Environmental and health benefits of going meat free

September Spring Clean Your Eating: Week Three


If we really want to reduce the human impact on the environment, the simplest and cheapest thing anyone can do is to eat less meat. Behind most of the joints of beef or chicken on our plates is a phenomenally wasteful, land- and energy-hungry system of farming that devastates forests, pollutes oceans, rivers, seas and air, depends on oil and coal, and is significantly responsible for climate change. The way we breed animals is now recognised by the UN, scientists, economists and politicians as giving rise to many interlinked human and ecological problems, but with 1 billion people already not having enough to eat and 3 billion more mouths to feed within 50 years, the urgency to rethink our relationship with animals is extreme.


We humans eat about 230m tonnes of animals a year, twice as much as we did 30 years ago. We mostly breed four species – chickens, cows, sheep and pigs – all of which need vast amounts of food and water, emit methane and other greenhouse gases and produce mountains of physical waste.


Eating a steak or a chicken and you are effectively consuming the water that the animal has needed to live and grow. Vegetarian author John Robbins calculates it takes 60, 108, 168, and 229 pounds of water to produce one pound of potatoes, wheat, maize and rice respectively. But a pound of beef needs around 9,000 litres – or more than 20,000lbs of water. Equally, it takes nearly 1,000 litres of water to produce one litre of milk. A broiler chicken, by contrast, is far more efficient, producing the same amount of meat as a cow on just 1,500 litres.


Pigs are some of the thirstiest animals. An average-sized north New Zealander pig farm with 80,000 pigs needs nearly 75m gallons of fresh water a year. A large one, which might have one million or more pigs, may need as much as a city.


Farming, which uses 70% of water available to humans, is already in direct competition for water with cities. But as demand for meat increases, so there will be less available for both crops and drinking.


Overfishing and agricultural intensification and expansion are major factors in loss of species and biodiversity. The Meat Free Monday website warns that if present trends for consuming meat daily continue, over the next 100 years or so there will be a global mass extinction of species.



Health benefits


There are various health benefits in going meat free. A recent italian study showed that a vegetarian diet was more effective at reducing ‘bad’, LDL cholesterol, the Mediterranean diet – which includes some meat – was more effective at reducing the level of triglycerides, high levels of which increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.


Research released last month in the Netherlands suggested that following a mainly plant-based diet which still includes some meat could provide protection against obesity. The scientists tracked over 9,000 adults over 26 years and found that people who ate more plant-based foods had a lower BMI and lower fat mass index than those who are more meat. 


The World Cancer Research Fund recommends we “choose mostly plant foods, limit red meat and avoid processed meat”. And in 2010, a study carried out by Oxford University’s department of public health found that eating meat no more than three times a week could prevent 9,000 deaths from cancer a year.


Veggie pilaf


  • 1 onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 carrot
  • ½ a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley , (15g)
  • 1 x 200g tin of chickpeas
  • olive oil
  • 1 organic vegetable stock concentrate
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 150 g basmati or jasmine rice
  • 1 lime
  • 60 g dried apricots
  • 1 tablespoon pepitas
  • 2 tablespoons natural yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon harissa


  1. Peel the onion and finely slice with the garlic, then peel and halve the carrot lengthways and finely slice at an angle. Pick the parsley leaves and put aside, then finely chop the stalks. Drain the chickpeas.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large, wide, non-stick pan on a medium heat. Add the chopped vegetables and parsley stalks, along with a good pinch of sea salt and black pepper, then cook gently with the lid on for 10 minutes or until softened, stirring occasionally.
  3. Pour 300ml of water into a small pot, then add the stock concentrate and bring to a simmer over a medium heat.
  4. When the vegetables have softened, add the turmeric. Then add the rice. Finely grate in the lime zest and squeeze in the juice, stirring regularly.
  5. Roughly chop and add the apricots along with the chickpeas, then pour in the hot stock. Bring to the boil, simmer for 2 minutes, then cover with a tight-fitting lid. Reduce the heat down to medium-low and cook for 15 to 18 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid. Turn off the heat and leave the pan to one side, with the lid on.
  6. Meanwhile, put a medium non-stick frying pan over a medium heat, scatter in the pepitas and toast until lightly golden.
  7. Decant the yoghurt into a small bowl. Make the harissa into a paste with 2 teaspoons of water, then swirl through the yogurt.
  8. Fluff up the rice with a fork, then divide between plates. Sprinkle the pepitas over the pilaf, then finely chop and scatter over the parsley. Serve with spoonfuls of the spicy yogurt.