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Ethical benefits of not eating meat

Is eating meat and dairy ethical? A definitive guide from Ethical Consumer.

From reducing your carbon footprint to avoiding poor animal welfare practices, there are many ethical benefits of not eating meat. In this article we explore some of these advantages, and also look at whether there is any truth in claims that eating meat is needed for the health of the planet.

Ethical and environmental reasons for vegetarianism and veganism

Respecting animal rights

Meat production obviously involves the slaughter of animals, which is enough for some people to give it up altogether.

But on top of this, intensive farming also often results in appalling animal cruelty up to and including when the animals are killed. In the UK, over 70% of farm animals are kept in factory farms, according to advocacy group Compassion in World Farming. Animals are often kept in crowded and filthy conditions, injuries left untreated and with no access to outdoor space.

While opposition to the killing of animals is a common reason cited by vegetarians, it’s often overlooked that dairy production also involves slaughter. Male calves are removed from their mother at birth and killed or exported live across Europe for veal production. Female calves are kept to become the next generation of milk-producers.

We talk more about animal rights and animal welfare, including comparing different certifications such as free range and organic, in a separate article.

The slaughter process itself is also problematic. Since 2018 CCTV has been mandatory in England in slaughterhouses, and since 2021 in Scotland, with Wales still in consultation. Animal rights groups campaigned for this after documenting abuse of animals in slaughterhouses.

Reducing your carbon footprint

Switching to a vegan diet could cut your greenhouse gas emissions by 75% compared to a high meat eater.

Animal agriculture is responsible for around 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

There are several reasons why it has such a high impact:

  • Cows, sheep and other ‘ruminant’ animals burp and fart methane in large quantities. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps much more heat than CO2. In the long-term it traps around 25 times the amount, but in the short-term this figure rises to 80 times. This means that methane plays a big role in setting the pace of global heating – and it could buy us significant amounts of time if we were to cut it back.
  • Animal farming requires huge amounts of land, both for the animals themselves to be kept on and for their food to be grown. This is land that could otherwise be used for natural ecosystems and carbon sinks like forests.
  • Animal agriculture is inefficient. Animals use up energy throughout their lives. When we feed them something like soya or grain (which we could ourselves eat), some of the energy from this is therefore lost. For example, one kilo of beef requires around 25 kilos of feed.

We compared the climate impacts of different diets and animal and non-animal products in a separate article.

Addressing deforestation

Meat has long been linked to deforestation in Latin America. Vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been cut down to make way for cattle rearing and soya plantations – more than three quarters of which is fed to livestock globally.

Brazil faces particularly aggressive deforestation, with farmers and corporations taking land and the way of life from many Indigenous communities. Rates of deforestation have slowed since their peak in the 2000s, with the signing of an agreement between the largest soya companies not to buy deforestation soya. But the issue is far from solved, and soya and cattle still play a crucial role.

Read more in our article ‘Is soya sustainable?

Ensuring enough food for all

We already grow enough to feed the world,  but 10% of the global population are affected by hunger, and a third are moderately or relatively food insecure, according to the UN.

Food is unfairly distributed, with around one third wasted and a disproportionate share going to the global north.

Meat is part of the problem. Almost half of the world’s grain is fed to animals or burned as fuel, taking food and land away from direct human consumption.

Consumption is also not equal across the globe. Europe and Central Asia consume 250% more than their share of milk and dairy and 900% more than their share of red meat. North America consumes 350% more than their share of milk and dairy and over 1300% more of red meat.

With major shifts in diet and distribution, we could feed all 9.7 billion people expected to be on Earth by 2050 with our current production levels. But that will require significant reductions in meat and dairy consumption by rich nations.

Tackling antibiotic resistance

White chickens packed densely together
Image courtesy of Compassion in World Farming

Overuse of antibiotics is driving the development of antibiotic resistant bugs. These bugs could cause more than 10 million deaths a year by 2050, more people than currently die from cancer. We could see minor infections and small operations again become a common cause of death.

Across the world, it’s estimated that 73% of antibiotics are used on farm animals. Piglets often receive their first antibiotics within hours of being born. Many animals will be fed antibiotics in their food and water, to prevent disease or promote growth rather than treat illness.

The overuse of antibiotics is closely linked to factory farming, where they are used to manage the risks of keeping animals in overcrowded, dirty conditions, and subjecting them to painful mutilations like tail docking.

Is eating meat ethical?

It's important to consider other views on food and animals. Are there any ethical or environmental arguments against vegetarianism and veganism?

Some people claim that the meat industry is vital to keeping certain ecosystems healthy and cutting down on food miles from alternative options. Here, we fact check some of these claims and consider whether there are any major ethical or environmental disadvantages to avoiding meat and dairy.

Environmental and ethical arguments against vegan and vegetarian diets

Since the 2010s, claims have been flying around that cows can reverse desertification and help to sequester carbon. Healthy grasslands can store huge amounts of carbon underground – in some areas even more than forest. Cows can help to regenerate degraded grassland. For example, nibbling on roots can help with growth.

But there is a big catch. Cows can also completely trash the land. While they can be useful in some specific contexts, and with some specific husbandry techniques, the beef you buy from the supermarket will not have been sequestering carbon, even if it has been grazing. A research study in 2018 in fact found that the global potential of grazing animals helping store carbon was many times outweighed by the overall greenhouse gas emissions from them.

Is local meat better than soya?

Others suggest that locally reared meat and dairy is a better alternative than soya produced in the Amazon or heavily packaged food imported from abroad. But from a carbon perspective, these claims just don’t add up.

Firstly, the vast majority of soya is fed to animals not humans – including to animals reared in the UK. Secondly, packaging and food miles account for a surprisingly small portion of overall emissions. A milk carton contributes around 5% of the carbon footprint of milk, for example, and food miles on average make up around 11% of an item’s carbon footprint.

Of course there are plenty of other good reasons to eat local unpackaged food. You can cut down on plastic pollution, put money back into the local economy and support farmers, as well as identify those whose practices you agree with. But from an environmental standpoint your best bet is eating local non-animal products.

Meat is likely to remain an important part of diets in some parts of the world. It is a good source of nutrients and protein, particularly for undernourished populations, and in areas where other forms of high-nutrient or protein-rich food can’t be grown year-round.

A handful of small scale farmers are also rearing animals more sustainably, for example through conservation grazing.

However, these facts bear little relation to the current reality of meat and dairy consumption for most of us in the global north: populations in Europe and America are eating vastly more than our share of meat and dairy by any count, the majority of which is farmed in extremely unsustainable intensive conditions.

How to avoid animal products

Animal ingredients can be hidden in many products. As well as avoiding the obvious like meat, cheese and eggs, vegans have to keep an eye on what’s in their wine, beer, make up, clothing and even carpets and furniture.

You can use our product guides to see which companies use animal derived ingredients, including for items like clothing and cosmetics.

We also have special guides to vegan products, such as plant-based milks, meat-free sausages and burgers and feature non-animal products in guides such as butter and spreads and eggs.

How does Ethical Consumer rate companies on animal issues?

Under our ratings system, companies receive negative marks for the following animal rights and animal welfare issues:

  • factory farming
  • sale of factory farmed fish, meat or eggs
  • production or sale of leather or fur
  • production or sale of silk
  • supply of animal feed

When a company makes a product that is either labelled as vegetarian or vegan or approved by the Vegetarian or Vegan Society, it receives a positive mark.

In many of the shopping guides we also highlight which companies are fully vegan, and which brands are vegan brands owned by non-vegetarian or non-vegan companies.