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How to be an ethical omnivore

Can you eat meat and still be environmentally friendly?

While vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be more environmentally friendly, not everyone wants to give up eating meat altogether. This article reviews how to eat both meat and plants more sustainably.

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts, and fact-checked by experts.
We look at both sides of the argument and strive to be objective, unbiased, and honest.
How to be an ethical omnivore
Last updated on January 23, 2023, and last reviewed by an expert on September 10, 2021.

Food production creates an inevitable strain on the environment.

How to be an ethical omnivore

Your daily food choices can greatly affect the overall sustainability of your diet.

Though vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be more environmentally friendly, not everyone wants to give up eating meat altogether.

This article covers some of the major effects of food production on the environment, as well as how to eat both meat and plants more sustainably.

In short, here’s how to be an ethical omnivore.

In this article

Environmental impact of food

With the production of food for human consumption comes an environmental cost.

The demand for food, energy, and water continues to rise with the increase in the world’s population, leading to increased stress on our planet.

While the demand for these resources can’t be avoided altogether, it’s important to become educated about them to make more sustainable decisions surrounding food.

Agricultural land use

One of the main modifiable factors when it comes to agriculture is land use.

With half of the world’s habitable land now being used for agriculture, land use plays a big role in the environmental impact of food production.

More specifically, certain agricultural products, such as livestock, lamb, mutton, and cheese, take up the majority of the world’s agricultural land.

Livestock account for 77% of global farming land use, when grazing pastures and land used to grow animal feed are taken into consideration.

That said, they only make up 18% of the world’s calories and 17% of the world’s protein.

As more land is used for industrial agriculture, wild habitats are displaced, disrupting the environment.

On a positive note, agricultural technology has drastically improved throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries.

This improvement in technology has increased crop yield per unit of land, requiring less agricultural land to produce the same amount of food.

One step we can take toward creating a sustainable food system is avoiding the conversion of forest land to agricultural land.

You can help by joining a land preservation society in your area.

Greenhouse gases

Another major environmental impact of food production is greenhouse gases, with food production making up about one-quarter of global emissions.

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The main greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.

Greenhouse gases are one of the major purported factors responsible for climate change.

Of the 25% that food production contributes, livestock and fisheries account for 31%, crop production for 27%, land use for 24%, and the supply chain for 18%.

Considering that different agricultural products contribute varying amounts of greenhouse gases, your food choices can greatly affect your carbon footprint, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases caused by an individual.

Keep reading to find out some ways in which you can reduce your carbon footprint while still enjoying many of the foods you love.

Water use

While water may seem like an infinite resource for most of us, many areas of the world experience water scarcity.

Agriculture is responsible for about 70% of freshwater use worldwide.

That said, different agricultural products use varying amounts of water during their production.

The most water-intensive products to produce are cheese, nuts, farmed fish, and prawns, followed by dairy cows.

Thus, more sustainable agricultural practices present a great opportunity to control water use.

Some examples of this include the use of drip irrigation over sprinklers, capturing rainwater to water crops, and growing drought-tolerant crops.

Fertilizer runoff

The last major impact of traditional food production I want to mention is fertilizer runoff, also referred to as eutrophication.

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When crops are fertilized, there’s potential for excess nutrients to enter the surrounding environment and waterways, which in turn can disrupt natural ecosystems.

You may think that organic farming could be a solution to this, but that’s not necessarily the case.

While organic farming methods must be free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they’re not chemical-free.

Thus, switching to organic products doesn’t entirely solve the issues of runoff.

That said, organic products have been shown to have less pesticide residue than their conventionally farmed counterparts.

While you can’t directly change fertilizer practices of farms as a consumer, you can advocate for more environmentally friendly options, such as the use of cover crops and planting trees to manage runoff.

Summary: With the production of food for human consumption comes a variety of environmental impacts. The main modifiable impacts of food production include land use, greenhouse gases, water use, and fertilizer runoff.

Ways to eat more sustainably

Here are some ways in which you can eat more sustainably, including when it comes to meat consumption.

