Stop eating meat & dairy to save the planet. Really. Science* says so.

Researchers of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have found that reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products and improving agricultural practices could decrease global greenhouse gas emissions substantially. By 2055 the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture could be cut by more than eighty percent, to levels below those of 1995, if demand for  "livestock products" (i.e., meat and dairy) decreases by 25% over each decade from 2015 to 2055.

Early in June, even before the results of this study were published, the UN issued a report suggesting that "a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change."

In a study published today in the peer-reviewed journal, Global Environmental Change, climate impact researchers modeled the impact of future changes in food consumption and technological mitigation of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions on the effect on climate in a scenario over the next 45 years, to 2055. The global model combined information on world population, income, food demand, and production costs with environmental data on potential crop yields. The calculations show that global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., methane and nitrous oxide) increase significantly until 2055 if food energy consumption and diet preferences remain constant at 1995 levels. However, the agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases have increased steadily over time, and show no sign of slowing down. In fact, in 2005 they accounted for "14% of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions." Assuming world dietary preferences continue to shift towards animal-based foods, i.e., meat and milk, in regions and countries that have typically not favored these food sources, emissions will rise even more.

To gain an idea of how one person's food choices impact the climate, I consulted The Nature Conservancy's Carbon Footprint Calculator. As a baseline, "in 2004, the United States emitted 7074 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent green house gases. This equals approximately 27 tons per person." An "average" American's carbon emissions from diet, calculated only on the basis of a predominantly meat-based, non-organic diet alone, is 4.1 tons of CO2 and carbon-equivalent emissions a year. When I changed the selections to more accurately reflect my diet, or the diet of any "average" vegan or vegetarian, ("I eat meat in my diet... never" and "I eat organic food... most of the time") the CO2 and carbon-equivalent emissions decreased to 0.6 tons per year, 85% below average. The cumulative power of vegans and vegetarians to positively effect the environment is easy to calculate, even if you're not great at math. Playing with the calculator is fun, and informative. Even simply reducing meat intake to "Rarely" from "Most days" and taking the middle road with respect to organics, "I eat it sometimes" reduces individual emissions (again, from diet alone) to 1.3 tons per year, 69% below average.

If you're curious about how the calculator actually works, this gives a very detailed explanation of how your carbon footprint is calculated. The following excerpt about "Food and Diet" outlines the impact one person's meat-heavy, non-organic diet has on greenhouse gas emissions in very clear terms.

"Average: Agricultural activity (crop, land, and animal including management, and including farm vehicles) accounts for 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, with 91% of that being from methane and nitrous oxide emissions. 
Behaviors: Vegan and vegetarian diets emit 72% and 42% less than the typical American diet, respectively. A heavy meat diet emits 24% more than the average. For the organic food responses, "Most of the time" reduces your emissions by 29%, "Sometimes" reduces emissions by 15%, and "Never or rarely" is the average emissions figure."

It's pretty clear that every small choice makes an incremental, yet measurably cumulative effect on the environment, and for our future. Something to think about the next time you're in the grocery store. Start small: eschew the hamburger for a veggie burger once in a while.

*Source: Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) (2010, June 28). Conscious choice of food can substantially mitigate climate change, research finds. ScienceDaily.


  1. We began reducing meat consumption almost twenty years ago, and rarely eat it now. I love not having the smell of it in the house, which I never cared for. Btw, I was interested in the UN report containing the vegan quote, which you mentioned early in your post, and followed the link. I searched the pdf file for "vegan," hoping to find the quotation and read more, but the search returned no results. What page was that on? Perhaps I can find it that way.

  2. Totally agree. I've gone vegetarian now for 5 years and I've never looked back. I feel better both spiritually and physically.

  3. I need to come back and visit when I have more time to look around.

    I am a new follower so I can keep up with your posts. Hope you stop over and visit my blog...possibly follow me back. Terry

    My Journey With Candida

  4. Excellent post. Thank you so much for including links to the supporting articles. For those of us raised to believe we must have some form of meat or dairy at every meal, gradually decreasing our consumption changes lifelong habits. It's one way to go.

    A good way to start is Meatless Monday--no meat on Monday, just one day a week. Lots of bloggers and tweeters post delicious #MeatlessMonday recipes, to make it easy.

    I'm pretty sure I'll never be vegan by choice, loving eggs and butter as I do, but in the nineteen or so years since reading Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet my household has gradually cut our meat consumption to almost nil and greatly reduced our consumption of the rest. In fact, we use table butter so infrequently that the last cube turned rancid before we finished! (We're storing it in the refrigerator now.) A dozen eggs may last three or more weeks.

  5. As more and more of us who eat meat occasionally--a few times a month--source that meat from local farmers who pasture their animals at least six months of the year, it would be interesting to see that included in the carbon calculators. I read elsewhere yesterday that pastured meat actually reduces carbon footprint because of the contributions to plant growth and carbon sequestration. Did not see scientific data to back up the claim though.