Why Less Meat Could Mean Less Pollution

It may be hard to give up that hamburger, but decreasing one’s meat consumption can help regulate the threat of nitrogen pollution.

Many of us are looking for ways to shrink our carbon footprint. One of the easiest ways to do that? Cut back on meat.

There are several reasons as to why factory farms can have a negative effect on the environment. Animals on these farms consume gallons of water each day, and studies have illustrated that cattle, pork, and poultry lead to a high volume of greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock produces the highest amount of emissions, responsible for more than three-quarter of all the greenhouse gases in the world.

But there’s another culprit in manufacturing meat that leads to pollution: nitrogen.

Not all nitrogen is bad; it’s one of the most abundant elements in the air we breathe and helps support the growth of algae and aquatic place. But nitrogen pollution is also one of the most costly and challenging environmental problems in America. Too much nitrogen leads to the destruction of the ozone and can contaminate our drinking water.

Here’s the scoop: When too much nitrogen enters the water, algae grows faster than the ecosystems are ready to handle. Too much algae leads to a decrease in water quality, as the amount of oxygen in the water significantly plummets. This can lead to the death or illness of aquatic life, which can cause harm to any humans who come in contact with the contaminated fish. Furthermore, too much algae production increases bacteria growth, making the water itself potentially harmful.

A recent study in the journal BioScience also revealed as to how nitrogen pollution is leading to the decline of various US species. Approximately 1400 species are currently threatened by nitrogen pollution. “Blue Baby Syndrome,” or methemoglobinemia, is another consequence of excess nitrogen, and occurs when a person’s blood is unable to carry vital oxygen throughout the body. While rare, this disease most often affects infants, creating signs of blueness around the mouth, hands, and feet. Extreme cases include loss of consciousness, seizures, and death.

One of the biggest reasons we see so much nitrogen pollution is due to the amount of meat produced on factory farms. Farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer into crops in order to help them grow, but only about half of this nitrogen is actually consumed by plants. The rest seeps into the environment, and leads to all the issues listed above. NPR reports that because cows, pigs, and poultry eat so much corn and soy feed, more nitrogen fertilizer is applied, and is then emitted in the meat manufacturing process. In fact, “raising beef produces almost 16 times as much nitrogen pollution as growing the same amount of bean protein.”

And while nitrogen pollution isn’t limited to meat production, it’s a large enough factor to consider making some changes. NPR continues:

Researchers find that consumers can most efficiently reduce their footprint by changing the kinds of protein they eat to include more plants and meats like fish and poultry, which are less nitrogen intensive. Cutting down on the estimated 30 percent of food that goes to waste could also have a big impact. Currently, nitrogen is lost to food waste at several stops along the supply chain, including in processing, at the retailer, and at home. And some is also lost through sewage.

Other studies have yielded similar results. According to Henk Westhoek, program manager for Agriculture and Food at PBL (the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency), “the nitrogen footprint of meat and dairy is considerably higher than that from plant-based products.” In many countries, decreasing consumption of meat and dairy products can lead to a dramatic decrease in nitrogen pollution. Smartbrief.com reports that “American could reduce their nitrogen footprints by more than 40% if they curbed their meat consumption and ate only as much meat and dairy protein as is recommended by the US Department of Agriculture and the National Academy of Sciences.”

Nitrogen expert James Galloway from University of Virginia believes that in order to reduce nitrogen pollution, we need a coordinated effort across the entire food chain. Consumers can buy less meat, and better regulations can be implemented so that farmers use less nitrogen fertilizer. One method is to monitor social nutrient levels or time fertilizer applications.

The first step is developing a more mindful attitude toward your meat consumption. Even a slight decrease in meat and dairy consumption can have a powerful effect.


Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel.  She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.