the better world handbook

Action #6:
Eat less meat

If, like many of us, you grew up in a typical American household, you may believe that a meal just isn't a meal unless it's served up with a fair-sized piece of meat. For many of us a meat dish is the meal; the bread, salads, and vegetables are just side-dishes. Our insistence on eating meat every day, often several times each day, creates problems for the environment, workers, our own health, other people around the world and, due to modern factory farming techniques, the unnecessary suffering of animals. For one or more of these reasons, millions of people, have already reduced the amount of meat they eat!(1) In fact, two out of every three people in the world lead healthy lives eating primarily meatless diets.(2) Once you learn about the environmental, labor, hunger, and health issues surrounding meat, you may want to join them!

To give you an idea of the different impacts each kind of meat has on the world, take a look at the chart on the right. The chart is a symbolic representation of the relative impacts of each type of food based on environmental damage, resource consumption and worker treatment. As you can see, eating beef has the most overall negative impact on the world. In fact, reducing your beef consumption may be the single most powerful action you can take in this whole book! Read on to find out why.

the environment

Producing meat requires tremendous amounts of natural resources and creates a great deal of waste. In fact, we use about one fourth of the earth's land to graze cattle!(3) By eating less meat you are helping preserve the environment. Not only could we use this land to raise grain, which would feed more people with greater efficiency, but we would help protect the world's grasslands from overgrazing. At the same time, it would provide less incentive for the people of Central and South America to create grazing land for cattle by burning down rainforests. Closer to home, cattle grazing has eliminated or severely threatened more plant species in the western US than any other cause and is the #1 cause of soil erosion on western public lands.(4) Animal agriculture also causes 80% of annual world deforestation.(5)

using our natural resources wisely

Raising livestock for meat is one of the most inefficient uses of land. One acre of land could produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 40,000 pounds of potatoes, 30,000 pounds of carrots or just 250 pounds of beef.(6) To produce a year's supply of beef for a family requires over 260 gallons of fossil fuel, or approximately one gallon of gasoline per pound of grain-fed beef. Finally, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef; to produce one pound of wheat requires 25 gallons.(7)

Though not as destructive as beef, raising hogs and chickens cause their own environmental problems. Hog waste has become a major source of water pollution in a number of states. In North Carolina alone, 2.5 tons of hog waste is produced annually for every North Carolinian.(8) Spills have occurred in many states, contaminating our waterways and killing fish. It takes about 660 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken.(9) Farmers also often apply waste from chicken factories to crop fields as a form of fertilizer, which produces similarly destructive results as the runoff ends up as water pollution.(10)

Commercial fishing presents us with a different kind of environmental challenge, the misuse of our marine resources. The UN's Food & Agriculture Organization estimates that due to wasteful fishing practices, 57 billion pounds of sea life is caught unintentionally every year and thrown away.(11) The Environmental Defense Fund reports that 13 of the world's 17 major fishing grounds are depleted or in serious decline, due to overfishing.(12)

eating seafood responsibly

Based on research done by The Audobon Society(13) on responsible commercial fishing practices, we have created a guide to make sure that your seafood choices will help ensure the long term preservation of sea life.

EXCELLENT Mahi Mahi, Pacific Cod, catching your own

GOOD Catfish, Crawfish, Pacific Halibut, Pacific Pollock, Salmon [Wild Alaskan only], Striped Bass

FAIR Calamari, Clams, Crab, Lobster, Mussells, Oysters, Sole, Tuna

POOR Flounder, Grouper, Haddock, Marlin, Orange Roughy, Salmon [all other], Scallops, Sea Bass [Chilean], Shark, Shrimp, Snapper, Swordfish

For more detailed information, check out Audobon's Seafood Guide.

world hunger

Nearly 29% of us, or 1.6 billion people, are undernourished.(14) The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that more than 800 million people go hungry each year(15) and between 40 and 60 million people die each year of hunger, many of them children.(16) Despite these startling statistics, we feed 72% of all grain grown in the world to livestock.(17) In fact, due to the high demand for beef in the 1st world, agribusiness has transformed much of Central and South America's agricultural land into pastures for raising beef exported to the United States, Australia, and Europe. The end result is that the wealthy of the world eat grain fed beef while over a billion people go hungry each day due to a lack of grain.

treating workers fairly

Americans who work in meat packing and processing plants face some of the nation's poorest working conditions. Most workers can afford little or no health care, yet their repetitive motion, high speed, physically demanding, assembly-line jobs injure 1/3 of all workers every year--the highest injury rate of any industry.(18) When these workers can no longer function effectively they are laid off in lieu of new, healthy workers. This has led to one of the highest turnover rates of any job in the US. Most packing plants are non-union and pay as little as $5 per hour.(19) Hog farms provide particularly dangerous workplace environments. Seventy percent of swine confinement workers suffer from respiratory ailments, such as chronic bronchitis.(20)


