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What's the Beef? The Relationship Between Meat and the Environment

What's the Beef? The Relationship Between Meat and the Environment

How often do you consider the environmental impact of what you eat? If you're like most people, it's probably not too often; after all, you don't typically see how your food is grown or produced. It seems complicated to imagine that eating meat could be more environmentally costly than vegetables. But as you might expect, the reality isn't so simple—meat production uses an incredible amount of water, land, and energy. It produces tons of greenhouse gases and other pollutants in the process. Read on to learn more about the environmental impact of eating meat.

Increased Resource Consumption

Raising livestock takes a staggering amount of resources—feed, land, water, and energy. If you're concerned about resource consumption, cutting back on meat consumption is a logical way to start. How much water does it take to raise one pound of beef? A lot. To produce one pound of ground beef requires 1,799 gallons of water, and raising animals for food accounts for nearly 20% of all freshwater consumed in America today. Compare that to 250 gallons for broccoli and 35 gallons for potatoes. According to an NPR interview with Nicolette Hahn Niman, it takes 28 calories of fossil fuels and four calories of feed to produce one calorie worth of beef protein.

Greenhouse Gases

Not all greenhouse gases are created equal. Carbon dioxide and methane, for example, have a more considerable impact on global warming per ton than hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Even though HFCs are potent greenhouse gases, they only account for 0.05% of human-induced climate change. 

Animal agriculture is responsible for 2-5% of human-induced emissions, leading to an enormous amount of gas produced by animals raised for food yearly—roughly equivalent to that produced by 33 million cars. In an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) report, scientists estimated that livestock methane accounted for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That number may seem small, but methane has 86 times more heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide over 20 years. 

It's also important to consider where these emissions come from: while vehicles are required to meet emission standards in most industrialized countries, there are no such regulations for farm animals. Livestock producers also use much more land than needed for their feed production.


Animal agriculture is responsible for more deforestation than any other activity. Cattle are particularly voracious land devourers, accounting for 80 percent of all Amazon destruction. Cattle raised on deforested land must consume large amounts of hay, which often requires additional deforestation. Furthermore, deforestation drives climate change by releasing tons of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. Deforestation can also release stored carbon, leading to warmer climates and more forest destruction—the cycle never ends. 

Removing forests to make room for grazing land, or to grow crops to feed livestock, negatively impacts native species like orangutans. Orangutans rely on trees for survival and now face extinction. 

Since 1970 we've lost over 90 percent of our original rainforests; if we continue to consume meat at current rates, estimates say that by 2030 there will be no rainforest left in Malaysia.

Fertilizer Runoff

Runoff from fertilizer used to grow crops specifically for livestock production significantly contributes to eutrophication. Eutrophication occurs when algae overgrow, resulting in oxygen-depleted environments that can't support other organisms. These excess nutrients can cause harmful algal blooms, resulting in dangerous toxins like microcystin that get passed on to us through meat consumption. Dead zones are common side effects of eutrophication. In some places, dead zones are so large they cover thousands of square miles of the ocean floor. 

Want to learn more about climate change and meat?

To help educate and inform the public about this complex issue, MIT has created the Climate Portal, an online platform for up-to-date information about the causes and consequences of climate change - and how you can combat it.

Whether you are just beginning to understand the complexities of climate change or are curious to delve deeper, the MIT Climate Portal offers a space to investigate. It highlights the latest in MIT's climate change research and shows how students, faculty, and staff are working on climate change initiatives.

Eating less meat is an easy way to be more eco-friendly. You can try eating vegetarian or vegan once a week, and chances are you'll notice a difference in energy levels and how you feel. Plus, when delicious alternatives like Lekka Burger exist, there's no reason not to try a vegan meal today!