What would a meat-free world look like?

Illustration by Lorenza Centi for Mic
Originally Published: 

Mic is celebrating Earth Day with an entire week of stories. Over the next few days we’ll be rolling out pieces on hyper-urban farming, the future of construction, the catastrophic environmental costs of the dreaded gender reveal, an optimistic imagining of a meat-free world, and much more. All of the stories will be cataloged here, along with the rest of our environmental coverage.

Hot dogs at the ballpark, hamburgers on the grill, a celebratory dinner at the steakhouse. So many moments that feel like quintessential parts of the American experience are connected to food and, more often than not, meat. We're not alone in that, either. Countries like Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, and many other wealthy, developed nations have something of a meat fetish. Rapidly developing countries like China and Brazil have seen demand for meat increase as they grow, driven largely by rising income levels.

"Worldwide meat production has more than quadrupled since 1961, and it's swallowing up our climate and ecosystems," Emma Garnett, a research fellow at King's College London's School of Population Health and Environmental Sciences, says. That is only expected to continue. In the short term, experts expect meat consumption will increase by about 1.5% per year through 2023. The United Nations projects global meat consumption will increase by 76% by 2050. The global population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion by mid-century, and income is expected to increase significantly in developing countries, enabling more people to access and demand the meat-heavy diets of wealthy nations.

While more people may demand it, the planet simply cannot sustain it. In the United States alone, meat production contributes more than 280 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year. Ditching it would be like taking 60 million gas-guzzling cars off our roads. According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the global livestock sector accounts for 7.1 gigatons of carbon emissions each year. That represents nearly 16% of all greenhouse gas emissions and has about the same environmental impact of burning 16.4 billion barrels of oil.

We can't afford to keep this up. So we're taking it away. Consider this a Thanos-like finger snap, but instead of cutting the population in half, we're taking away all of the meat. That hot dog you were about to bite into while waiting for the opening pitch? Well, the bun is empty now. So are all the freezers and display cases at your local grocery store. The majority of menus at your favorite restaurants are just blank space now.

Meat is gone. What now?

"The beauty of the next generation of alternative proteins is that there is no sacrifice."

Let's start with your plate. If you're a frequent meat-eater, envisioning what a meal may look like without a go-to protein source like chicken or pork can be a challenge, or even cause a bit of a panic. Emma Ignaszewski, corporate engagement project manager at the nonprofit food advocacy organization Good Food Institute, says that you have nothing to worry about. "The beauty of the next generation of alternative proteins is that there is no sacrifice." According to Ignaszewski, plant-based proteins and cultured meat, or lab-grown meat that is derived directly from animal cells, present options to eat in ways that "resonate with people from the scale of the taste bud to the scale of human culture."

There are already lots of vegetables that can effectively replace the protein that we get from meat sources. Black beans, lentils, and soybeans are great sources of the essential nutrient. Increasingly, plant-based alternatives to meat are capable of replicating the taste, texture, and even behavior of familiar meats. Lab-grown meats are even real meat, but without requiring all of the land and resources and slaughter of living creatures (though these alternatives still present plenty of complicated, sticky ethical questions to navigate).

"At a glance, the meals we share with our families tomorrow don't have to look any different from the meals we eat today," Ignaszewski explains, noting that even in a meatless world, we will be able to get foods that offer "taste and texture that is the same or better, nutrition that is the same or better, at a cost that is the same or lower than those of conventional animal meat."

[Illustration by Lorenza Centi for Mic]

While it's nice to have familiar foods on your plate, there's also plenty out there to expand our palates. Eve Turow-Paul, founder and executive director of Food for Climate League, points out that 75% of the world's food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. "There are up to 300,000 edible plants, and we eat less than 200 of them," she says. "There are tons of delicious foods out there that are currently being ignored. Instead, most of us are focusing on a small handful of foods, especially proteins. It's time to expand our horizons and celebrate the outrageous and overlooked diversity of options available for us to enjoy." Take a bite of a boiled wild grape vine, cook up a flavorful red clover, or chown down on an earthy dandelion and see what you've been missing out on.

When the food that you pile up on your plate changes, you can expect some changes to your body, too. That's not a bad thing. According to Ignaszewski, ditching meat would provide many positive health effects. "Plant-based meat tends to have less total fat, less saturated fat, less or no trans fat, no cholesterol, more complex carbohydrates, and healthy fiber," she says. She notes that animal-based meat has no fiber at all, and in fact can contain potentially harmful drug residue and toxins.

