The Economic and Environmental Costs of Eating Meat

sergeyryzhov / Getty Images/iStockphoto
sergeyryzhov / Getty Images/iStockphoto

April is Earth Month, a time to reconsider how we treat this planet we call home. Earth’s resources are limited, and one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse gases associated with climate change is the meat industry. Meat production comes with a lot of costs, and not just the price we pay at the grocery store for our hamburgers and chicken cutlets. In fact, the meat industry is one of the costliest of all food production in ways that impact the environment, healthcare and our individual wallets.

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The U.S. produces more than 52 billion pounds of meat every year and consumers quite literally eat it up, in excess of dietary recommendations, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). If people in the U.S. continued to eat meat at the same level of consumption rather than shifting to more moderate or plant-based diets, it would cost the U.S. between $197 billion and $289 billion each year, and the global economy as much as $1.6 trillion by 2050. A shift away from meat could save the U.S. $180 billion if people ate meat per recommended dietary guidelines and up to $250 billion if people stopped eating meat altogether.


Here we look at the costs associated with eating meat:

Environmental Costs

While food production is, of course, necessary, a worrisome byproduct of the current food production industries is its creation of more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the methane livestock put out, unsustainable farming practices and the destruction of rainforests and other habitats. Eighty percent of those emissions are specifically linked with livestock production. And beef is shown to produce between four and eight times as much emissions as pork, chicken or eggs. But how do you determine the cost of these emissions when it’s hard to pinpoint dollar amounts? Through something known as the social cost of carbon.

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Social Cost of Carbon

Researchers show that limiting meat production limits greenhouse gas emissions, which have been linked to the devastating effects of climate change. Researchers quantify this in a measurement they call the “social cost of carbon,” which puts a monetary estimate to future damages that each ton of carbon emissions takes on the environment. These effects include such devastating weather events as flooding, sea level rise, food insecurity and other disasters. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, these disasters have a significant financial impact on economies big and small, both in costs to repair damages, rising healthcare costs, increased food prices and destruction of property. By limiting meat production (via people eating less meat), all the downstream impacts of carbon emissions can be saved, thus saving money and lives.

Health Costs

Below are some of the ways eating meat can cost you in relation to health issues.

Healthcare Costs of Meat-Exacerbated Health Conditions

Eating a high amount of red and processed meat (and low fruits and veggies) is not just bad for the environment, it’s linked to significant health-related issues, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and early mortality. Researchers calculated healthcare costs of treating the illnesses associated with a meat-heavy diet as well as indirect costs of unpaid care from family and friends who miss work to engage in caregiving. They estimated that the annual economic burden of healthcare costs from cardiometabolic diseases adds up to about $300 per person or $50 billion nationally.

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Cost of Treating Meat-Based Foodborne Illness

In addition to chronic health conditions that are worsened by meat-heavy diets, the cost of foodborne illnesses linked to poultry and meat run up a steep bill every year, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Food Protection. They posit that meat and poultry contribute to 30.9% of all foodborne illnesses in the U.S. To break this down, this equals 2.9 million annual illnesses, with an economic cost of up to $20.3 billion. These costs break down even further into bacteria and their associated foods: Campylobacter in poultry ($6.9 billion), Salmonella in chicken and pork ($2.8 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively) and Toxoplasma gondii in pork ($1.9 billion).

Consumer Costs

Individual consumers also feel the impact of the meat industry in our wallets when we go to buy our meat at the grocery store. The price of meat varies from year to year depending on a number of circumstances ranging from climate impacts and, most recently, a global pandemic.

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COVID-19 directly impacted the meat industry in several ways: making it difficult for packing plants to harvest livestock and poultry in a timely manner due to the spread of the virus among employees, shutdowns of plants for cleaning and disinfecting and costly and time-consuming implementation of employee testing. Those plants that reopened safely experienced lower production volumes.

This translated to an increase in meat prices in 2020 by about 6.5%, according to the USDA, which is more than double its usual rate. Beef and veal were especially hard hit, at approximately 9% more than in 2019, and poultry was 4.5% higher than the 2019 average. For 2021, the prices are leveling off, but still anywhere from 0.2% to 0.4% higher than 2020 for pork and veal. Beef prices dropped but other meats are expected to continue to increase.

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Last updated: April 2, 2021

This article originally appeared on The Economic and Environmental Costs of Eating Meat