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Meat reduction: Efforts to reduce or eliminate the consumption of animal products, for individuals and for institutions.
There are a number of reasons for reducing meat consumption at home, and just as many for institutions like businesses, restaurants, universities, and religious and community centers. Reducing the number of animals we consume, and by association that we farm, reduces many negative impacts on the environment, protects against the spread of zoonotic diseases, lowers the risk of future pandemics, and has the potential to prevent a vast amount of unnecessary animal suffering.
Reducing meat can seem daunting, but millions of people and thousands of institutions are taking steps to increase the amount of plant-based foods they eat. You too can change your diet to reduce meat consumption, and you can even help institutions shift, multiplying your impact.
Many have found that whether they choose to purchase genuinely higher welfare meat or reduce meat consumption—or both—their outlook on life brightens as they reduce participation in exploitative systems and take these positive steps toward a future they can be proud of. Many may find reducing animal products a more accessible choice than locating and affording the highest welfare animal products. Reducing animal products in favor of plant-based foods prevents the suffering of hundreds of animals, reduces contributions to water and air pollution, and may reduce risks of cancer and heart disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a plant-based diet that is low in salt, saturated fats, and added sugars as part of a healthy lifestyle. This is in large part due to the links that have been established between meat consumption and heart disease, cancer risk, and diabetes.
If making the switch to plant-based eating for health reasons, it is important to keep in mind that there is such a thing as an unhealthy plant-based diet that replaces animal-derived ingredients with highly processed alternatives.1
Reducing meat consumption can seem like a daunting challenge. However, when reducing meat consumption you can take a number of steps to make sure that your body is even more nourished and fulfilled as it ever was before, while still eating foods that you enjoy.
One of the first changes you can make is to start making meals that are meatless. Perhaps you could choose to eat a fully meat-free meal every day for lunch, or maybe it’s more accessible for you to remove meat completely for one or two days a week. Some have found success with not eating meat before dinner. Regardless of the strategy you choose as you begin introducing meatless and animal product-free meals into your routine, the important thing is to take the first step.
Another method to reduce the meat you consume is to simply choose to reduce the amount of meat at every meal. Instead of eating a double burger, switch to a single with the goal of eventually switching to a plant-based patty. Instead of choosing a large, expensive steak, save your wallet and reduce your impact on the environment by opting for a more modest cut and filling most of your plate with plants.
There are a number of wonderful vegetarian and fully plant-based cookbook options available. Whether you love fast food and want to be able to enjoy plant-based versions of your favorite dishes, or you’re interested in traditional soul food cooking, or you simply want a solid book that serves as a good introduction to plant-based cooking, there’s a cookbook out there for you. If books aren’t your thing, there are tons of veganized recipes for any dish imaginable available online, via the plethora of plant-based recipe blogs.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reducing your meat consumption is to be intentional. While making the transition to eating less meat, it is easiest to slip up when you are hungry and simply want something to eat. Having a collection of simple recipes, meals, snacks, and restaurants with options you genuinely enjoy handy is essential for moments when you’re just hungry and want something delicious. And remember that it’s not all-or-nothing; if you eat meat in a moment where you had intended to eat something plant-based, just view it as part of the process and go back to your intention.
Knowing the “why” behind your meat consumption reduction makes it more likely that you’ll stick to your new eating pattern. Whether your reason is the farmed animals themselves, the environmental impact of the industry, or personal or public health, reminding yourself often is a great habit when just starting out.
One of the most commonly held concerns about reducing the amount of meat we consume is whether or not we can get enough protein. This is commonly referred to as the vegetarian protein myth. The many vegan bodybuilders that follow a vegan diet but still excel at packing on pounds of pure muscle are evidence of just how much protein you can eat without any animal products at all.
Most people are fine consuming 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. Having a conversation with a registered dietitian about your lifestyle and health goals can help determine a more tailored suggestion for you.
In addition to the steps that we can take as individuals to reduce our meat consumption, there are also steps that we can take to help institute plant-based tendencies on a larger scale.
Making plant-based foods the easy choice through menu design, cafeteria layout, or subtle substitutions, while still giving people the choice of eating animal products, nudges diners to make choices that are better for animals, health, and the climate and environment. For example, at a conference, having people opt into choosing a meat option instead of having them opt into a vegetarian or vegan option is a powerful tool for reducing meat consumption on a large scale. Restaurants, events, conferences, and places of business seeking to be more environmentally friendly can all go far by shifting the default. DefaultVeg is one strategy that can help make the transition a little more smooth.
