The United States has developed meat production into an industrial juggernaut. In 2020, Americans are anticipated to eat 57.9 million pounds of cattle, 51.6 million pounds of pork, and 1.4 billion chickens. However, that level of consumption doesn’t come without consequence: animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. From rampant pollution of freshwater ecosystems to the massive amounts of methane released into the atmosphere, the environment cannot handle the strain the meat industry inflicts upon it. So what would happen if Americans stopped eating meat?
One of the largest immediate effects would be reduced air pollution. If every American replaced their yearly meat consumption with a vegetarian alternative, the collective carbon dioxide reduction would be 280 million metric tons per year. That’s the same as taking 60 million cars off the road, or the same emissions levels released in Ohio annually. Greenhouse gas emissions are far less with vegetative crops than meat. Soy and grain, two protein alternatives, produce 80% less carbon in their production than meat. Most crops also act as carbon sinks, so they reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and they require less fertilizer, which is a large methane producer.
In addition, without any meat consumption, the need for cropland for livestock feeding would be reduced, so deforestation practices would lessen significantly. Eliminating the practice of deforestation for livestock would save millions of tons in carbon being released, as well as maintaining the large carbon sinks like the Amazon rainforest. Not only would lessening air pollution be a large relief on the environment, but economically as well. Oxford University completed a study that valued the emissions savings from completely cutting meat from diets at $547 billion. The above ideas illustrate how heavily meat production impacts our air quality and ecosystem health.
Furthermore, if we eliminated meat from the American diet, many of the current pasture and rangelands could be converted to cropland. Not only is this a restorative benefit of land being converted back to its original form, but growing meat alternatives is a more efficient use of natural resources. For example, producing one pound of meat requires 2,400 gallons of water and 35 pounds of topsoil but only produces 250 pounds of beef. In comparison, soybean requires only 350 gallons of water and one acre can produce 5,800 pounds of tofu. Meat is also a less effective protein source for humans. One livestock acre produces 36 pounds of consumable protein, whereas one acre of soybean production can yield 263 pounds of consumable protein. Less land would be required for the production of meat alternatives because they produce a more effective amount of food, another natural resource benefit. In addition, more regenerative agriculture practices could take place. Having untilled land, utilizing cover crops, and practicing crop rotation allows soil to build over time and keep more carbon sequestered in the soil. This would be just another benefit of meat elimination.
If forestland is permitted to take over some of the remaining pastures and rangelands that would have been used for animal agriculture, there would be a host of environmental benefits. Reduction in deforestation can lead to increased biodiversity, which enriches ecosystems, reduces disease transmission, creates carbon sinks, and results in an overall healthier environment. With livestock covering 45% of the Earth’s total land, a reduction in animal-based agriculture will offer the opportunity to revitalize degraded areas and transform lands back to their natural state. It is necessary to use more protein efficient food as the earth’s natural resources, particularly forestland, will be even more overtaxed with the projected human population growth.
Elimination of meat consumption would also benefit water quantity and quality. Considering 96% of Americans have a meat-based diet and the average amount of livestock water consumption per meat-consumer 62,486 gallons, almost 53 million gallons of water would be saved per year. Freshwater is a nonrenewable resource and animal agriculture uses up about 70% of the U.S. reserves, so having this extra amount of water would be a huge aid to ecosystem conservation and restoration.
Similarly, the amount of polluted water would greatly decrease with a reduction in fertilizer, manure, and livestock runoff. For example, there is currently a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico roughly 3,200 square miles in size. The area of water has almost no oxygen and the nitrogen present is too high for fish to survive. The dead zone grows from the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf, the result of contaminated water used as dumping grounds or runoff sites along the river. The livestock industry has created more than 500 nitrogen dead zones around the world. According to the Gulf Task Force, reducing dead zones would require the complete elimination of runoff. Reducing water pollution would aid natural systems immensely.
Not only would the environment hugely benefit from elimination of meat from the American diet, but human health would benefit as well. Plant-based diets have shown a decreased risk in contracting type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and also lessens overall mortality rates. Meat has been shown to contain antibiotics and cancer-causing bacteria, which is suspected to come from pesticide-treated grain consumed by cows. Many existing dietary guidelines suggest minimal amounts of red meat a day—even then, many scientists agree a plant-based diet can replace protein intake in a balanced diet.
Eliminating meat from the American diet is necessary to lessen the strain on Earth’s resources and for the continued population growth. However, complete elimination is a lofty goal that will require decades of transitioning to complete. The first priority would be reducing animal production, leading to the decrease of land use for livestock. Then, as more land is converted to producing protein-effective foods, societal shift to eat a plant-based diet would be the next necessary priority. Backed by policy, regulation, and subsidies the entire meat industry would begin to be phased out. This process should include creating new jobs in the green sector, buying out meat corporations, and realigning the agriculture industry with smaller farmers instead of conglomerates. It’s certainly a far-reaching goal, but it’s necessary to maintain the equilibrium of the natural world and stop further destruction of resources. These are the expected outcomes if Americans stopped eating meat and started engaging in land restoration.
Rachel serves as the education coordinator for the Energy and Community team in Dubuque, IA. Originally from Sarasota, Florida, Rachel is excited to spend a year learning all about energy efficiency, sustainable living, and developing her skills as an environmental steward. In her free time, Rachel loves reading, playing board games, and cuddling with her dog Shiloh. After her service year, Rachel will finish her master’s in sustainability at Harvard University.