Animal rights activist groups and even the U.S. government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have jumped on the bandwagon of discouraging meat consumption as a means to save the environment.

But what would actually happen if we all just stopped eating meat?

I, for one, would be pretty cranky. It’s grilling season, and as much as I love vegetables, my kebobs just aren’t complete without some protein. We’d also all be facing some nutritional challenges.

Would we really be saving the environment?

A recent Swedish study (PDF, 13MB) points to no. University of Oklahoma food and agricultural economist Jayson Lusk presents a great overview of the study and its implications on his blog.


In this study, the researcher asks a question I haven’t considered before – what will people spend their money on instead if they no longer purchase meat? The researcher dubs this “the rebound effect.” As people switch to vegetarianism, they will begin to allocate their previous budget for meat purchases elsewhere. And their new purchasing habits may not exactly be environmentally friendly, as the study suggests they may spend more on things like travel or use of a car.

Factoring this in, any environmental gains from eliminating meat consumption (which the researchers in this study calculated to be slight to begin with) become considerably smaller.

The author of the study does posit that purchasing organic goods can temper the adverse environmental impact of the rebound effect. However, as Lusk notes on his blog, this is likely due more to the increased cost of organic goods – leaving less funds to spend elsewhere – than to decreased environmental impacts of organic production.

When considering this issue, it’s also important to not forget how the overall impact of meat production on the environment compares to other factors, as meat production in the U.S. only accounts for 2.1 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions (PDF, 1MB). Eliminating meat consumption would radically impact the lives of Americans – 98 percent of us consume meat – for a potentially negligible positive impact on the environment.

How do you think consumers would spend their money if they no longer had the option of purchasing meat?  end mark

Hannah Thompson