Environmental Research About Meatless Monday

Research shows that livestock production contributes more greenhouse emissions and consumes more resources than most plant-based foods.

Food choices have a direct impact on the health of the planet. And while it’s true that all foods need resources to produce, research shows that meat and dairy have the greatest impacts on the environment. Raising animals to feed billions of people requires huge inputs of land, feed, water, and energy for processing, storage, and transport.

The livestock sector, especially beef and lamb production, produces greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and contribute to species decline and the depletion of natural resources like land and water. Shifting diets away from high meat consumption can help reduce these environmental impacts. Meatless Monday is an important first step to encourage consumers to adopt a more sustainable diet.1

Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Nearly 15 percent of global greenhouse gases emissions come from the production of meat, dairy and eggs. Livestock production produces more greenhouse gases than the world’s entire transportation sector — cars, trucks, planes trains — combined.2 The majority of those emissions come from cattle in the beef and dairy sector. The emissions associated with producing one quarter pound of beef is about the equivalent of driving a car seven miles or charging a smartphone for six months.3, 4 Shifting towards plant-based diets would help reduce emissions associated with meat production. For example, a plant-based burger has a carbon footprint twelve times smaller than a beef burger.5

Water

It takes a lot of water to produce meat, especially beef, which has the highest water footprint of all foods. The water footprint of any animal-based food is larger than the water footprint of many plant-based foods with similar nutritional values. Taking into account all stages of production, one kilogram of beef requires nearly 40 times more water compared to the same amount of vegetables.6 A hamburger made with one quarter pound of beef requires 425 gallons of water to produce.7 The water use primarily comes from growing feed crops, raising the animals, and waste treatment. Eating a more plant-based diet could decrease agricultural water use by 50 percent.8

Land Use

Raising animals for meat, dairy, and egg production requires a significant amount of land, leading to deforestation and the loss of other carbon sequestering natural lands. Livestock production uses 75 percent of the earth’s agricultural land, primarily for beef and dairy cattle grazing and growing crops for animal feed.9 Rain forests and other natural lands are also cleared for cattle grazing and feed crop production, which further intensifies the carbon impact of animal production. The meat industry is the most significant driver of land-use change. Approximately 13 billion hectares (50 million square miles) of forest area are cleared for agricultural purposes each year. Shifting to a more plant-based diet could decrease agricultural land use by 80 percent.10

Biodiversity and Species Loss

Livestock production is the biggest human contributor to species decline and has led to over 60 percent decline in species populations since 1970.11 Agricultural activities cause eutrophication, a process whereby excessive algal growth depletes the aquatic oxygen supply, creating what are referred to as “dead zones.” Eutrophication is the leading cause of habitat loss globally. Wide-scale dietary shifts from heavy meat consumption to plant-based diets, would provide benefits for soil health and biodiversity.12

Meatless Monday’s scientific advisor, The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University provides resources to demonstrate the relationship between food choices and climate change. Additional research reports on the connection between the environment, climate change and food are available from the EAT-Lancet Commission, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Nature and Climate Policy.

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For more tips and resources to join the Meatless Monday movement, visit  the Meatless Monday Resources page.

For more information about using a Monday cue to support healthy behavior, visit The Monday Campaigns Research page .


[1] Ramsing, R., Horrigan, L., Berg, P., Fuentes, L. 2019. Meat, Menus and Meatless Monday. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-02/meat_menus_and_meatless_monday.pdf

[2] Gerber PJ, Steinfeld H, Henderson B, et al. Tackling Climate Change through Livestock – A Global Assessment of Emissions and Mitigation Opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; 2013.

[3] Pelletier, N., Pirog, R., Rasmussen, R. (2010) Comparative life cycle environmental impacts of three beef production strategies in the Upper Midwestern United States. Energy Use Agricultural Systems; Volume 103, Issue 6, July 2010, Pages 380-389.

[4] Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

[5] Top Reasons to Cut Down on Meat and Add More Plant Foods in Your Facility. Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-02/top-reasons-to-cut-down-on-meat-and-more.pdf

[6] Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison. 2010. Water Footprint Network. https://waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/product-water-footprint/water-footprint-crop-and-animal-products/

[7] Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 48, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands

[8] The Environmental Costs of Meat Production. (2019). Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-10/global-meatless-monday-environment_0.pdf2019.

[9] Foley, J. A., Ramankutty, N., Brauman, K. A., Cassidy, E. S., Gerber, J. S., Johnston, M., . . . Zaks, D. P. M. (2011). Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature, 478, 337. doi:10.1038/nature10452

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10452

[10] The Environmental Costs of Meat Production. (2019). Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. https://clf.jhsph.edu/sites/default/files/2019-10/global-meatless-monday-environment_0.pdf2019.

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.