An Exploration of Environmental and Ethical Considerations in Animal and Plant-Based Diets

Cows grazing in the mountains

One grass-fed, grass-finished, carbon sequestering, soil enriching, environmentally friendly cow that grazes on non-arable land can feed a family of 4 a nutrient-dense, protein-rich diet for more than 100 days. Read that again.

That’s a sentence you won’t read on social media. You won’t see it on television news. You won’t hear it on the radio.

But… that doesn’t make any part of that sentence less true.

Now that we’ve got your attention, let’s talk objectively about the environmental and ethical impacts of the consumption of animals vs. that of plants. What we uncover as we dive in is likely to be surprising given all of the attention plant-based eating has gotten in regards to nutrition, the environment, and animal welfare.

Environmental Impact

Soil Health:


Livestock, encompassing species such as cows, pigs, and chickens, play a crucial and often underestimated role in cultivating and sustaining soil health. The prevailing, yet wholly incompetent narrative often paints livestock farming as universally detrimental to soil ecosystems, but a closer examination of the intricate interplay between animals and soil microbes, the way nature intended, challenges this oversimplified and incredibly flawed perspective. Far from being passive contributors, these animals, through their grazing habits, become unwitting architects of a symbiotic relationship that significantly contributes to enhancing overall soil health.

Inversely, you’ll see how mono-cropped plant farming decimates the very same soil.

Grazing Habits and Microbial Communities:

The grazing habits of livestock are not mere disruptions to the landscape; rather, they serve as catalysts for the proliferation of beneficial microbes in the soil. This seemingly simple act of animals grazing has profound consequences for the microbial communities that inhabit the soil. Bacteria, fungi, and various microorganisms thrive in response to the disturbances caused by grazing, creating a dynamic and symbiotic relationship with the animals.

Symbiotic Relationship with Mycelium:

Mycelium, the intricate network of thread-like structures produced by fungi, is a key player in this symbiotic relationship. Livestock, through their grazing activities, inadvertently foster the development of mycelial networks in the soil. These networks, acting as conduits for nutrient exchange between plants and soil, play a crucial role in enhancing the nutrient content of the ecosystem.

Monocrop agricultural practices involved in the farming of the vast majority of plants consumed by humans directly, used for cooking oils and machine lubricants, or cultivated for fuel disrupt the mycelium networks and thereby contribute to the poor health of soil.

Benefiting Worms and Soil Structure:

Worms, another essential component of soil ecosystems, also benefit from the presence of grazing livestock. The disturbance caused by the animals' activities promotes the movement of worms through the soil, contributing to natural aeration and nutrient distribution. Worms, in turn, play a vital role in maintaining soil structure and fertility, and their increased activity in response to livestock presence further supports a healthier and more vibrant soil environment.

Inversely, the farming practice that is monocropping involves pesticides and weed killers (even organic ones) that suffocate worms, leading to a lack of elemental balance in the soil. This affects every aspect of soil health in negative fashion.

Nuanced Picture of Livestock Impact:

The relationship between livestock and soil health is far more complex and mutually beneficial than commonly portrayed. Rather than being passive actors in soil degradation, these animals actively contribute to the vitality of soil microbes, mycelium networks, and essential organisms like worms. This symbiotic dance challenges the prevailing notion that livestock farming is universally detrimental to soil ecosystems, highlighting the need for a more nuanced understanding of the environmental impact of these animals on our agricultural landscapes.

Nitrogen and Element Balance:

Livestock, far from being mere consumers of resources, actively participate in maintaining the delicate balance of nitrogen and essential elements in the soil. The narrative that animal agriculture universally disrupts the crucial equilibrium necessary for sustainable soil health denies the intricate contributions of livestock to nutrient cycling. These animals, through their natural behaviors and interactions with the environment, become essential stewards of soil fertility. 

As we already discovered when we talked about worms, the way the vast majority of farmed plants are grown leads to barren, starved soil that eventually leads to all sorts of issues, including a lack of nutrients in the plants themselves.

Nitrogen Cycling and Sustainable Soil Health:

One of the key contributions of livestock to soil health is their role in nitrogen cycling. Grazing animals, such as cows and sheep, engage in a natural process known as nutrient cycling, where they consume vegetation and subsequently return nutrients to the soil through their waste. Nitrogen, a vital element for plant growth, is cycled through the ecosystem as animals excrete waste that decomposes, releasing nutrients back into the soil.

