Can a Meat-Free Diet save our Planet?


Growth of meat consumption contributes to global warming, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity and species extinction. Denise Minichini uncovers how a meat-free diet can help protect our environment.

Edited by Nina Nagel

The average British person eats 84.2 kilograms of meat in a year. Since the 1960s the world’s population has doubled, but the meat production has quadrupled. These numbers are constantly growing, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nation predicts that by 2050 the global meat production will have almost doubled, as the Western taste for beef, poultry, eggs dairy products continues to increase.

Resource depletion

Raising animals for food uses 45% of Earth’s total land and is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. The Amazon Rainforest has been described as the “Lungs of our Planet” because it provides the environment the service of constantly recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen, producing more than 20% of the total world’s oxygen. Caroline Norman, a member of the Vegetarian Society, explains that one of the main reasons she turned vegetarian is the impact that meat production has on the environment:

Huge amounts of rainforests have been cut down to provide grazing land for livestock.

Moreover, animal agribusiness uses much of the fresh water available globally for consumption. Nowadays 1.2 billion people, almost one-fifth of the world’s population, lack access to clean drinking water. “Livestock need a tremendous amount of water. We are all taking showers instead of baths to try to save the environment, yet the amount of water used to produce one burger is colossal,” adds Caroline Norman. It takes 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of meat, while it only takes 180 litres to produce the same amount of tomatoes. It is estimated that you would save more water by not eating 1 kg of meat than you would by not taking a shower for 6 months.

Rain Forest

Climate change

A recent research, led by Oxford Martin School, shows that widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet would cut carbon dioxide emission by 63% by 2050. Whenever the causes of climate change are discussed, fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions are usually at the top of the list. Three are the primary gasses responsible for global warming: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. It is proven that if one person exchanges eating meat for a vegan diet, they will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1.5 tons per year.

“There is probably no single better thing that an individual can do for the environment than to actually completely cut out meat and dairy from your diet” states JR Ryan, vegan member of the Green Party. Cows can produce more than 560 litres of methane per day and this gas is 20 times more powerful at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Moreover, livestock is responsible for 65% of worldwide nitrous oxide emissions, according to a study led by the Food and Agriculture Organisation.


Global hunger

Of the planet’s nearly 7 billion humans, roughly 1 billion people are malnourished and 6 million children starve to death every year. That is more than 16,000 children every day, 650 every hour, or ten every minute. Studies indicate that a varied vegan diet requires about a third of the land needed for conventional Western diets, so when land availability is one of the main issues for the world’s hunger, it is necessary to take action. It is estimated that 3.5 billion humans could live off the food currently fed to livestock. Caroline Norman complains:

It seems that 10 poor people are starving so one rich man can eat a burger.

“Vegetarianism could save lives in many countries where people are malnourished or starving as the land and water currently used for livestock could be used for land to grow crops to feed these people” she then adds passionately. The connection between world hunger and our food choices may not seem readily apparent, however animal-based food production systems are directly responsible for many factors affecting hunger, starvation and even poverty.

Health issues

According to Dr Marco Springmann, lead author of the Oxford Martin School study, the widespread adoption of a meat-free diet could avoid globally between 7 and 8 million premature deaths by 2050 and also reduce global healthcare costs by $1 billion a year. Diets low in fruits and vegetables and high in red processed meat, are in fact responsible for the greatest health burden. “There are a lot of statistics about the benefits of being vegetarian, whether or not it saves lives, if it improves your energy levels it will improve your quality of life” explains cheerfully Loretta Allen, member of the Vegetarian Society. The World Health Organisation has determined that dietary factors account for at least 30% of all cancers in Western countries. One of the most noticeable findings of the research is that people that avoid meat consumption are much less likely to develop the disease. Studies in England and Germany show that vegetarians are 40% less likely to develop cancer compared to meat eaters. Caroline Norman remarks:

I think that a vegan or vegetarian diet can definitely save lives. It can result in less heart disease, less obesity, therefore less age related diabetes and less cancers as meat has been proven to be carcinogenic.

In an era in which environmental issues are constantly in the limelight, and governments and policy-makers are taking action to fight global warming, widespread pollution and deforestation, it is critical to act. A question must be raised: what can we do to save our planet? Whether or not we should adopt a free-meat diet, it is up to the single individual, and it is a choice that everyone is free to make according to his or her beliefs and opinions. However, since it is shown in numerous studies that meat consumption is damaging for the environment and for people’s health, it is necessary to at least raise awareness on the topic. It is impossible to prove if veganism would actually save the planet, but one thing is for sure, it would certainly help in the process. Now is up to you: go and get a burger or go vegetarian.