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4 Environmental Impacts of Eating a Hamburger You Probably Don't Want to Know

by Amanda Machado Feb 15, 2016

I’ve been a meat-eater all my life. But after watching the Netflix documentary Cowspiracy, I’ve been seriously rethinking my diet.

Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film has narrator Kip Anderson exposing the truth behind what he calls “the most destructive industry facing the planet today.”

It’s hard to justify my eating habits after watching this film and learning just how much damage one hamburger can do to the planet. Here are a few facts that may change your mind too:

1. Eating one hamburger wastes more water on the planet than 2 months of showering.

We’ve all heard the “Take shorter showers!” tip from environmentalists. But what we don’t hear as often is how much water a meat-eating diet requires.

Time reported that raising animals for food is responsible for 30% of the world’s fresh water consumption. The documentary found that that 1 quarter pounder requires 660 gallons of water to produce, roughly the equivalent to two entire months of showering.

Generally, more water is wasted every day through the meat we eat than through the things we do at home. A shorter shower isn’t going to cut it. To truly save water, we need to look at how much meat we eat each day.

2. It takes 18 times as much land to feed a meat-eater than it does to feed a vegan.

Raising cattle requires acres of land that the earth simply doesn’t have — .5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food, but three times the amount of land (1.5 acres) only produces 375 pounds of meat.

According to the documentary, though it only takes around one sixth an acre of land to feed a person on a vegan diet, it takes eighteen times as much for a person eating meat. And Time reported that we already use around one third of the earth’s ice-free land only for raising livestock. The documentary also argued that much of the destruction made to forests, animal habitats and other naturals areas has been simply a results of trying to make more room for meat. The World Bank found that animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction.

With the amount of meat Americans eat each day, there simply isn’t enough land on earth to sustainably satisfy the demand for meat in this country. According to NPR, Americans eat an average of over 200 pounds of meat per person a year. To put that number in perspective, Bangladeshis eat only four pounds a year. At the meat consumption rate we’re going, it will be impossible to create land for raising livestock in the future.

3. Meat does more damage to the atmosphere than all transportation combined.

Hybrid cars and riding bikes may be all the rage in environmentally conscious circles. But new data shows that transportation isn’t necessarily the environment’s biggest problem.

The Guardian reported an analysis from think tank Chatham House that found that raising cattle around the world creates more greenhouse emissions than that of cars, boats, planes, and trains combined.

How does this happen? Much of it comes from livestock waste. The digestive process of cattle releases methane into the atmosphere, which far more dangerous than the carbon dioxide emitted from cars.

With the amount of livestock we have on the planet today, the waste levels and the methane they consequently produce are unsustainable. Every minute, animals raised for food in the US produce 7 million pounds of excrement in the United States alone.

The Guardian reported that emissions from livestock make up almost 15% of emissions around the world (beef and dairy alone make up 65% of that 15%). Even more alarming, livestock are predicted have the biggest increases in emissions than other sources. The documentary reported that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase 20% by 2040, while emissions created from livestock is expected to increase 80% by 2050. Meanwhile, plant-based diet could cut your carbon footprint by over 51%.

The chief of the UN’s climate science panel had warned the public about these numbers, but his warnings were mostly disregarded by many in the environmental community. A worldwide Ipsos MORI surveys found that most people still think transportation is the more important issue in terms of global warming.

4. If we took all the feed we give to cattle on the planet and turned it into food for human beings, we could feed every human being on the planet.

According to the documentary, the world population consumes 21 billion gallons of food each day, while our cow population consumes 135 billion gallons. We currently grow enough food to feed the world’s population. And yet, most of the food we make ends up going to cattle instead of human beings.

Perhaps most ironically, this happens most in countries with the largest populations in poverty: a country uses food to feed cattle, to produce beef to later sell to wealthier Western countries, instead of using food to feed their own people.


The documentary made it clear: our environmental goals are somewhat misinformed. Focusing entirely on recycling, riding bikes, driving hybrids, and saving water won’t necessarily produce the best results for the planet. We’d create a far greater impact simply by looking at our habit of eating meat.

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