Efficient Nutrient Distribution:

Furthermore, the natural behaviors of livestock, such as foraging and trampling, play a crucial role in nutrient distribution. As animals move across the land, their hooves disturb the soil, facilitating the incorporation of organic matter and nutrients. This disturbance allows for aeration of the soil, creating pockets for water and nutrients to infiltrate. The result is an ecosystem where essential elements are not only cycled but also evenly distributed, contributing to a balanced and nutrient-rich soil.

Challenging Assumptions on Soil Health:

The notion that animal agriculture universally disrupts the delicate equilibrium of soil health is disrespectful to the nuanced impact of livestock on nutrient cycling. Instead of causing irreparable harm, these animals actively contribute to the restoration and maintenance of soil fertility. By engaging in natural behaviors like grazing, foraging, and trampling, livestock foster an environment where the soil receives a constant influx of organic matter, promoting the cycling of essential nutrients in a sustainable and balanced manner.

Livestock serve as essential and active participants in the delicate balance of nitrogen and essential elements in the soil. Their natural behaviors, far from being detrimental, contribute to nutrient cycling, challenging the simplistic narrative that animal agriculture universally disrupts the equilibrium crucial for sustainable soil health. Recognizing the intricate role of livestock in soil fertility highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of their impact on agricultural ecosystems and the importance of sustainable farming practices that leverage these contributions.

On the opposite side of the equation, we see that the way that vegetables are generally farmed serves to irreparably ruin the soil, causing incredible environmental damage that results in nutrient-void food, and can even cause once moist soil to dry out and be susceptible to flooding and other disastrous consequences.

Land Use - Transformative Potential:

We often hear from vegan advocates, the media, and Netflix programs that grazing animals use a bunch of land we could use for growing plants and that a whole bunch of the plants we could eat are fed to the cows. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s a flat out lie used to convince the layman that beef is detrimental to things it in fact affects positively.

The utilization of non-arable land for animal grazing introduces a paradigm shift in traditional notions of agricultural productivity. In challenging conventional wisdom, grazing animals become transformative agents in converting vast expanses of land deemed unsuitable for traditional crops into valuable sources of protein.

Non-Arable Land and Sustainable Protein Sources:

Conventionally, arable land has been the primary focus of agricultural endeavors, with the assumption that only these areas can support food production. However, the reality is that a significant portion of the Earth's surface consists of non-arable land, characterized by poor soil quality or environmental conditions unsuitable for traditional agriculture. Grazing animals, such as cattle, goats, and sheep, showcase a remarkable ability to thrive on these marginal lands, utilizing vegetation that is otherwise unfit for human consumption, turning plants we can’t eat into nutrient-dense, protein rich food we can thrive on.

Alternative Approach to Land Utilization:

This adaptive use of non-arable land for animal grazing challenges the traditional view of land as a strictly limited and specialized resource. Instead, it opens up new possibilities for sustainable land utilization, where areas previously deemed unproductive can now contribute significantly to protein production. The conversion of inedible vegetation into valuable protein sources through the digestive processes of grazing animals not only enhances food security but also reduces the pressure on arable land, mitigating the environmental impact of agriculture.

Efficiency and Ethics of Non-Arable Land Use:

Moreover, the reevaluation of land use for livestock prompts a nuanced discussion on efficiency and ethics. From an efficiency standpoint, utilizing non-arable land for animal grazing provides a more sustainable and resource-efficient approach compared to attempting to convert these areas into arable land, which could have devastating and irreversible results. Grazing animals can extract valuable nutrition from vegetation that would otherwise go untapped, offering a more resilient and adaptable system of food production.

Ethical Considerations and Responsible Practices:

Ethically, the use of non-arable land for animal grazing raises questions about responsible and humane practices. When managed properly, grazing systems can align with principles of animal welfare, allowing these animals to live in conditions more closely resembling their natural habitats. This contrasts with intensive agricultural practices that may compromise animal welfare in pursuit of maximum productivity.