Farm Forward’s Leadership Circle exists to help businesses, organizations, and schools put their money where their mouth is and choose supply chain options that fit with their values and a vision of a greener, and more sustainable future with less animal suffering. Through the program we provide free consulting, tools, and recognition to support members as they move toward a better supply chain.
Institutions have traditionally sourced food with value, taste, nutrition, visual appeal, and culture in mind. More and more institutions are adding environmental impact to that list. When institutions take their sourcing seriously, they contribute to positive societal shifts and become part of building a better planet for everyone.
In addition to its benefits for individual health, public health, and farmed animal welfare, reducing and even eliminating the meat we consume as part of our diets is one of the most impactful steps we can take as individuals to reduce our negative impacts on the environment and our contributions to climate change. Moving away from a diet in which meat plays a central role can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase land availability, save water, improve soil health, and more.
Western nonvegetarian diets have been associated with greenhouse gas emissions 59 percent higher than those of vegetarian diets. This is in large part due to the quantities of greenhouse gasses that are emitted to produce even a small amount of meat—which can account for almost half of emissions within a typical nonvegetarian diet.2 Of all food items, the production of beef leads to the greatest quantity of emissions, with each kilogram of beef being responsible for 99.48 kilograms of CO2-equivalent gasses.
Meat takes a massive amount of land to produce. Space is required not just for the animals being raised for food to live on, but also for planting and growing crops for their feed. As countries around the world increase in wealth, their meat consumption is going up, causing meat producers to continue the destruction of some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet—including the Amazon rainforest—and threatening an increasing number of species with extinction.
Producing meat products requires a large amount of water. For example, producing one kilogram of shrimp requires 3,515 liters of water. On top of that, meat production also plays a large role in polluting water systems. Much of this pollution stems from the manure produced by the animals, the chemicals applied to the fields of crops used to feed them, and the antibiotics and hormones administered to them.
Right now the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed. Estimates suggest that already 17 percent of the forest, which is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, has been lost. While this might not seem like a lot, it is perilously close to a tipping point that would see the ecosystem begin to give way to savanna.
The biggest driver of Amazon deforestation in Brazil is cattle ranching, which is behind 80 percent of tree cover loss. Within Brazil, agribusiness enterprises account for nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP, and in 2018, $6 billion worth of beef was exported to other countries, making the cattle industry a lucrative business.
Some of the most drought-prone areas in the United States are also home to thousands of cattle. Overgrazing is one of the leading causes of soil degradation, with drought-prone areas the most at risk. Degraded soils store less carbon, damaging one of our most important resources in the effort to lessen and slow climate change.
About half of all habitable land is used for agriculture. Of this, two-thirds is used for animal agriculture—whether that be for dairy, eggs, or meat. Despite this, only 18 percent of the calories and 37 percent of the protein we consume come from animal sources. If humanity moved away from consuming animal products and instead used that land to grow plant foods intended for direct human consumption, we could reduce the amount of land needed for agriculture by a whopping 75 percent. This would free up three billion hectares of land for other uses such as reforestation.
Meat is an incredibly inefficient source of calories. For example, beef has a caloric efficiency of merely 2 percent, so for every 100 calories that go into producing beef only 2 calories of beef are actually produced. This means that a large amount of the calories that we pour into producing meat are simply wasted.
From a food waste perspective, in the United States 26 percent of meat, poultry, and fish are thrown away by consumers or retail outlets. This equates to billions of animals who were slaughtered only to be trashed. On top of the waste of life this represents, it also exacts a massive, and completely unnecessary, toll on the environment.
Reducing and even eliminating animal product consumption is one of the most impactful choices most individuals and institutions can make when it comes to animal suffering, individual and public health, and environmental degradation and climate change. Reducing meat intake can seem daunting, but millions of people and thousands of institutions have walked this path before you! You too can change your diet, and you can even help institutions shift, multiplying your impact.
Afton Halloran, “Plant-Based Diets and their Impact on Health, Sustainability, and the Environment: A Review of the Evidence” (WHO, 2021), https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/349086/WHO-EURO-2021-4007-43766-61591-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
Holly L. Rippin et al., “Variations in Greenhouse Gas emissions of Individual Diets: Associations between the Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Nutrient Intake in the United Kingdom,” PLoS One (November, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0259418.