Does eating local matter?

When it comes to reducing your carbon footprint, eating local is a common recommendation.

While eating local seems to make sense intuitively, it doesn’t appear to have as much of an impact on sustainability for most foods as you would expect — though it may offer other benefits.

Recent data shows that what you eat is much more important than where it comes from, as transportation only makes up a small amount of a food’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

This means that choosing a lower emission food, such as poultry, over a much higher emission food, such as beef, has a bigger impact — regardless of where the foods have traveled from.

That being said, one category in which eating local may reduce your carbon footprint is with highly perishable foods, which need to be quickly transported due to their short shelf lives.

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Oftentimes, these foods are air-freighted, significantly increasing their overall emissions by up to 50 times more than transportation by sea.

These mainly include fresh fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus, green beans, berries, and pineapples.

It’s important to note that only a very small amount of the food supply travels by air — most are transported via large ships or on trucks overland.

That said, eating local may have other benefits, such as supporting local producers using more sustainable farming practices, eating with the seasons, knowing exactly where your food is coming from, and how it was produced.

Moderate red meat consumption

Protein-rich foods, such as meats, dairy, and eggs, make up about 83% of our dietary emissions.

In terms of overall carbon footprint, beef and lamb are the highest on the list.

This is due to their extensive land use, feeding requirements, processing, and packaging.

In addition, cows produce methane in their guts during the digestion process, further contributing to their carbon footprint.

While red meats produce about 60 kg of CO2 equivalents per kg of meat — a common measure of greenhouse gas emissions — other foods make up significantly less.

For example, poultry farming produces 6 kg, fish 5 kg, and eggs 4.5 kg of CO2 equivalents per kg of meat.

As a comparison, that’s 132 pounds, 13 pounds, 11 pounds, and 10 pounds of CO2 equivalents per pound of meat for red meats, poultry, fish, and eggs, respectively.

Therefore, eating less red meat can significantly decrease your carbon footprint.

Buying grass-fed red meat from sustainable local producers may slightly decrease greenhouse gas emissions, but the data shows that decreasing red meat consumption, in general, has more of an impact.

Eat more plant-based proteins

Another impactful way to promote being an ethical omnivore is by eating more plant-based protein sources.

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Foods like tofu, beans, peas, quinoa, hemp seeds, and nuts have a significantly lower carbon footprint when compared with most animal proteins.

While the nutritional content of these plant proteins can differ greatly when compared with animal proteins, protein content can be matched with the appropriate portion sizes.

Including more plant-based protein sources in your diet doesn’t mean you have to eliminate animal foods.

One way to reduce how much animal protein you eat is by subbing out one-half of the protein in a recipe with a plant-based one.

For example, when making a traditional chili recipe, swap out half of the minced meat for tofu crumbles.

This way you’ll get the flavor of the meat, but you have reduced the amount of animal protein, in turn reducing the carbon footprint of that given meal.

Reduce food waste

The last aspect of becoming an ethical omnivore I want to discuss is reducing food waste.

Globally, food waste accounts for 6% of greenhouse gas production.

While this also takes into account losses throughout the supply chain from poor storage and handling, a lot of this is food throw away by retailers and consumers.

Some practical ways for you to reduce food waste are:

Another added benefit of reducing food waste is that it can also save you a lot of money on groceries.

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Try implementing some of the methods above to start reducing food waste and your carbon footprint.

Summary: Though emissions from food production can’t be eliminated, there are numerous ways to cut down on them. The most impactful ways to do this include moderating red meat consumption, eating more plant-based proteins, and reducing food waste.


Food production is responsible for a significant amount of global emissions through land use, greenhouse gases, water use, and fertilizer runoff.

While we can’t avoid this altogether, eating more ethically can greatly reduce your carbon footprint.

The main ways to do so include moderating red meat consumption, eating more plant-based proteins, and reducing food waste.

Being conscious of your decisions surrounding food can go a long way toward furthering a sustainable food environment for years to come.

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