In conclusion, the use of non-arable land for animal grazing challenges conventional paradigms of agricultural productivity. It introduces an alternative and sustainable approach to land utilization, where grazing animals transform vegetation unfit for human consumption into valuable protein sources. The reevaluation of land use prompts a discussion on the efficiency and ethics of utilizing non-arable land for livestock, emphasizing the need for sustainable and responsible practices in harnessing the potential of these vast and often overlooked landscapes.

Air Quality - Rethinking Conventional Practices:

The conventional practices associated with factory-farmed vegetables, notably monoculture, introduce a range of environmental concerns, with one significant aspect being the reliance on heavy machinery like tractors.

Environmental Impact of Monoculture Practices:

Heavy machinery used in monoculture operations is typically powered by fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants into the atmosphere. The combustion of these fuels not only contributes to local air pollution but also exacerbates the global issue of climate change by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Alternative Grazing Behaviors and Biodiversity:

In stark contrast, the grazing behaviors of animals, when managed sustainably, present a potential alternative that challenges assumptions about the environmental impact of different agricultural methods. Grazing animals, such as cattle, goats, and sheep, engage in natural behaviors that do not rely on extensive mechanical cultivation. Instead of tractors plowing through fields, these animals interact with the land in a way that promotes biodiversity, soil health, and carbon sequestration. Anecdotally, a study was done recently, showing that you would need to eat 3 pounds of grass-fed, grass-finished, regeneratively farmed beef to offset the emissions let out by the creation of a single Beyond Burger. 

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention the fact that plants emit methane and CO2, whether they do so indirectly after consumption by cows or directly as they die. 

Further, there is a discussion to be had around the impact of methane vs. that of other, much more harmful greenhouse gasses involved in transportation and manufacturing. That’s a topic for a different day, but Jayne Buxton discusses this at length in her book, “The Great Plant-Based Con.”

Environmental Benefits Beyond Emissions:

The environmental benefits of animal grazing extend beyond the reduction in machinery-related emissions. Grazing animals play a role in maintaining grasslands, preventing the need for continuous plowing and reducing soil erosion. Their natural movements stimulate plant growth, contributing to a more resilient and biodiverse ecosystem. Additionally, the symbiotic relationship between animals and grasslands can enhance carbon sequestration, countering the narrative that animal agriculture is a net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. When done right, it is decidedly carbon negative, or at least neutral.

Challenging Dichotomies in Agriculture:

This alternative perspective challenges the simplistic dichotomy often presented in discussions about the environmental impact of food production. It underscores the importance of considering the nuances of different agricultural systems and the potential benefits of integrating animal grazing into sustainable farming practices. While factory-farmed vegetables have been criticized for their reliance on heavy machinery and monoculture, exploring environmentally friendly alternatives, such as well-managed animal grazing, becomes imperative in shaping a more sustainable future for agriculture.

Transportation Efficiency - Beyond Calories:

The efficiency of transporting nutrients plays a critical role in assessing the overall environmental impact of different diets. When considering the transportation of food products, particularly in terms of nutrient density, animal-derived products emerge as more efficient.

Nutrient Density and Transportation Impact:

In a calorie-for-calorie comparison, animal protein proves to be more nutrient-dense than many plant-based sources. This means that, to obtain an equivalent amount of essential nutrients and protein, significantly less weight of animal products needs to be transported. The concentrated nutritional content of animal products becomes a pivotal factor in the efficiency of transportation, challenging the notion that plant-based diets are inherently more environmentally friendly in terms of transportation impact.

Comprehensive Evaluation of Dietary Impact:

This nuanced exploration into the relationship between dietary choices and transportation efficiency reveals that the environmental considerations extend beyond the type of food consumed. While plant-based diets are often promoted for their perceived lower environmental impact, the transportation aspect adds a layer of complexity. If the goal is to obtain a certain level of nutrition while minimizing the resources used in transportation, animal products present a compelling alternative.

Sustainability and Dietary Choices:

Furthermore, the efficiency of transporting nutrient-dense animal products becomes even more relevant when evaluating the overall sustainability of food systems. It prompts a reevaluation of the narrative that advocates for exclusively plant-based diets as the most environmentally friendly option. The intricate balance between nutrient density, dietary choices, and transportation efficiency highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to understanding the environmental impact of different food sources.

