Below is a partial but by no means conclusive history of some of the most significant milestones regarding public awareness of the environmental impacts of animal production and consumption. This list includes some of the growing scientific consensus as well as important cultural moments.
Note: For many centuries, "Eastern religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have advocated eschewing animals and animal products in some format because of the belief systems centered around nonviolence." (Thrillist)
380 BC - Plato's Republic: Socrates tells Glaucon that meat production necessitates large amounts of pasture and inevitably results in war.
1813 - In A Vindication of Natural Diet, Percy Shelley laments "the monopolizing meat eater of animal flesh," adding: "The most fertile districts of the habitable globe are now actually cultivated by men for animals, at a delay and waste of ailment absolutely incapable of calculation."
1930s - The plant-based Ital diet, stemming from the word "vital," is developed by Rastafarians in Jamaica "as a way to emphasize the oneness and unity of life. Ital food promotes a healthy mind, body, spirit, and environment."
1944 - The word "vegan" is coined and the Vegan Society is formed in England. In 1979, the definition is updated to mention that veganism is "for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment."
1964 - In Proteins: Their Chemistry and Politics, Dr. Aaron M. Altschul points out that meat requires around 25 times as much water per pound as vegetables, with farming animals providing the smallest yield of protein. (We repeat, smallest yield of protein.)
1971 - In Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe calls grain-fed cattle "reverse protein factories" because they require many more pounds of plant protein to produce a pound of flesh or fluids.
1976 - As summarized on our blog, the Vegan Society makes their case for veganism on the BBC series Open Door, including many facts about the unsustainable nature of animal agriculture and the better efficiency of plant-based eating. Erika Cook declares, "A vegan culture is a tree culture."
1987 - The bestselling book Diet for a New America by John Robbins further raises awareness of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. The LA PBS affiliate airs a documentary based on the book. (See video.)
1990 - KRS-One releases the song "Beef" about the horrors of meat production and consumption, including antibiotic use. (See video.)
2004 - Agricultural scientists with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) issue a report finding that governments may have to persuade people to eat less meat because of increasing demands on water supplies. "Western diets, which depend largely on meat, are already putting great pressures on the environment," requiring 2.5 to 5 times more water than the largely plant-based diets of developing countries.
2006 - The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN FAO) releases the report Livestock's Long Shadow, finding the "livestock" sector is one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from local to global.
2006 - The World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species reports that most of the world’s threatened species are experiencing habitat loss as a result of "livestock" production.
2006 - Published research in the journal Science extrapolates that there may soon be no more so-called commercial fish stocks left in the sea, with the last due to be lost by 2048.
2006 - Center for Science in the Public Interest releases Six Arguments for a Greener Diet, "a meticulously researched examination of scientific studies" finding that, among other benefits including health, a plant-rich diet "leads to much less food poisoning, water pollution, air pollution, global warming, and animal suffering."
2009 - Nestle executives release a secret report (not leaked until 2016) warning U.S. officials that the world is on a catastrophic course with freshwater scarcity caused in part by Western meat-eating.
2010 - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the CDC all testify before Congress that there is a connection between the routine use of antibiotics for meat production and the declining effectiveness of antibiotics for people. In 2012, the FDA stated that the most significant source of human antimicrobial resistance is the meat industry.
2012 - Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) releases a report finding that global diets will need to be at least 95% vegan by 2050 to avoid catastrophic water shortages caused by food production.
2014 - The film Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret is released and soon reaches a massive audience via Netflix. Awareness of these issues rapidly grow and a larger conversation begins.
2015 - The cover story of the June issue of Chemical & Engineering News is The Vegetable Solution, including facts such as: “A switch to plant proteins by those who can afford meat would go a long way to feeding the growing global population while using fewer of the planet’s resources.”
2016 - Research published in the journal Nature Communications finds that vegan diets have the best land use and are the only way to feed the global population by 2050 without another tree being felled. Research published in the journal Elementa echoes this, also finding that vegan diets have the lowest land use requirement, and would also have the best carrying capacity if not for the current status quo of livestock-heavy land use. (Note: this study was completely distorted by media coverage.)
2016 - Oxford University researchers determine a vegan shift would slash food-related emissions by 70% while annually averting 8.1 million human deaths and saving $1 trillion on healthcare.
