Should You Go Flexitarian To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?

The role of animal agriculture in global warming

Flexitarian: A person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish [1].

Energy providers and transport methods have long been recognised as influential for our personal carbon footprint. But only recently has diet come to the forefront as playing a significant role in our environmental impact as an individual. So if you want to reduce your environmental impact, is it worth reducing your meat intake and going flexitarian?

“Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.”

— Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals

When it comes to the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, the science is pretty conclusive. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization gives the figure of 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from animal agriculture. [3]

In 2018 a group of Oxford University researchers, led by PhD student Joseph Poore, published an article in renowned journal Science on the topic [2]. They studied a database of 40,000 farms, and 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers to determine how production practices change the impact of a food item on the environment.

Their primary conclusion was that the environmental impact of plant-based products (such as tofu, soy milk, beans, legumes etc) is always lower than the environmental impact of animal products. This is true even when we take production methods, transportation, and packaging into account. Even the lowest impact producers of animal products will always be higher impact than plant-based food items. Indeed, if you adopt an entirely plant-based diet, you will reduce the emissions profile of the food you eat by up to 73%, depending on where you live. You would also require 76% less land to produce your food than on an average, meat-eating diet. If the entire population went vegan, we would require 3.1 billion hectares less farmland to produce our food.

But adopting an entirely meat-free, plant-based, vegan diet overnight may not be realistic for everyone. And that’s where flexitarianism comes in.

Joseph Poore’s research also found that if we reduce our consumption of animal products by 50%, we achieve 73% of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that an entirely plant-based diet offers. If every family in the UK swapped one meal a week from red meat to plant-based, it would have the same environmental impact as taking 16 million cars off the roads.

Initiatives like Meat Free Mondays, have started to make flexitarianism mainstream. The Meat Free Monday foundation was started by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney in 2009 to raise awareness of the environmental impact of meat and to encourage people to reduce their own meat intake. It has since become a popular movement, with #meatfreemondays always trending on Twitter on Mondays, and many schools, institutions, and workplaces adopting the trend to offer only meat-free options on Mondays.

The average amount of meat and dairy consumed each week in the UK dropped from 1160g per person in 1980, to 989g in 2012. A 2019 survey by YouGov suggests that this trend is only increasing. They found that 7 per cent of the British population say they are likely to become vegan or vegetarian within the next year. Of these 7% who plan to give up meat, 35% of them are doing so primarily because they are concerned about the environmental impact of the food they eat. [4]

As individual action goes, reducing our meat intake is one of the biggest things we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As Joseph Poore’s study demonstrated, the ideal would be that we all went vegan. So if you’re serious about cutting your personal emissions, moving to a plant-based diet is definitely something you should consider. At the same time, many people find going flexitarian, vegetarian, or generally reducing the amount of meat in their diet to be a manageable lifestyle change which also reduces their own carbon footprint. It’s a small behavioural change, but performed en masse it would have an enormous impact.

So, to conclude, the answer to the question: ‘Should you go flexitarian to reduce your environmental impact?’ is a resounding yes.

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your impact:


[1] Oxford Dictionaries definition of flexitarian

[2] Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, J. Poore and T. Nemecek, Science, June 2018

[3] Find more statistics on the environmental impact of animal agriculture on the Cowspiracy website.

[4] Is the future of food flexitarian?, YouGov white paper, March 2019

Ramblings on communication and our climate crisis🌱

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store