The Mayo Clinic notes that people who don't eat meat generally consume fewer calories and less fat. As a result, they typically are less at risk of the health complications tied to obesity and have a lower risk of heart disease. Harvard researchers have found that people who don't eat meat are likely to have lower total and LDL cholesterol (that's the bad one), lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI). This typically correlates to a reduced risk for chronic diseases and can result in improved health and longer lives.

Cows on a farm in Cobbtown, Georgia. [Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images]

There are mental health benefits, too. According to Turow-Paul, choosing to go meat-free "can help us feel more in control of our health, more bonded to the world and people around us, and more purposeful." She says that eating in a more sustainable way means eating foods that bring us closer to the people who grow and prepare our foods and the places our foods come from. "It means eating in ways that allow us to celebrate a greater diversity of people and cultures on our plates, and eating foods that empower us to make a legitimate positive impact through each dollar spent and every bite taken."

Meatless diets don't just help us directly but can improve the health of everyone around us, too — and in unexpected ways. Take, for instance, air quality. We may not associate meat with air pollution — after all, there aren't thick black clouds of smoke billowing out of grazing cows — but what we eat affects the planet in ways we might not expect. In China, a shift to more meat-heavy diets over the last few decades has resulted in more use of nitrogen fertilizer, which increases the amount of ammonia emissions that are put into the atmosphere. More demand also means more cattle, and cow burps are a notoriously dense source of methane gas emissions. This contributes to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which worsens the effects of climate change and degrades air quality. A study found that China suffers 70,000 premature deaths each year because of air pollution that is caused by meat production.

The very production of meat presents other health risks that affect everyone, whether you personally consume meat or not. "Taking a public health perspective, shifting to alternative proteins will also improve public health outcomes and reduce the risk of pandemics," Ignaszewski says. Relying on factory farms for meat, where animals are often packed into overcrowded spaces and living in unsanitary conditions, can create the risk of infectious diseases spreading. The Food and Agriculture Organization has called livestock raised in these environments "the weakest link in our global health chain," and we have in fact seen the spread of major disease from factory farming. It's believed the H1N1 swine flu, which resulted in more than 12,000 deaths, originated in a factory farm setting.

[Illustration by Lorenza Centi for Mic]

Of course, cutting meat wouldn't just help human health. It would improve the overall health of the planet, too. John Lynch, an environmental scientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, says that removing all livestock emissions could have a huge impact, both in the short and long term. "Just over half of [these emissions] comes from methane," he explains. "If we cut out these methane emissions we would then rapidly, over a few decades, reverse the warming they currently cause." He notes that carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions would not disappear as quickly, because they are long-living gases that can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. "But we would be able to stop further temperature increases from these emission sources."

On top of that, Lynch says that land used for livestock could potentially be used to grow food more efficiently. Truly, it would be hard not to improve on the current efficiency of meat production. Ignaszewski notes that chicken, pork, and beef production use "more than 20 times as much land as plant-based meat." The production process also requires more water than you might imagine. According to researchers at Penn State, producing one ton of vegetables requires about 11,300 gallons of water. One ton of pork consumes 121,000 gallons — more than 10 times the amount required for those vegetables. As a result, researchers have found that 50 grams of red meat can have 20 times the carbon footprint as 100 grams of vegetables.

Demand for meat also often requires repurposing land that would otherwise be occupied by essential ecosystems. Meat production is the leading driver for deforestation around the planet, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and is responsible for more than 70% of deforestation in the Amazon alone. Rainforests are essential carbon sinks, sucking up emissions and keeping them from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. By cutting them down for meat production, we're weakening our defenses while increasing our emissions.

Ditching meat isn't going to be as easy as snapping our fingers, and it doesn't have to be. Meat or even meat-like foods can remain an important source of protein and nutrients. But producing it must become sustainable. "We need a predominantly plant-based diet to prevent runaway climate change, protect nature, and improve our health," Garrett says.

While this change is absolutely necessary, we don't have to look at this as a sacrifice. Turow-Paul argues that it's an opportunity. "The biggest mistake we make when talking about 'meatless' diets is leaving out the fantastic story about what we can be eating instead: hyper-flavorful, nutrient-loaded, re-localized, seasonal, diverse, beautiful foods that will benefit our personal health, our mental health, our economies, and our planet to ensure that Mother Earth continues to be a home for human beings."

The planet has given us bountiful options of foods to eat and enjoy. The least we can do is pick the ones that won't destroy it.