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


Darlene Buckingham
Darlene Buckingham13 hours ago

If people made decisions with care and concern for all life many of the problems that we have now would be solved. Money is put before care for life and that is where we get practices that are harming ourselves, animals and the environment. Only a return to making decisions with Care will turn this around and create sustainable lifestyles that honour and respect life rather than putting a dollar sign on everything including our own lives.

Joanne p.
Joanne p.3 days ago


Barbara S.
Barbara S.4 days ago

thanks for this

W. C.
W. C.4 days ago

Thank you.

Janis K.
Janis K.5 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

Gerald L.
Gerald L.7 days ago

#10. Ironically in our region with 6 months of winter dairy cattle can survive with hay put up by the local farmers. In the Southern States where snow is not an issue ruminants are on pasture year round. Some ranchers do not even own a pharm tractor. The monocropping of some vegetables grains legumes seeds and beans require iron behemoths built with mined iron ore smelted in steel mills then cast into components for further machining fuelled by ...

The Sunshine Rainfall Grassland Cycle is a self sustaining organic renewable process. Ruminants are self propelled with the capability to fertilize the fields with a liquid and solid waste stream. A commenter below has shared about the hazards of a proposed fertilizer plant on the coast of Florida. Not using animal manures for crop fertilization creates a need for Monsanto et. al. Bayer Agra Agrium and cousins.

The sales pitch for the growth of the pharming industry is that it is necessary to feed the future projection of 10 billion people. Small mixed farming operations have higher yields per acre with healthier soils using rotational and the newer practice of Intensive Grazing. They minimize the need for man made fertilizer inputs. They also create more employment locally and hopefully out of the control of corporations. Calculating the Carbon inputs needed for a plant based diet only far surpass the traditional mixed farming methods used pre Big Agra.

Frank Hanline
Frank Hanline7 days ago

Well, to those who think that "meat eaters" are only suggesting lower birth rates and less humans on the planet so we can eat meat, even if we went to all vegan diets, we'd still have to do that as too many people still require too much food and the Eco-system, the clear cutting (like the clear cutting in SE Asia for Palm Oil plantations) still require land to grow crops, house people, sanitation, etc.

Heather Graham
Heather Graham7 days ago

Too many people too:(

Karen F.
Karen F.8 days ago

Living in Queensland, I heard on radio only last week that there are only 246 dairy farmers left in the whole of the state, and that an average of 1 dairy farm is closing every week. They anticipate there will be NO dairy farms left in this state within 10 years.
While I sincerely sympathise with the farmers, and buy full price milk for the people in my household who insist upon milk, cheese, cream and yogurt, instead of the cutprice milk that is sending the farmers to the wall, I do wish they could convert their farms into crop production. I hold out very little hope that when these farms are all gone, due to the 'couldn't give a toss about our food, we just want it cheap' brigade who insist on eating these products that these people stop eating dairy. I think most of them will buy crap contaminated, unregulated, probably hormone rich milk from bloody China, who care even less about livestock welfare than exists in Australia.

Leo Custer
Leo Custer8 days ago

Thank you for sharing!