Livestock in the United States eat five times as much grain as American people. If that grain were given back to humans, it would feed 800 million people each year. The imbalance in the grain-to-meat ratio occurs because the amount of grain required to feed livestock does not equal the amount of food that livestock produces. It takes 14 kilograms of corn to produce 1 kilogram of beef, 6 kilograms to produce 1 kilogram of pork, and 3 kilograms to produce 1 kilogram of chicken.
If the average American stopped eating meat, he or she could save almost 2,000 pounds of grain annually. Plus, when you consider the water needed to grow the grain, replacing just one meat-heavy meal with a plant-based one would save 3,000 gallons of water alone.
6. Farm animals.
Over 70 billion land animals and trillions of marine animals are killed each year for human consumption. In the developed world, most of this meat production happens on factory farms, where animals are crammed into feedlots or cages and stuffed with hormones and antibiotics before they are slaughtered. How's this for a disturbing statistic? In France, 83 percent of chickens that are raised to be eaten never see sunlight. Plant-based meal plans will save animal lives. To be exact, eating less meat can save over 200 lives each year according to the Vegetarian Calculator.
I hope that these statistics show you that you don't need to buy an expensive hybrid car or energy-efficient appliances to make the planet a little healthier. Consider the environmental impact of your meat and you'll be one step closer to green living.