Reduce or eliminate meat from your plate to lower the environmental footprint of your food choices

Apr 1, 2019

Meatless diets: In the past and today

The concept of vegetarian diets (without consumption of meat) started a very long time ago in human history. In fact, as early as year 530, the famous greek philosopher Pythagoras who gave us his theorem in mathematics, was not only focusing his thinking on the hypotenuse of the right-angle triangle. He would also theorize about vegetarianism! He would even go as far as banning meat consumption for his students or forbid wearing clothing made of wool. For him, killing an animal was a serious crime. Therefore, he was closer to what we would call veganism, a lifestyle involving not only a meatless diet but also the elimination of the consumption of products derived from animals like milk, eggs, honey, wool and leather.

For many years, people have associated vegetarianism to a small exclusive group of people who would care enough about the planet to accept paying more for products often only available in specialized stores. Today, a variety of vegetarian diets exist, from the « flexitarian » (an occasional meat eater) to « vegan » (consumer of strictly plant-based foods). By definition, the word vegetarian means « without animal flesh » and is associated with a plant-based nutrition. However, when you take a closer look at the different diets out there, you quickly realize that there is a lot of important nuances to consider:

  • Semi-vegetarian (also called flexitarian) : limit their consumption of meat without being exclusively vegetarian. They will consume fish, seafood and poultry from time to time.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian (most common type) : does not consume meat but consumes products derived from animals like milk, eggs, cheese, and honey.
  • Ovo-vegetarian : consumes eggs but no dairy products (i.e. milk, yogurt and cheese) or meat.
  • Lacto-vegetarian : consumes products derived from animals like milk and cheese, with the exception of eggs and meat.
  • Pesco-vegetarian : consumes a strictly plant-based diet with the exception of fish, crustaceans and molluscs occasionally.
  • Vegan (the ultimate vegetarian) : strictly plant-based diet where the person does not consume any meat or any products derived from animals (i.e. milk, cheese, eggs, honey, etc.)

People can adopt a vegetarian diet for many different reasons. Some have ethical, religious or cultural motivations, or reasons associated with health. For those who are doing it for its ethical values, the reason is animal rights and well-being (ex. the act of removing a resource from an animal is perceived morally unacceptable, like when we take milk from a cow that was supposed to go to her calf). For others that are motivated by health reasons, according to multiple experts in the field, a plant-based nutrition would provide many benefits, from weight loss to the prevention of certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases and other problems like chronic diseases, through improving the immune system.

The environmental benefits of meatless diets

On top of reasons mentioned above, there are other important factors that would encourage someone to adopt a vegetarian diet. For example, the protection of the environment. Concerns for the preservation of ecosystems and species living within them, the fight against intensive fisheries, saving natural resources (ex. reduction of water consumption) and the need for action on global warming (i.e. reducing deforestation and the emissions of greenhouse gas generated by the operations around production) are all motivations for many people nowadays who hold the health of our planet close to their heart. In fact, we estimate that the production of food alone is responsible for up to a third of greenhouse gas emissions on the globe. The World Resources Institute recently reported that if we do not change our food consumption habits, agriculture could contribute to raising average temperature on Earth by more than 1.5 oC over the preindustrial levels. The production of meat contributes to a large portion of that temperature increase because of its energy intensive nature. Indeed, many foods picked up every day at the grocery stores or a fast-food produces surprisingly high quantities of greenhouse gas and the situation is even more serious when these food include meat. As an example, a simple breakfast sandwich with bacon, sausage and egg would be generating close to 1.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide from being produced to arriving in the consumer hands. This is equivalent to driving 9 kilometers in a Honda Civic sedan! And what about the water consumed while raising animals for meat and dairy. We estimate that it takes about 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef for human consumption! That quantity of water could fill-up a small above ground backyard pool or even provide enough for about 250 showers! In comparison, the amount required for 1 kilo of legumes is only a little bit more than 4,000 liters (so close to a quarter of the amount required for the same weight in beef). By grams of protein, the water footprint of legumes is 6 times lower than beef, which also has a water footprint 20 times more important than cereal crops.

Some actions to help you reduce of eliminate meat from your plate

Obviously, nothing is perfect and regardless of the diet one will adopt, there will always be a small or very important impact on the environment since our food provision brings into play a series of steps from production to consumption, through packaging, transportation and shipping of products. The following section will offer you some ideas on how you can reduce or even eliminate meat and animal derived products from your plate so you can reduce the footprint associated with your foods.

  1. When preparing your grocery shopping list, plan to cook at least one meal that will not contain meat (ex. vegetarian burger recipe, sauteed veggies with tofu);
  2. Replace some typical ingredients in a well-known recipe to convert it to a vegetarian or even vegan one (ex. make your spaghetti sauce with lentils or textured vegetable proteins instead of the ground meat, replace the meat in your chilli by an alternative product like a « no-meat ground » made from soy);
  3. Replace the source of proteins you usually add as toppers to your salads (ex. chicken or beef strips) with options like legumes (ex. chickpeas, lentils, beans) or with nuts or seeds (ex. sunflower or pumpkin seeds);
  4. Substitute some of your favorite processed foods, made from meat products, with meatless alternatives (ex. replace your chicken nuggets with a meatless version made from soy, substitute your cow or goat cheese with a nut based option);
  5. Replace your favorite desserts like ice cream and yogourt by vegan options (ex. made from soy, coconut or nuts), choose a good dark chocolate instead of the typical milk-based ones or, even better, make your own frozen dessert by using frozen fruits (ex. bananas, blueberries, cherries, strawberries)
  6. Substitute the cow milk in your cereals or in your smoothie in the morning by an alternative made from nuts, oat, coconut or soy;
  7. When you cook, replace the butter by a plant-based oil (ex. sunflower seed or olive oil);
  8. Even when we expect it the least, milk can be listed as one of the ingredients in many products so really take the time to read the list carefully on the snacks you buy to make sure it does not contain any (ex. crackers, granola bars, chips).

Finally, here are a few links leading to websites where you will find ideas for recipes that could inspire you to try and reduce or even eliminate meat and animal derived products from your food choices!

The Buddhist Chef:

Oh She Glows:

The Vegan 8:

Minimalist Baker:

About the Author:

Jimmy Therrien has been with The Gaia Project since 2011 and is the Program Director. He holds a Bachelor of Science and Masters in Environmental Studies.

Click here to learn more about Jimmy.


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Chung, E. (2018, December 6). Your meals are speeding up climate change, but there’s a way to eat sustainably. Retrieved from

Craddock, J. & Probst, Y. (2019, March 6). Eat your vegetables – studies show plant-based diets are good for immunity. Retrieved from

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