10 Reasons Why the Meat and Dairy Industry Is Unsustainable

Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally published on December 31, 2013. Enjoy!

Like it or not, you can’t hide from the fact that eating animal products creates a massive problem for everyone on the planet.

Here are 10 reasons why the meat and dairy industry is unsustainable:

1. Deforestation


Photo Credit: Barn Images/Flickr

Farm animals require considerably more land than crops to produce a given amount of food energy. In Central America alone, 40 percent of all rainforests have been cleared in the last 40 years for cattle pasture to feed the export market — often for U.S. beef burgers. The World Hunger Program calculated that recent world harvests — if distributed equitably and fed directly to humans, as opposed to livestock — could provide a vegan diet to 6 billion people.

2. Fresh water 

Without a doubt, animal agriculture has one of the largest water footprints on the planet. It may be hard to believe, but the standard American diet requires a whopping 4,200 gallons of water per day – including animals’ drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing, washing, etc. — whereas a vegan diet only requires 300. The easiest way to reduce demand for water is to eliminate the consumption of animal products.

3. Waste disposal

livestock waste

Photo Credit: Justin Leonard/Flickr

Today’s factory farms house hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs and chickens — and, in turn, produce astronomical amounts of waste. In the U.S., these giant livestock farms generate more than 130 times the amount of waste that humans do. Agricultural waste has polluted thousand of miles of rivers and contaminated groundwater, killing aquatic life and creating huge dead zones.

4. Energy consumption

chicken transportation

Photo Credit: Anis Eka/Flickr

For that steak to end up on your plate, the cow has to consume massive amounts of energy along the way. Growing grain — often with a heavy use of agricultural chemicals — to feed cattle, transporting cattle thousands of miles to slaughter and market and refrigerating and cooking the meat all amounts to an absurd use of resources. On average, it takes 28 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from meat, whereas it takes only 3.3 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain.

5. Food productivity


Photo Credit: Jordan/Flickr

The food productivity of farmland is quickly falling behind population growth, and the only option available to us — short of stabilizing the population — is to cut back on meat consumption and convert grazing land to food crops. In the U.S., an estimated 56 million acres of land are dedicated to hay production for livestock. Only 4 million acres are used to grow vegetables for human consumption.

6. Global warming

Global warming is driven by energy consumption, and as noted above, livestock are energy-guzzling. But that’s not all. Livestock also emit potent global warming gases into the environment. Cattle, in particular, produce a significant amount of methane. For example, a single dairy cow produces an average of 75 kilos of methane annually.

7. Loss of biodiversity

Poaching and the black market sale of bushmeat is becoming a growing problem as our planet becomes increasingly overcrowded. Poorer populations often venture into wildlife reserves to kill everything from elephants and chimpanzees to bonobos and birds. Hunters rely on logging roads maintained by big multinational companies for easy access to the forest — and the animals that inhabit it.

8. Grassland destruction


Photo Credit: Janelle Ball/Flickr

As the herds of domesticated animals expanded, bison and antelope habitat was replaced by monoculture grasslands for large scale cattle grazing. Grasslands have suffered a massive loss of biodiversity as a result. What was once a rich ecosystem is now is a single species monoculture.

9. Soil erosion

soil erosion

Photo Credit: Forrest Cavale

With 60 percent of the United States’ pastureland overgrazed, the acceleration of soil erosion and degradation is an increasing concern. It takes approximately 500 years to replace just 1 inch of precious topsoil. While fertilizers may be able to replace a small amount of lost nutrients, the large inputs of fossil energy required is completely unrealistic and unsustainable.

10. Lifestyle disease

The excessive consumption of meat and dairy in developed countries combined with environmental pollution and lack of exercise is causing an abundance of preventable health problems, such as heart disease. While Western nations struggle with strokes, cancer, diabetes and heart attacks, other countries are impacted from disease brought on by a lack of access to agricultural land.

When taking into consideration all of the points made above, it’s clear that a meat and dairy dependent diet is unsustainable in the long term. Couple that with the threat of rapid population growth — the current U.S. population is an estimated 285 million and is projected to double in the next 70 years — and even greater stress will be placed an our already limited resources.

Regardless of the role of meat and dairy in nutrition or the ethics of animal rights, on the grounds of economic and ecological sustainability alone, the consumption of animal products is a looming problem for humankind.

If you want to live a low impact lifestyle and reduce your use of the world’s precious resources, try opting for animal-free food choices instead.

Photo Credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash


Robert N.
Robert N.10 days ago

The real scary thing is the world is overpopulated now, What will it be like in another 100 years, I'm so glad i do not have children.

joan silaco
joan silaco18 days ago


Darlene Buckingham

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2016/05/eating-less-meat-will-reduce-earths-heat/ I note as well that scientists are calling for people to eat less meat. This has nothing to do with having an open mind but rather in being a responsible person that is aware of the harm that eating meat is causing to the environment, the suffering of animals and that the poor quality and cruel factory meat is harming people's health as well. When we know better we have to make better choices and a better choice is to eat less meat and support those that are choosing a respnsible vegetarian and vegan diet.

Darlene Buckingham

I note that the argument was left after it was said that forests are being clear-cut because of the high demand for meat and better pasture management is not going to fix that. There will also have to be a worldwide commitment to eating less meat - lower demand - that will help animals, the environment, and people's health.

Janet B.
Janet B.21 days ago


Sandra L.
Sandra L.23 days ago

So, argument. I'll leave you to it and take my efforts where minds might be open.

Darlene Buckingham

I don't think that better pasture management would meet the high demand for meat. If there were not such a high demand and money to be made than forests would not have to be clear cut. People would have to make a commitment to eat less meat then the environment would not have to be destroyed to raise more cattle. The meat industry is promoting meat and making it seem attractive to people and do not appreciate those that are cutting down on meat, especially beef or becoming vegetarian or vegan, because they care about animals, the environment, and their health and raising awareness of why the amount of meat that people now eat is not necessary and in fact causing more harm than good.

Sandra L.
Sandra L.25 days ago

Greed and Ignorance. Better pastureland management would easily meet the current need and offer environmental benefit. Perhaps if instead of peddling agenda driven misinformation we let individuals decide what is best for them and their families, then we could all get back to the work of ensuring that those choices can be supplied sustainably and responsibly.

Anyone arguing with that is clearly not interested in the change, only in the argument.

Darlene Buckingham

Why are forests being clear cut for cattle if there is so much pastureland?

Sandra L.
Sandra L.27 days ago

According to these numbers there is more than double the amount of pasture land than crop land, were it better utilized with livestock the benefit to the land, the environment and the increased availability of bio-appropriate nutrient dense food would make it absolutely sustainable. Additionally, no longer needing crops to feed the livestock as they would feed for free on grasses while managing the land, frees up more crop land and as such more plant foods for humans.

"Of the total of 13 billion hectares of land area on Earth, cropland accounts for 11 percent, pastureland 27 percent, forested land 32 percent, and urban lands 9 percent."