Thursday, April 18, 2024

Environmental Impacts of Meat and Dairy Production

Agriculture uses 40% of the earth’s land area (excluding Antartica)  –  larger than Europe and Asia combined. 75% of agricultural land is used for meat and dairy production that produces only 18% of our food.

World Hunger:

Hunger is usually not caused by a global shortage of food production.  Although a billion people are hungry, we harvest 4,600 calories per day per person but only 2,000 per person are consumed.

  • Globally a third of all grains (800 million tons) are fed to animals (67% in Ireland), enough to feed 3.5 billion people.
  • In 2011 nearly a third of the U.S. grain harvest (127 million tons) was converted to fuel, enough to feed 635 million people.
  • In 2012, 70 billion animals were killed for meat (projected to double by 2050).
  • It takes 16 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of beef.
  • We waste at least 30% of the food produced.

Globally, we could increase the food available by 50% by switching to a plant based diet.

Land Use Changes and Deforestation:

Agriculture is the largest driver of species loss and habitat destruction.  Increasing meat consumption requires more land, often obtained by deforestation or land acquisitions.

  • Agricultural expansion causes 80% of deforestation worldwide.
  • In Ethiopia, an acre of land can be leased for $1 per year.
  • 464 land acquisitions in 2010 totalled 140 million acres.

Water Use:

Globally we are using 50% of freshwater resources and undermining river ecosystem health and biodiversity. Up to 85% of the fresh water used is for agriculture and food processing.  More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are depleted.


Beef consumes 60 times more water than grain per Kcal produced.  It takes a thousand litres of water to produce one litre of milk.  A vegetarian diet reduces our food water footprint by 36%.

Climate Change:

Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use Changes (AFOLU) are responsible for 25% of green house gas emissions.  (32% in Ireland.)  A very important report from the World Watch Institute outlines how animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

A significant reduction in livestock numbers would reduce GHGs quickly and at a fraction of the cost of changing the energy and transport sectors.

Future Prospects:

Seven solutions, pursued together can end global hunger, feed nine billion, and drastically reduce agriculture’s damage to the environment:

  • reduce per capita meat and dairy consumption;
  • reduce food waste by producers and consumers;
  • transition from an industrial agriculture approach to locally owned family farms;
  • stop agriculture from consuming more forests;
  • stop converting food to fuel (eliminate subsidies);
  • boost the productivity of low-yield farms (e.g. parts of Africa and Eastern Europe);
  • raise the efficiency of water and fertilizer use worldwide.

Switching to a whole food plant based diet grown on small scale family run agro-ecological farms has the potential to return millions of acres of pasture to wild habitat, to reverse rainforest destruction, to restore the health and volume of our rivers and lakes, to prevent further species extinctions, to eliminate billions of tons of pollutants, and to make a major contribution to stabilising and reversing climate change while strengthening family farms.  Allowing pasture land to regenerate as forest could potentially mitigate as much as half of all anthropogenic GHGs.  Gradually, as we become informed of the ethical, environmental, and health issues in food production we are moving towards a plant based diet.

Useful Links:

Jonathan Foley’s TED talk on Global Agriculture entitled The Other Inconvenient Truth:

Tristram Stuart’s TED talk on the Global Food Waste Scandal:

Dr Richard Opplander on the environmental impacts of meat, dairy, and fish production:


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