How Less Meat Consumption Can Save the Planet – and Our Wallets

We have another fabulous guest post for you this week! This one is by Bob Haegele who writes over at The Frugal Fellow, a truly amazing writer who is able to seamlessly merge the frugal, the sustainable, and the financial without kipping a beat. Check him out!

Saving money is great, but you might think that means shelling out extra cash for organic foods and fancy meat alternatives. While that could be the case depending on what you buy and where you shop, it’s far from inevitable. In this post, I’m going to cover how you can save money by cutting back on meat, and, in doing so, help preserve the environment as well.

Notice how I didn’t say going vegan or even going vegetarian, for that matter. If you can do either, that’s even better. But reducing meat consumption is a lot like saving money: every little bit helps.

In addition, I believe most of us can cut back a little bit if we put our minds to it – especially when considering that choice would make our wallets a little bit happier.

This is something I am doing personally; it has been called “part-time vegetarian” or “flexitarian.” This is my own prediction, but I feel this type of diet will not only become more popular as the 21st century progresses, but will become increasingly necessary, too.

For now though, let’s consider some of the benefits of cutting back on meat consumption.

Saving Money

Saving money is important, especially these days. Without a doubt, one of the easiest ways to save money is by cutting back on meat consumption. While it’s no saffron, which apparently costs $3,000 for 2 pounds, meat isn’t the cheapest food item, either.

And though it might be a bit oversimplified to just compare the cost of a pound of beef to a pound of beans, for example, the latter is undoubtedly cheaper.

And if you’re making a simple dish that uses rice as a base with a few spices, for example, it’s a bit more feasible to imagine beans being a direct substitute for chicken.

Consider this breakdown from howstuffworks:

“Today’s chicken breasts sell for around $5 a pound, and one chicken breast fillet gives you about 24 grams of protein per serving. Compare that with black beans, another source of protein; you can buy a can (approximately 1 pound) of black beans for about a buck, which will provide you with about 24 grams of protein per serving, as well. The average American eats about 50 pounds of chicken per year, according to PBS. That adds up to about $250 a year just for chicken. Or, if you’re a vegetarian, that’d be about $50 a year for black beans. In this case, you’d save $200 per year by going vegetarian.”

Again, I think this might be a bit oversimplified (Are you really going to eat black beans every time you would normally eat chicken?). It’s also not a life-changing amount of money – but, then again, this is just chicken. Chicken is relatively cheap.

It’s certainly cheaper than beef. So, let’s briefly analyze that cost.

Cost of Meat (and Steak) vs. Alternatives

While looking up stats for this article, I found that Americans spent $961 on meat eaten at home in 2018. There don’t appear to be stats that include the total amount Americans spent on meat while also including restaurants.

I suppose that makes sense to a degree, given that if people are eating out at restaurants, the amount we spend also includes things like drinks and sides.

But, that said, you are probably aware that a steak at a nice steakhouse can easily be $30 or more. And that’s just for the steak!

Sure, you probably aren’t going to steakhouses everyday, but the cost for this one cut of beef is really quite high considering the amount of food you’re getting.

Even if you get your steaks at the grocery store, it’s not exactly cheap. One article shows the price to be $9.62/lb for a whole tenderloin. Using the same example above which compared chicken to beans, that would mean saving nearly $400 per year by cutting out steak.

I realize these numbers aren’t perfect; diets vary, as do grocery store prices. Still, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to save a three-digit dollar amount each year by cutting back on meat consumption.

Preserving Our Environment

I sometimes hear that those who wish to evangelize the environmentally negligent should focus on its cost-cutting benefits. It’s partly for that reason that I started with those benefits above.

But I also wanted to kind of just get it out of the way. That is the low-hanging fruit. It’s a less, shall we say, “meaty” analysis. I mean, anyone walking through the grocery store aisles can see how cheap black beans are.

What’s less obvious, though, are the environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption. That’s probably because most of us never see the negative impacts of meat production.

But they are there, and they are stark.

To show this, we’ll look at three specific consequences of meat production: land use, water consumption, and antibiotic use.

Land Use

One of the biggest problems that comes along with meat production is land use. The thing is that it isn’t just about saving the majestic tigers, or whichever wild beast you prefer.

No, there is a very real logistical challenge. See, meat production uses a lot of land. According to Global Agriculture, “livestock accounts for 77% of global farming land. While livestock takes up most of the world’s agricultural land it only produces 18% of the world’s calories and 37% of total protein.”

Conversely, crops take up just 23% of agricultural land use.