2016 - The FAIRR initiative – consisting of 40 investors managing $1.25 trillion in assets – launch a campaign urging global food companies to diversify to plant-based proteins to help to reduce the environmental impacts and health risks of animal production and consumption.
2016 - The World Resources Institute publish the report Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future, Installment 11 of which “shows that for people who consume high amounts of meat and dairy, shifting to diets with a greater share of plant-based foods could significantly reduce agriculture’s pressure on the environment.”
2017 - University of Edinburgh researchers find that animal farming is the leading driver of food waste, responsible for the most losses of all harvested crops on Earth (40%) due to secondary consumption.
2017 - A 2-year study citing 300 sources debunks the unsubstantiated claim that grazing domesticated animals is beneficial for the environment. "In other words, grazing livestock – even in a best-case scenario – are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock."
2017 - More than 15,000 scientists sign off on the fact that a shift to mostly plant-based diets is an effective step to transition to sustainability in the BioScience document World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.
2017 - Following an explosion in popularity in recent years, vegan food is predicted by several companies to be the top food trend for 2018. Forbes Magazine publishes an extensive compilation of recent vegan and plant-based business successes, noting that vegan living is becoming "the norm" due in part to "its positive impact on sustainability," and urging business to go vegan or vegan-friendly because "The plant-based revolution is here to stay. Make sure you don’t get left behind."
March 2018 - Greenpeace issues a report calling for a drastic decrease in global meat and dairy production and consumption for healthier people and planet. Pete Smith, Former Convening Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says, “The need to reduce demand for livestock products is now a scientifically mainstream view," adding that even producing those products more sustainably will not deliver the results needed.
March 2018 - Prospect Magazine, which aims to tackle the big challenges confronting society, declares: "Among environmentalists, food scientists, economists and others, a consensus has emerged: we have to change our diet—and change it in one respect in particular. There is simply not enough land or water on Earth to satisfy present, still less future, demands for meat, eggs and dairy products.
March 2018 - Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences find that a vegan shift would increase the US food supply by a third – eliminating all of the losses due to food waste and feeding all Americans plus roughly 390 million more. (Summary & chart)
May 2018 - A groundbreaking scientific assessment of all life on Earth reveals how we have turned our planet into a giant meat/milk/egg factory. In terms of biomass, farmed “poultry” make up 70% of all birds on the planet (vs. 30% wild) and “livestock” make up 60% of all mammals (vs. 36% human and 4% wild). The lead researcher tells the media, “Our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.” (Summary)
June 2018 - The first ever index to look at the "animal protein" sector through the lens of ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues finds that almost two-thirds of the largest animal meat, fish, and dairy companies are either not managing these risks or are failing to disclose basic information. The risks named include greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, deforestation & biodiversity, water scarcity and use, waste and pollution, antibiotics, animal welfare, working conditions, and food safety. (Summary)
June 2018 - The most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet, published in the journal Science, found that going vegan is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet. The lead researcher specifies, "Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.” (Summary)
July 2018 - Research published in the journal Science concludes: "Meat consumption is rising annually as human populations grow and affluence increases... which has major negative consequences for land and water use and environmental change... Changing meat consumption habits is a challenge that requires identifying the complex social factors associated with meat eating and developing policies for effective interventions." (Summary)
July 2018 - Research Published in Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene finds a plant-based shift is needed to feed the projected 2050 global population, stating "replacing most meat and dairy with plant-based alternatives, and greater acceptance of human-edible crops currently fed to animals, especially maize, as directly-consumed human food would be required."
July 2018 - A Harvard study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that shifting all beef production in the U.S. to pastured, grass-fed systems would require 30% more cattle, increase beef's methane emissions by 43%, and would require far more pasture than is available (in addition to causing other environmental harms). (Summary)
August 2018 - A peer-reviewed research article published in PLoS ONE finds the "[USDA] guidelines are unsustainable when it comes to land-intensive foods like meat." The paper, which asserts, "It is well known that there is not enough land for land-intensive diets such as those currently practiced in the United States to be applied globally," concludes a reduction in meat consumption in wealthy countries has tremendous potential for freeing up land.
