Want to Save $20 Trillion? Stop Eating Meat.


Published: April 1, 2010

Put down that hamburger! Not only are you raising your cholesterol; you’re causing major environmental destruction. Most people don’t equate their lunch with dramatic climate change but the meat industry is one of the most damaging, in terms of carbon emissions.

Many people don’t realize how easy it is to reduce your carbon footprint by simply eating less meat. (photo illustration by doug baum/The Observer)

Growing grains to feed livestock, transporting the feed, housing and transporting the livestock and shipping the meat to supermarkets requires a lot of energy. Add to that the carbon all of those activities emit, and the result is the dramatic climate change we’re now facing.

To put this in quantitative terms: If all Americans make one vegetarian meal a week, it’s the equivalent to taking over five million cars off of the road for a day. And if every American goes one day a week without meat, it’s like taking over eight million cars off of the road, in terms of carbon emissions.

A recent study published by the Journal of Climatic Change predicts that cutting meat consumption will not only save the environment, but it will save some major bucks. According to the study, the farming industry accounts for nearly 20 percent of all carbon emissions and 80 percent of land use. By reducing the amount of meat Americans eat, farmland used to raise livestock will be freed up to cultivate vegetation. There are harmful gases released by livestock (flatulence contains concentrated amounts of methane) and energy used to transport the livestock to and from their various destinations.

If people stopped eating meat, there would be no need to counteract the negative effects of raising, killing and storing livestock by building clean energy plants or other expensive measures. The environment will be better off and taxpayers will save approximately $20 trillion dollars if we go veggie completely.

That seems like enough evidence to convince us that cutting back on our hamburgers might be a good idea. But can such a long American tradition of eating meat just stop? Will people be willing to trade in the cow to save a polar bear?

“Eating no or less meat used to be looked at only from the perspective of animal welfare and rights issues,” said John van Buren, professor of philosophy and director of the environmental studies program at Fordham. “Looking at it from the perspectives of climate change, human health, ecosystem health, and social ‘environmental justice’ gives it broader social appeal.”

Ryan Buckley, Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) ’10 and an environmental policy minor, said, “I think it is clear that transitioning from a meat-based diet would positively influence today and in the future the welfare of global sustainability. However, getting people to convert from what they have done for their entire lives, as well as [what] their ancestors [have done] is a difficult process.”

Michael Noel, College of Business Administration (CBA) ’10 and the chairperson of a campaign to begin a sustainable business program at CBA, said, “A widespread reduction in meat eating would help curb our carbon footprint and anything that helps us do that is okay with me. I think more effort should be put into energy technologies, but this diet switch does not hurt.”

However, Noel was quick to point out, “Realistically, people will not change to vegetarianism, because they are too comfortable in their own personal lives to make a big dent in their own footprint… especially when it comes to giving up their favorite foods.”

Noel suggests that people not ready to drop their meat and dairy habits buy from environmentally friendly brands, like Stonyfield Farms, which was the first zero-emission company in America. The company uses solar and wind energy to offset their energy use.

Buckley is working on his own habits, but finds it hard in a society with a largely meat-based diet.

“I put a conscious effort into it… but there are times when there is no option than to use the unsustainable, non-renewable infrastructure that exists today,” Buckley said. Van Buren offers an alternative to going vegetarian cold tofurkey.

“Local farming reduces transportation distance of goods to market and therefore the amount of greenhouse gas based energy used. It has a smaller climate change footprint than purchasing goods shipped across the country or from another continent. Imagine how much carbon-based energy is required for an American to purchase fresh flowers from South America or a chicken from China.”

“The United States has one of the lowest levels of science, health and environmental literacy in the industrialized world,” van Buren said. “Individual citizens, and especially college students, should inform themselves of the effects of their consumer and diet choices not only on the other animals with whom they share this planet, but also on their own health, climate change, the well being of their children and grandchildren, planetary ecosystem health and social justice. Then they should make their own ‘informed’ choices.”