“Meatless Monday” has taken the world by storm. This popular trend, which is active in more than 40 countries, started with the intention of offsetting the negative impacts of animal agriculture on the environment. However, most people have yet to discover that eating meat may not actually be as bad for the environment as people claim.

Meat’s Effect On The Earth

Meat production has definitely taken its toll on the environment. It’s estimated that methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, from cattle accounts for 20 percent of the overall methane emissions in the United States. Also, nearly four-fifths of the deforestation in the Amazon rainforest can be attributed to cattle ranching.

Livestock production also poses a problem for food availability. After all, those animals need to be fed something.

“If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,” said David Pimental, an ecologist at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Pimental also notes that all of the livestock in the United States, a number which tops 7 billion, collectively eat five times the amount of grains than the entire United States population of 325 million people. To grow enough food to feed livestock, fertilizer, fuel, pesticides, water, and land are all needed. In fact, feeding all the livestock in the United States requires astronomical amounts of pesticides and fertilizer which produces copious amounts of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. This gas is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

A Case Against Vegetarianism

If eating meat is so bad for the environment, a vegetarian diet should solve everything, right?

Wrong.

The environmental impact of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle often goes overlooked. This is because many people fail to realize that you need to eat more fruits and vegetables to make up for the calories you would normally consume with meat.

Producing greater amounts of fruits and vegetables requires higher levels of energy and more water, all while contributing to more greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, foods that may be healthy for us may not be doing the planet any favors.

“There’s a complex relationship between diet and the environment,” said Michelle Tom, a researcher who has studied vegetarianisms effects on the environment. “What is good for us health-wise isn’t always what’s best for the environment. That’s important for public officials to know and for them to be cognizant of these tradeoffs as they develop or continue to develop dietary guidelines in the future.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Although there is conflicting evidence as to whether vegetarianism is better or worse for the environment, one diet is not going to solve the world’s problems.

“You can’t lump all vegetables together and say they’re good. You can’t lump all meat together and say it’s bad,” Paul Fischbeck, another researcher explains. “My bottom line is that there are no simple answers to complex problems. Diet and the environmental impact of agriculture … is not a simple problem.”

To reduce the environmental impact of growing our food, it all begins with being mindful of what we eat and how much of it we consume. Then, with further research, we can begin to shift our eating habits to help sustain our planet.