We Should All be Vegans: The Detriments of Regularly Eating Meat by Sophie Horst

The agriculture industry employs 26% of all workers globally, making it a critical component of our economy and the primary income source for many.[1] The UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that livestock is about 40% of the global value of agricultural output and supports the livelihoods and food security of almost a 1.3 billion people.[2] In the US, agriculture and food related jobs provide employment for 22 million Americans.[3] However, this industry is also responsible for a large amount of the worlds carbon emissions, pollution, land use, and water use. Veganism is an ideal way to mitigate many of these detriments. Federal and state governments should cooperate to implement financial incentives and informational campaigns to promote understanding of and participation in veganism.

Water Pollution and Use

Producing meat is a hugely demanding task in terms of water use. Farming uses an exorbitant quantity of our fresh water, which is problematic considering the water shortages many communities face. While not letting your shower run or being sure to completely turn off the sink are beneficial, they pale in comparison to the water used in the meat production process. It takes the equivalent of 50 bathtubs of water to produce one steak.[4] In other words, on average, eating meat results in the consumption of 15,000 liters of water per day.[5] This significant usage of water is far less A 2010 study found that while vegetables used about 322 liters of water per kg, and fruits used 962, chicken measured  4,325l/kg, pork 5,988l/kg, sheep/goat meat 8,763l/kg, and beef a shocking 15,415l/kg.[6]

Additionally, meat production contributes heavily to water pollution. Pollutants released throughout the process of production are nutrient, pesticide, sediment, organic matter, pathogens, and metal pollution. This runoff causes algae blooms in nearby bodies of water which can lead to the creation of dead zones, areas of water where life cannot survive because of lack of oxygen.[7]

Impacts on Land and Natural Resources

Grazing areas for livestock and land dedicated to growing feed are the largest user of land globally.[8] In the US, over 44% of the total land base is used for agricultural purposes.[9] These areas are often ridded of all wildlife and vegetation, contributing to both deforestation and extinction of animal species.

Contributing to Climate Change

The production of meat also contributed significantly to air pollution, and therefore climate change. The United Nations has stated that “a global shift toward a vegan diet is one of the steps necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change.”[10] The greenhouse gasses emitted as a result of producing about 2 pounds of beef is equivalent to those emitted from driving your car for three house or leaving the lights in your house on for that amount of time.[11] Feedlots at factories that produce meat release large amounts of particulates and accumulate animal waste that release toxic airborne chemicals.

Now is the Perfect Time to Make a Large-Scale Change

As much as the adage “every little bit counts,” rings true, I advocate for large-scale action to address this problem. I propose a societal shift away from meat, sanctioned by government incentives to transition to a vegan diet. This pains me because I too adore nothing more than a cheeseburger or a steak. However, the time has come to implement a subsidy on vegetarian and vegan-friendly foods such as produce and meat alternatives. This financial incentive would provide all Americans with cheaper access to these items. Specifically, it would allow poorer communities the opportunity to explore vegan options. Contrary to popular belief, a study found that consuming a vegetarian diet is $750 cheaper than a meat-based diet.[12] However, veganism requires the ability to choose one’s meals, and many poorer communities do not have this privilege.  A study on disparities in access to healthy foods, a label involving much overlap with vegan foods, found that economically disadvantaged or minority communities had a greater amount of food options that promoted an unhealthy diet.[13] Specifically, limited access to supermarkets and grocery stores that presented “a significant barrier to the consumption of healthy foods.”[14] A subsidy would likely increase access to healthy foods in these communities by incentivizing supermarkets to build in these communities because they would likely get more business. Additionally, the government could allocate small plots of land in these neighborhoods to serve as community gardens. This would promote an understanding of veganism as inexpensive, accessible, and rewarding. I also recommend implementing a wide-scale education campaign that informs people of the cost of a vegetarian diet and alternatives. Increasing public information regarding the health and financial benefits of veganism would likely create a willingness to try adopting a vegan diet.

COVID-19 will only enhance the impact of these policies, because Americans are at home with far more time to educate themselves and spend time in the kitchen preparing meals. This is the perfect time to implement a change in diet. Additionally, there have been huge COVID-19 outbreaks at meat producing factories, resulting in large scale meat shortages around the country.[15] Millennials in particular have shown significantly more interest in vegan and vegetarian diets, as a quarter of people between the age of 25 and 34 are vegan or vegetarian.[16] COVID-19 presents an opportunity to recognize the environmental and personal benefits of eliminating meat and act accordingly.


[1] Zee, Bibi van der. “What Is the True Cost of Eating Meat?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/news/2018/may/07/true-cost-of-eating-meat-environment-health-animal-welfare.

[2] Zee, Bibi van der.

[3]  “Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy.” USDA ERS – Ag and Food Sectors and the Economy, May 2020, www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy/.

[4] “Veganism and the Environment.” PETA, 6 Jan. 2019, www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/animals-used-food-factsheets/vegetarianism-environment/.

[5] “Veganism and the Environment.” .