Ethical Concerns:

The ethical considerations surrounding protein production extend far beyond the confines of slaughterhouses and encompass the broader impact of agricultural practices. In the realm of plant agriculture, a critical examination reveals a complex web of unintended consequences that challenge prevailing notions about the ethical cost of protein consumption.

Unintended Consequences:

Tractors, a ubiquitous tool in large-scale plant cultivation, add another layer to the ethical equation. The mechanical cultivation of vast fields often results in the unintended dismemberment and death of numerous mammals, worms, bees, snakes, and other creatures inhabiting the soil and vegetation. This collateral damage, while not immediately evident in the end product, raises ethical concerns about the broader impact of agricultural practices on wildlife.

Deaths per Kilogram of Protein:

A particularly striking metric in this ethical evaluation is the concept of deaths per kilogram of protein produced. In the realm of plant agriculture, this metric reveals that the cost of protein in terms of mammal deaths is surprisingly high. According to available data, approximately 55 mammals lose their lives per kilogram of plant protein produced. This means that the ethical cost of obtaining protein from plant sources is not as negligible as one might assume. In fact, that is roughly equivalent to 2,000 animal deaths from plant cultivation per cow’s worth of protein. That doesn’t include the aforementioned microbes, worms, insects, pollinating bees, etc. To include those, we enter in the realm of millions.

Ethical Implications of Animal Agriculture:

Comparatively, this sheds light on the ethical considerations of animal agriculture. While the slaughter of animals for meat is a direct and visible consequence, the deaths per kilogram of protein metric invites a reevaluation of the ethical landscape. For instance, the mammal cost of obtaining the equivalent amount of protein from a cow is drastically lower than the corresponding cost in plant agriculture—roughly 55 deaths per kilogram of plant protein compared to one cow's worth of protein, which equates to thousands of mammals spared.

The exploration of deaths per kilogram of protein challenges preconceived notions about the ethical cost of protein consumption. It underscores the need for a comprehensive ethical evaluation that considers the unintended consequences of both plant and animal agriculture. This nuanced perspective prompts a reexamination of the ethical dimensions of our dietary choices and invites a broader conversation about sustainable and ethically responsible food production.

When we consider grazing practices, the biodiversity means that birds thrive, bees, thrive, and countless other species are supported.

Inhumane Practices:

The ethical dimensions of dietary choices extend beyond animal agriculture, reaching into the often-overlooked suffering within plant-based farming practices. While the meat industry rightfully draws attention to animal treatment, this exploration aims to illuminate the nuanced ethical implications of plant-based agriculture, challenging prevailing narratives that position plant-based diets as inherently more humane.

Pesticide Use:

One key contributor to animal suffering in plant-based farming is the use of pesticides. Intended to protect crops, these chemicals lead to unintended consequences for various animals within the ecosystem. The indiscriminate nature of pesticides can harm beneficial insects, birds, and other creatures, raising ethical concerns about the unintended suffering caused by agricultural practices relying on chemical interventions. This includes, by the way, organic alternatives, as they still often result in intended decimation of animal populations that would otherwise eat the profits.

Mechanization and Ethical Challenges:

Mechanization, integral to large-scale plant agriculture, introduces its ethical challenges. Heavy machinery, such as tractors, can result in unintentional harm and death to animals inhabiting cultivated areas. From small mammals and worms to bees and snakes, mechanization disrupts natural habitats, intensifying ethical concerns and emphasizing the need for closer examination of the unintended consequences of mechanized farming.

Monoculture and Biodiversity:

Large-scale monoculture operations compound ethical complexities in plant-based farming. Cultivating a single crop disrupts natural ecosystems, displacing and endangering local wildlife. The destruction of biodiversity in favor of monoculture farming contributes to the suffering and loss of animal life, challenging assumptions about the inherent ethics of plant-based diets.

Animal Based Wins Out:

This exploration into the intricate interplay of environmental and ethical considerations surrounding animal and plant-based diets is eye-opening, challenging prevailing narratives and inviting a nuanced reevaluation of mainstream assumptions. Contrary to popular belief, evidence suggests that eating animals may have a lower environmental impact and fewer ethical concerns than consuming plants. By unraveling the complexities of dietary choices, this examination prompts a shift in perspective towards a more nuanced understanding of sustainable and ethical food choices.

Essential Fats & Nutrient Absorption

Get healthy today

Shop the line