Many of us have already begun to realize the health benefits of eating less red meat. Diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol have been implicated in numerous medical studies as significantly contributing to a high rate of heart attacks, cancer (such as breast and colon cancer), and strokes.(21) The average U.S. man eating a typical meat-based diet has a 50% chance of dying from heart disease(22), the number one killer of people living in the U.S. In addition, the vast majority of factory farms use antibiotics, hormones and other drugs in beef, pork, and chicken production. Each year in the U.S. alone, contaminated chicken kills at least 1,000 people and sickens as many as 80 million others.(23)


Unfortunately, the image of the small, family farm stocked with a fairly content variety of animal no longer corresponds to the reality of modern livestock conditions. Many live in less-than-humane factory farms their entire lives. Most breeding sows are kept in crates for almost their entire lives and 71% of pigs suffer from pneumonia.(24) More than 90% of chicken and eggs are raised on crowded factory farms.(25)

breaking a pattern

Though there are many compelling reasons to reduce our meat consumption, we may find it difficult to break a pattern we've had since early childhood. The first step might be not eating meat one day each week or only for dinner. Remember, it is important to make changes that are right for you. Gradual transformations that you feel comfortable with will likely last longer than sudden, drastic changes that often lead to frustration and giving up entirely. Think of reducing the meat in your diet as an opportunity rather than a restriction. You have the chance to explore many new recipes you may not have considered before.

A common myth is that substantial amounts of meat are essential in providing our protein needs. Actually, the average American gets almost twice the amount of protein necessary each day.(26)


If you want to cut back on your meat but think you'll miss the taste, there are many meat alternatives in your local market, including soy chicken nuggets, burgers, sausage, bacon, hot pockets, lunchmeat, ground beef, hot dogs, and chicken patties. There are also healthy alternatives to dairy products like milk, cheese and ice cream that tend to be easier on the planet and taste good, too! Morningstar Farms, Eden Foods, Rice Dream, Gardenburger, and Fantastic Foods are just a few good brands too look for.

By eating less meat you can ...

* Help conserve our natural resources
* Contribute to the well-being of people in the 3rd world
* Improve your overall health * Lessen cruelty to animals

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1Vegetarian Resource Group - Roper Poll, "How Many Vegetarians Are There?" Vegetarian Journal. 16, no. 5 (Sep/Oct 1997).
2 Jeremy Rifkin. Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. Dutton: New York, 1992.
3 Jeremy Rifkin. Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. Dutton: New York, 1992: p. 153.
4Joanne Stepaniak and Virginia Messina. The Vegan Sourcebook. Lowell House, 1998.
5 H.W. Kindall and David Pimentell, "Constraints on the Expansion of the Global Food Supply," Ambio 23, no. 3 (1994).
6Dworkin, Norine, "22 Reasons to Go Vegetarian Right Now," Vegetarian Times, April 1999, p. 91.
7Jeffrey Hollender. How to Make the World a Better Place, NY: William Morrow & Co., 1990: p. 122.
8 Hog Watch web site, "Factory Hog Farming: The Big Picture," 9 Water Education Foundation. Water Input in California Food Production, Sacramento, CA. 1991.
10 Derek M. Brown, "How The Meat Industry Destroys Waterways," Good Medicine Winter 8, no. 1 (1999).
11 Tom Knudson, "Part Two: Waste on Grand Scale Loots Sea," Sacramento Bee. Dec 11, 1995. 12 Environmental Defense Fund. Annual Report, 1997.
13 Audobon Society. "Audobon's Guide to Seafood",, 1999.
14 David Pimentel, cited in Erik Marcus. Vegan: The new ethics of eating. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press, 1998: p. 165.
15 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. State of Food Insecurity in the World, 1999.
16 Jeffrey Hollender and Linda Catling. How to Make the World a Better Place, NY: WW Norton & Co., 1995: p. 180.
17 David Pimentel, "Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the Environment," in Canadian Society of Animal Science. S.l. Scott and Xin Zhao, eds. Proceedings, 47th Annual Meeting, Montreal, Quebec, 24-26, July 1997, pp. 16-26.
18 Christopher D. Cook, "Hog-Tied: migrant workers find themselves trapped on the pork assembly line," The Progressive Sept. 1999.
19 Stephen J. Hedgers, "The New Jungle" US News & World Report 121, no. 12 (Sept. 23, 1996).
20 Humane Farming Association, "A Look Inside the Pork Industry,", 1990.
21 R.L. Phillips, "The Role of Lifestyle and Dietary Habits on Risk of Cancer Among Seventh Day Adventists," Cancer Research 35, 1990 pp. 3513-22.
22 John Robbins. Diet for A New America. Walpole, NH: Stillpoint, 1987.
23 Richard Behar and Michael Kramer, "Something Smells Foul," Time (Oct 17, 1994).
24 Erik Marcus. Vegan: The new ethics of eating. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press, 1998.
25 Jim Mason, "Fowling the Waters," E Magazine (Sep/Oct 1995).
26 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "The Protein Myth,", 1998.