[6] Zee, Bibi van der..

[7] Zee, Bibi van der.

[8] “Animal Production.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/animal-production/en/.

[9] “Animal Production.” .

[10] “Veganism and the Environment.” .

[11] “Veganism and the Environment.” .

[12] Foer, Jonathan Safran. “The End of Meat Is Here.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 May 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/opinion/coronavirus-meat-vegetarianism.html.

[13] Hilmers, Angela, et al. “Neighborhood Disparities in Access to Healthy Foods and Their Effects on Environmental Justice.” American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, Sept. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3482049/.

[14] Hilmers, Angela, et al..

[15] Joy Manning, For The Inquirer. “It’s a Good Time to Become a Vegan.” Https://Www.inquirer.com, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 Apr. 2020, www.inquirer.com/news/vegan-recipes-coronavirus-kitchen-cooking-plant-based-20200420.html.

[16] Foer, Jonathan Safran.

3 thoughts on “We Should All be Vegans: The Detriments of Regularly Eating Meat by Sophie Horst

  1. Thanks for the compelling argument Sophie! You covered a good chunk of my questions/concerns (specifically relating to education and issues of equity). I am curious of the large-scale implications of this. You highlight early on the impact that meat production has worldwide, not just in the United States, but your proposal seems most applicable and targeted to wealthier nations like the United States.

    Domestic Meat Use
    In poorer and developing countries where meat is a significant dietary staple, the implementation of this sort of education and subsidies program isn’t likely feasible. As you highlight, lower income areas are less likely to have the access to the grocery stores or produce needed to be vegetarian or vegan. This is the same in developing countries. I do see the value in focusing on countries like the U.S. which is one of the biggest meat producers worldwide, but understanding that the issue of shifting to a plant based diet is also an issue of economic development. If we want to encourage other countries to shift, do we also help them develop their economy? If so, how do we do that?

    International Meat Use
    Additionally, countries like Brazil are relying on cattle production and livestock farming as a sort of internal income and economic growth. Countries like Australia and the U.S. export a lot of their meat products as a significant portion of their agricultural economic outputs and rely very heavily on the meat industry to stay afloat. If a societal shift occurred in some countries or in the United States where a significant amount of meat is both produced and consumed, that could drastically impact other world economies.

    I’m also curious in terms of education, how much the federal government is obligated to provide. I know I’ve tried going vegetarian numerous times only to fail because I wasn’t doing it healthily or sustainably. Education is not just letting people know why it’s important but incentivizing them to do it sustainably, something which I’m curious whether the government is willing to invest in.

    There’s also the idea that a transition to a more plant-based diet will result in the consumption of plant products that are imported from other countries. In switching to vegan options, we would also have to discuss the idea of switching to more local and organic options. If the United States were to suddenly require in influx of plant products (likely coming from South American and Australia) that could lead to a bump in carbon emission due to shipment and transport that almost negates the reductions from animal husbandry). This is likely an exaggeration, but a major consideration if one wants to rely on plants without going local.

    And finally, thoughts on other alternatives to vegetarianism? A lot of countries eat insects as a source of protein, would that be a potential direction to ensure people are getting the nutrition they need?

    All of this to say, the concept of veganism and vegetarianism is an awesome luxury that many of us in the United States have as a wealthier nation. I wonder as to the next steps of making it available and feasible for people in developing countries and to grounding it in a sustainable, local infrastructure that, at the same time, reduces emissions from travel. If everyone in the United States were to switch to plant-based options, that could impact domestic and international economies while potentially negatively impacting the health and food access for people in poorer communities and parts of the world. I think the focus may be better spent making animal farming more sustainable and equitable in this country than restructuring domestic and global infrastructures to better accommodate veganism, at least short term.

  2. Thanks for this in depth look at a broad look to veganism! You make excellent points about water use, and I’m glad you brought up the disparities in the ease of eating a vegan diet as a result of wealth or location. I totally agree with the idea of an education campaign, as I think it could definitely swing many environmentally conscious people. However, I wonder about the political feasibility of a subsidy which discourages meat eating. I think even many Democrats would think that this was an infringement by the government and wouldn’t support it, and others would use it as an example of the environmental movement limiting their rights and ability to work. I also worry that produce subsidies could strengthen the environmentally problematic monoculture brand of agriculture in the US.

    That’s why I think your idea for an educational campaign is so vital. I became a vegetarian after learning more about about the damage that meat production does to the environment. I was a very environmentally conscious person, but it took some extra education to make the switch. I think if the government, or and organization, made a campaign, many people could be convinced to make the change, which could start a movement. I think the switch to vegetarianism or veganism is one that has to be an individuals choice.

  3. Great points. I wrote about the issues with the United States’ food system and how important education plays a role in solving it. So I definitely agree with your ideas for an educational campaign. A lot of these issues surrounding food and food production largely stem from systemic structure laid in place by legislation (e.g. Farm Bill) and policy. But I do feel that education provides a means for grassroots action that can in turn influence changes in the aforementioned policies for the better!

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