August 2018 - A report produced for the UN determines "societies have to go through a very dramatic shift over 20 to 30 years to get their emissions dramatically lower" and "it advocates that dairy and meat, which have a big climate impact, be replaced by largely plant-based diets." (Summary)
September 2018 - A study into the "water footprint" of diets in Western Europe, conducted by the European Commission and published in Nature Sustainability, finds that meat-free diets cut one’s water footprint by more than half. (Summary)
September 2018 - A report conducted by the Rural Investment Support for Europe (RISE) Foundation finds meat consumption has to be reduced by roughly half in order to come within a “safe operating space” for public health and the environment. The report’s authors tell the Guardian that harder messaging is needed, as the time has passed for “protecting the status quo” and “policymakers, farmers and society as a whole face deeply uncomfortable choices.” (Summary)
October 2018 - A report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project finds three quarters of large U.S. meat processing plants that discharge their wastewater directly into streams and rivers violated their pollution control permits over the last two years, with some dumping as much nitrogen pollution as small cities – and facing little or no enforcement. Additionally, a single Illinois slaughterhouse was found to be the biggest nitrogen polluter of waterways in U.S. “Butchering so many animals under one roof is inherently messy — that’s no surprise — and that makes them very, very large sources of water pollution,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of Environmental Integrity Project. (Summary) (Summary 2)
October 2018 - A comprehensive IPCC assessment finds impacts of global warming will be far greater than expected unless major changed are made immediately, including a widespread dietary shift to eating less meat. (Summary)
October 2018 - The most comprehensive analysis yet of the food system’s impact on the environment, published in the journal Nature, finds that huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change. Professor Pete Smith comments to the media that “the evidence is now unequivocal – we need to change our diets if we are to have a sustainable future.” (Summary)
October 2018 - Changing Markets Foundation issues a report finding governments must put policies in place to reduce demand for animal products, which would significantly mitigate GHG emissions while liberating vast areas of land for carbon sinks and nature conservation. (Summary)
October 2018 - A study published in the journal Global Food Security shows that meat and dairy products are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse emissions from the EU diet, and reducing (ideally eliminating) them matters more than consuming locally. (Summary)
October 2018 - Research published in the Lancet finds that replacing animal-source foods with plant-based ones is particularly effective in high-income countries for improving nutrient levels, lowering premature mortality, and reducing some environmental impacts, in particular greenhouse gas emissions.
October 2018 - Of the 2018 release of WWF's biennial Living Planet Report, which names Australia as the only nation in the developed world to make their global list of deforestation hotspots, WWF conservation scientist Dr Martin Taylor tells the media, "Most deforestation in Australia is just for livestock pasture." He elaborates: "Urban sprawl is a problem in the areas where it occurs but it's a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of forest destruction just to produce livestock for pasture."
November 2018 - An Oxford study published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) calculates that many animal meat products would have to be taxed up to 167% in order to cover the resulting health system costs. The author of the study says, “Such a tax would show everyone that meat consumption ‘not only has an impact on personal health, but also entails costs for society and the environment." (Summary)
November 2018 - A study published in Climate Policy finds the so-called livestock sector could use almost half of the greenhouse gas emission budget allowed by 2030 and includes a three-step strategy to address this urgent issue. Dr. Helen Harwatt, farmed animal law and policy fellow at Harvard Law School, advises that getting protein from plant sources instead of animal sources would drastically help in meeting climate targets and reduce the risk of overshooting temperature goals. (Summary)
November 2018 - New Zealand Ecologist Mike Joy publishes the book Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis, in which he says writes: “The prescription is clear for a viable future for New Zealand and for civilisation... we must significantly reduce animal agriculture, and de-intensify food-production systems." He points out "the inefficiency of producing protein-eating animals rather than plants," and says a plant-based shift "will give us multiple benefits – economically, for human health, animal welfare, resilience, the climate and much more.” (Excerpt)
November 2018 - Dinners organized by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science are now vegetarian by default. MP Christine Teunissen says, "The [Dutch] cabinet admitted as early as 2015 that meat and dairy are the two most environmentally damaging elements in our diet. I hope other ministries will follow this sustainable example."
November 2018 - The UK government's Committee on Climate Change releases a report finding that major reductions in high carbon foods such as beef, lamb, and dairy products, coupled with increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, pulses and legumes, are critical to critical to help reduce agricultural emissions. Per CNN, "The advisory body suggests that a dramatic reduction in the consumption of cow and sheep products could release up to 7 million hectares of grassland, which could instead be planted to create forests and help store carbon." (Summary)