Save the Environment: Become a Meat Minimalist

Become a meat minimalist. Your greatest source of greenhouse gas emission is your food – most of it due to methane from animals, but also use of fertilizers and production of grain to feed animals. Eating fewer animal products – especially red meat – is the best way we can reduce our impact. Even one vegetarian meal a week will make a difference. (Blackburn, 2011)

Meat, bread and vegetables. For as long as I can remember, this was the combination of food on my plate during dinner. Every night there was some slightly altered combination of these three food groups and I can’t say I minded much. I loved meat. I loathed the idea of ever becoming vegetarian – couldn’t understand why people would want to give up something so delicious. My mouth watered at the thought of eating a big juicy BBQ burger. Of cutting into a thick T-bone steak. Of topping any salad with flavorsome cuts of chicken.

Over time this has changed. Not because I had some traumatic experience with meat that made me lose my appetite and not because I felt bad for the animals that were being chewed to pieces in my mouth. And it most definitely wasn’t because I suddenly realized how much eating meat negatively affects the environment. It was because I started to travel on a backpacker’s budget. It was then that I realized simply how much meat costs and, as such, my eating habits became a conscious internal battle between me wanting to continue travelling and me really wanting to eat meat. My desire to travel won out.

Gradually I’ve stopped craving meat with my every meal and I’ve maintained my economical vegetarian attitude for the simple reason that I can save some serious cash by not buying meat regularly. Since then I have been pleasantly surprised to find that my choice to become a meat minimalist (I still do enjoy a roast dinner every so often) also helps out the environment at the same time. According to a United Nations report, “eating meat has perhaps the largest negative environmental impact of any human action” (Shahan, 2010). This is partially because most of our agriculture crops are being used to feed animals rather than humans. This is also partially because of “pesticides and fertilizers used in growth, grazing, transportation and the dealing of waste for uneaten and unused food” (Brown, 2011).

In the general realm of meat, lamb and beef come out on top as being the most environmentally unfriendly choices to eat. “The foods with the biggest carbon footprint include lamb, beef, cheese, pork and farmed salmon. Lamb has the greatest impact on the environment with a generation of 39.2kg of carbon dioxide per kilo eaten. However, the impact is not as great as that of beef” (Brown, 2011). Though the carbon dioxide level is lower than lamb (27.1 kg), more Americans choose to eat beef.

And so what can all of us do when meat is such a standard element in our daily meals? Think of the Environmental Defense who found that if “every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off US roads” (PETA). Such a small change could make such a huge difference for our environment. It doesn’t mean we all have to swear off meat forever and never allow ourselves a morsel of BBQ goodness. It just means that for all us trying to help the environment, this could perhaps be one of the smallest ways to make the biggest impact on our planet.

A recent United Nations report concluded that a global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change. And the UN is not alone in its analysis. Researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that switching from a standard American diet to a vegan diet is more effective in the fight against climate change than switching from a standard American car to a hybrid. And a German study conducted in 2008 concluded that a meat-eater’s diet is responsible for more than seven times as much greenhouse-gas emissions as a vegan’s diet is. (PETA)

And how does one go about cutting down on meat? As Putting Meat Back in Its Place within the New York Times says: Forget about the protein thing. Many meat alternatives actually contain more protein than meat. Buy less meat. The less you buy, the less you consume. Get it out of the center of your plate. Start thinking of meat as a sideshow, not the main event in your meal. Buy more vegetables and learn how to cook them. Now’s the time to get creative in the kitchen. With about a gazillion cooking shows on TV and Google at your fingertips, there is no excuse for not making use of the more versatile, tasty and not to mention healthy food group. Make nonmeat items as convenient as meat. A well-stocked pantry and fridge will help one avoid grabbing for the hunk of meat to stack on the plate. Make some rules. Start small. Have a goal. Do one meatless meal a week and increase from there. Look at restaurant menus differently. Just because there’s a rib eye steak on special, doesn’t mean the rest of the menu options taste any less delicious.

Just a little food for thought.


Bittman, M. (2008, June 11). The New Times. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from Putting Meat Back in Its Place:

Blackburn, R. (2011, March). Women’s Health Magazine. Expert Panel . Eveleigh, New South Wales, Australia: Pacific Magazines.

Brown, L. (2011, July 19). Earth Times. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from Eating Lamb is the Worst for the Environment:

EarthTalk. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2011, from How Does Eating Locally Grown Food Help the Environment?:

Environment Victoria. (n.d.). Environment Victoria. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from Eating the Planet:

PETA. (n.d.). PETA. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from Meat and the Environment:

Shahan, Z. (2010, June 24). Eat Drink Better. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from Environmental Impact of Eating Meat:

Talk, E. (2011). Gaiam Life. Retrieved August 26, 2011, from What is the Environmental Impact of Eating Meat?:


  1. Hey Shalane! There are some really good points and statistics in this article, and I really enjoyed reading it! Do you have the same statistic for cows as you did for lamb – how many pounds of carbon per how many pounds of meat consumed?

    Again, great article!


  2. Pete Fowler

    My wife tells me I’m meat hungry. True, but I make an exception for vegetarian curries. I hosted an Indian family for 6 weeks, 33 years ago, and they did the cooking, all vegetarian. My craving for meat disappeared quickly and permanently. Well, almost. I still eat meat, but if you want to go vegetarian, try some curries. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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