Along the same lines, lamb & mutton need 185 square meters of land per gram of protein, compared to tofu, which needs just 2.2 square meters of land for the same amount of protein. Beef needs 163.3 square meters.

Given that so many people love meat, it’s easy to see why the above stats mean that deforestation is becoming a bigger and bigger problem.

It’s worth noting that beef, lamb, and mutton use huge amounts of land, even among livestock. For instance, chicken and pork only need 10.7 square meters and 7.1 square meters per gram of protein consumed, conversely.

Thus, we can see that lamb, mutton, and beef are the real culprits, at least when it comes to land use.

Nevertheless, as the world’s population grows, and as many countries see an increase in their standard of living, meat production is projected to grow with it dramatically. How much? According to the FAO, meat consumption is projected to grow 73% by 2050.

But regardless of standard of living, every part of the world has been on nearly the same trajectory in terms of increase in meat production:

It’s worth noting that data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) only projects a modest increase in farmland use through 2050:

1.59 billion hectares in 2020 vs. 1.66 billion hectares in 2050, or about a 4% increase.

But if global meat consumption is to increase by 73%, the trend is still worrying. Especially since, according to the FAO, meat production currently accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

If production in that industry must nearly double, and the planet is already warming, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which we aren’t hurtling toward a rather bleak future.

Water Use

As if everything else mentioned here isn’t enough, beef needs an eye-popping amount of water to produce. If you want to reduce your water consumption so you decide to take slightly shorter showers, all the while continuing to eat beef, you may want to reconsider.

While researching this topic, I found a fascinating graphic in an article from spoonuniversity.com. If you’re a visual person like me, I’m sure you will really appreciate this:

Notice the drastic difference in numbers here. The burger patty and three slices of bacon aone need almost 800 gallons of water to produce. Meanwhile, the cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and bun combined need just over 63 gallons.

I haven’t even mentioned how much the cows themselves have to eat (yes, they eat a lot). And they don’t just eat a lot – much like the disproportionately large amount of land needed to raise cows, they also eat a ton relative to the amount of food they yield.

So, next time you’re getting out of the shower before you finish rinsing the soap off, maybe think about how much beef you eat first.

Antibiotic Use

One of my main inspirations for this particular article has come from the Netflix series “Explained.” In particular, season 2, episode 8, “The Future of Meat.” If you have Netflix, I highly recommend watching it.

One tidbit to which I was, admittedly, completely oblivious before watching this episode is the role of antibiotics in meat production.

TL;DR: livestock that is raised for meat production used to be much smaller than it is today. Thanks to antibiotics, livestock can grow a whole lot larger, resulting in higher yields.

That is all well and good, but it also raises a huge red flag. After all, antibiotics are medicines used to treat bacterial infections. But bacteria are incredibly adaptive organisms, and repeated use of antibiotics leads to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Furthermore, those bacteria can potentially be transmitted to humans from animals. For example, a report from the WHO showed several cases where such transmission had occurred.

There is certainly a capitalistic element at play here; meat producers aren’t just increasing their yields to be sure no one goes hungry. They also want to bring in more money.

But, at the end of the day, people have to eat something, and yet, meeting the demand for meat already requires raising unnaturally large livestock.

Now, imagine what it will be like with people consuming 73% more meat than they do today.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s difficult to know exactly where we go from here. A number of possible solutions have been proposed, from meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger to lab-grown meat.

While these alternatives might have a place in the bigger picture, there isn’t a single solution for every single person. We each must make our own choices that are not only right for us at the time, but also help to create a more sustainable population.

Personally, I believe moderation is the best way to approach this growing problem. Going “cold turkey” is not necessarily a must.

Part-time vegetarianism and flexitarianism will (and must) become more prevalent in the decades ahead. Not only is it better for the environment, but it’s better for our wallets, too.

And, of course, some people will choose to be completely vegetarian or vegan, which is also good.

If you currently eat meat every day, eating meat every other day or two or three times a week would go a long way in not only saving you money, but also in helping address the growing sustainability concerns around the meat industry.

I do acknowledge that some people have certain dietary restrictions and needs which will make this difficult, if not impossible. But, again, this is not an all-or-nothing scenario. It’s simply about doing the best we each can given our own set of circumstances.

That is all any of us can do. But if we do that, we’ll be working to build a better (and cheaper) future.

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2 thoughts on “How Less Meat Consumption Can Save the Planet – and Our Wallets

  1. I love this! This year, I started only having meat at one meal a day and taking one day not to eat any. It’s definitely saving me money. I figure that I can gradually eliminate more meat as I learn more vegetarian recipes. That way, it won’t feel like such a steep curve.

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