Vegetarianism: The Environmental Effects of a Meat-free Diet

No more barbecue? Inconceivable! However, the environmental effects of vegetarianism can’t be ignored.

Pradyoth Velagapudi, Managing Editor

Many people love a nice juicy burger, or a large hot dog, or a cheesy pepperoni pizza—but not everyone. According to The Vegetarian Times, about 3.2% of Americans are vegetarian (with about 0.5% being vegan) for some reason or another. More often than not, part of the reason is to help the environment.

Over the years, there has been a lot of research to support the theory that vegetarianism, among other things, conserves water, reduces pollution, and shrinks your carbon footprint. Although some researchers still doubt this, there is still a startling amount of evidence in favor of the theory.

First of all, not all vegetarians are created equal. According to, here are several different types of vegetarianism, including veganism (eat no animal products whatsoever), ovo-lacto vegetarianism (can eat eggs and dairy), lacto vegetarianism (can eat dairy but not eggs), ovo vegetarianism (can eat eggs but not dairy), and pescetarianism (can eat eggs, milk, and seafood). Each diet has different implications, because they encompass different things, but all of them have a more positive impact on the environment than a regular diet.

The removal of meat from the vegetarian diet is the major factor behind the environmental benefits. This is because raising, feeding, and disposing of the waste from livestock takes a lot of resources.Not only that, but animals (especially cattle) also release methane and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and also produce tons of waste.  Not eating meat on a regular basis (or even just not eating beef, which is the meat with the biggest negative impact on the environment) does a lot for the environment.

Vegetarianism can decrease your carbon footprint dramatically, says The Huffington Post. According to, meat production and livestock raising facilities release a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the air (not to mention the immense amount of waste involved in transport of the food). In an average American diet, meat products constitutes almost 60% of their carbon footprint. Going vegetarian can shrink your carbon footprint to two-thirds of what it was and even lower if you go vegan.

It’s not just carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Air pollution from the meat industry also comes from the immense amount of methane (as mentioned above) and the reckless disposal of animal waste, according to Some livestock facilities dispose of animal urine by spraying it out into the air in a fine mist, polluting the air. Animal dung also releases many harmful gases, especially if the huge cesspools they are usually kept in break or leak (which, if it happens, can also pollute rivers, lakes, and groundwater). The intense stink associated with meat facilities also reduces the breathing quality of the air.

Raising livestock also takes a huge amount of water to keep the animals healthy. According to, it takes 20,000 pounds of water to produce one pound of beef, but only 229, 168, 108, and 60 pounds of water to produce one pound of rice, maize, wheat, and potatoes respectively. However, one pound of chicken takes just 1,500 pounds to produce, way less wasteful than cows. Pigs take the most water to maintain, and a large-sized pig farm may need as much fresh water a year as a small city.

Water isn’t the only resource needed to keep animals. Huge amounts of land are needed as well. According to, in 1997, it was found that 302 million hectares of land in the United States were used for livestock rearing, while only 13 million hectares of land were used to grow veggies, fruit, beans, rice, and potatoes. Livestock not only uses up land but destroys it as well. Keeping huge amounts of livestock in the same area for a long time can lead to overgrazing, and can make the land less fertile and desertify (make a piece of land more arid) the area.

It’s not always the huge amounts of waste and pollution that push people to become vegetarian; many people go vegetarian because of the many inhumane acts of animal cruelty associated with the meat industry. According to, because of the huge amount of waste factory farming entails, companies strive to produce the most meat possible, with as little money, space, or time involved. This usually means deplorable living conditions for livestock. They are kept usually in tiny stalls or cages, and are not allowed to roam around so that their energy all goes towards fattening themselves up and producing more meat. They are usually fed growth-enhancing drugs, and chemicals to make sure they produce as much meat as possible. They are also sometimes overfed forcefully (especially ducks grown to make foie gras) in hopes of fattening them up. Federal regulations do not usually apply to many forms of animal cruelty, and with so many inconsistent rules, it’s hard to tell which “organic, free-range” products actually came from well-treated animals.

These are the facts; it’s widely accepted that a vegetarian diet is much better for the environment than an average one, and most studies agree. Going meat-free is probably the cheapest and easiest way to help the environment, but you don’t have to go full vegan. Just reducing the amount of meat you eat, and being conscious of how big a role beef, specifically,  plays in your diet, can go a long way in shrinking your carbon footprint and supporting global movements to save animals and the environment.