Humankind’s relationship with cows is complex to say the least. Videos of their success stories go viral, with millions left heart-eyed at a rescue cow cozying up to a human or galloping around a sanctuary with a ball. Yet “beef” remains a staple in many people’s diets, and its reported health benefits have kept cow meat on dinner tables for years.

But growing awareness of the reality of beef – including how it’s made and who it’s made from – is inspiring a snowballing number of people to stop eating it altogether.

From animal welfare to environmental and health risks, here are six key reasons to ditch cow meat. And, 20 brands making plant-based beef alternatives. 

6 reasons to stop eating beef

  1. Cows are sentient individuals

Like many non-human animals, cows have long been portrayed as nothing more than a commodity with little understanding of the world around them. At the same time, cows as a species have largely been left out of studies into sentience and cognitive capabilities.

However, emerging research indicates that not only are cows self-aware, but maintain a “dynamic and varied emotional daily life” which can include excitement, calmness, frustration, loneliness, and fear, to name a few. Cows can recognize one another, hold grudges, and get nervous to the point that their milk production decreases. They’ve been known to remember other animals after being separated for years, too. 

​Farmhouse Garden Animal Home is a sanctuary near Toronto, Canada. It was established after a multigenerational cattle rancher grew close to a calf who was destined for slaughter. This ultimately led to a change of heart that has since saved dozens of animals’ lives. 

“Over our last eight years operating as a sanctuary, we have met many people who view cows as ‘food’ animals with no feelings or emotions. Our visitors very quickly learn that each animal has a unique personality, likes and dislikes, and friends in the herd,” the sanctuary tells us, adding that “most cows on farms never get the chance to show their true personalities.”

Momma Cow and Calf By Jeffrey Schwartz via Shutterstock (476052922

“The cows at Farmhouse Garden Animal Home have been shown love and kindness for most of their lives, so they’ve grown to trust humans,” the sanctuary says. “Many have formed deep bonds with our volunteers, and will come to us when they’re called. The mama cows have been known to babysit each other’s babies, and the whole herd is fiercely protective whenever a calf is born. We’ve even gone on jogs around the farm with some cows, just as one would with a dog!”

Cows are also problem-solvers and display a great deal of intelligence with reliable long-term memory. Research has found that they can rapidly learn new tasks, locate moving hidden objects, and discriminate between shapes and complex stimuli.

The personhood of cows has been enough to spark meaningful change in those visiting Farmhouse Garden Animal Home. “Some of our visitors have gone vegan overnight just because they witnessed how curious, smart, and wonderful the cows are.”

  1. Animal cruelty in the beef industry

Despite their sentience and ability to feel pain and fear, approximately 900,000 cows are slaughtered every day for human consumption. Meanwhile, research demonstrates that most people are unaware of how their meat is “produced,” with one survey finding that more than 90 percent of respondents from around the world had limited or no knowledge of industrial meat production.

What happens to cows in the meat industry?

Beef production begins at cow-calf operations, where every year, female cows are inseminated, carry out their nine-month pregnancy, and give birth. Calves born female are often kept for breeding, and like their mothers, will spend a majority of their lives pregnant until they are “spent” and slaughtered.

Cows in a truck interior By ocphoto via Shutterstock (1158053296)

Male calves are kept alive and fattened with supplemented feed until they reach “market weight,” usually around 18 months’ old. Veal calves, on the other hand, are typically killed at around 16 to 18 weeks of age. The natural lifespan of a cow is closer to 20 years.

Farmed cows are often stunned before slaughter, either using a gun that fires a metal bolt into their head, or by running electric charges through their brain or heart. After stunning, animals are shackled and hoisted above the ground by one or both legs, before a worker cuts their throat with a knife so that they bleed out. Undercover investigations have revealed that many animals in the commercial meat industry are stunned improperly, meaning they are conscious and able to feel pain during slaughter.  

Separate investigations have exposed the grim conditions in which cows and other animals raised for food are forced to live in, with many suffering from injuries, disease, and severe psychological distress as a result. Animals also suffer during transportation from farm to slaughterhouse, during which time they are crammed into trucks and left without food or water for hours or days at a time. Many die from dehydration, heat exhaustion, or freezing temperatures, and are discarded. 

  1. Health risks and nutrition

In 2023, beef is still considered by many to be a nutritious food, namely for its protein, iron, and B12 content. But is it actually good for you?

An expanding bank of research is uncovering the many health risks associated with eating beef and other red meats, in part due to dangerous amounts of saturated and trans fat, as well as cholesterol levels. Studies have linked red meat to an increased risk of foodborne illness, endometriosis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer (especially breast cancer and colorectal cancer), as well as death.

“The supposed health benefits of ‘beef’ have been hugely exaggerated and are outdated,” says certified holistic nutritionist Bridget DeMarsh. “The reality is that eating cow meat is detrimental to human health and any perceived nutritional benefits are greatly outweighed by the risks.”

Major bodies around the world now encourage limiting intake of red meat for health reasons. This includes the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialised UN agency that guides international health policies, as well as countries like Sweden, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Brazil, Greece, and Qatar.

  1. Environmental impact

Beef’s colossal impact on the planet is becoming more widely accepted among the public, and for good reason. Beef production is to blame for extensive land clearing (deforestation), to make room for farms and facilities as well as to grow feed crops. 

It’s a system that ecologist Nicholas Carter, co-founder of PlantBasedData.org, describes as “extravagantly inefficient and wasteful.” He explains: “Farming for beef alone uses 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land but accounts for only two percent of global calories and five percent of global protein consumed.”

Rainforest logging By Rich Carey via Shutterstock (1419975875)

The beef industry’s water use and pollution is also among the worst. And when it comes to greenhouse gases (GHGs), beef is to blame for more emissions than any other food product.

The United Nations highlights the profound environmental impact of animal-based foods on its website and encourages plant-based eating, especially in high-income countries. “What you eat is much more important than how far that food has travelled or how much packaging it has,” the organisation states. “Transport and packaging typically account for only a small fraction of foods’ greenhouse gas emission.”

  1. Other global (and often hidden) impacts

Animal rights, personal health, and the environment are usually the first topics raised when considering the “side effects” of meat production. But its impacts span even further. 

The meat industry has repeatedly been linked to multiple global crises, including cross-species zoonotic diseases (like COVID-19 and more recently, bird flu), world hunger, species loss, and antibiotic resistance. The latter is of particular concern when it comes to red meat. Because animals like cows and pigs are kept alive for longer than other individuals in the meat industry (chickens, for instance, are slaughtered at six weeks), they are fed 80 percent of the medically important antibiotics given to farmed animals.

Additionally, recent investigations have shone a light on the unethical labour conditions at meatpacking plants, abattoirs, and similar companies, including child labour and exploitation of migrant workers. Slaughterhouses also see vastly more occupational injuries, amputations, psychological distress, and deaths than other fields. Many previous meat industry workers cite their experiences as the reason for them going vegan.

  1. There are plenty of vegan beef alternatives
Plant-Based option from VBites

Realistic meat alternatives may have been difficult to track down in the past, but nowadays, there’s a plant-based version of everything, and beef is no exception. Vegan-friendly meatballs, mince, patties, strips, corned beef, steak, ribs, and ground beef are all available to buy from many major supermarkets, as well as online retailers.

While this list is definitely not exhaustive, here are some brands that offer plant-based beef products:

Cow rescue charities

There are various rescues and sanctuaries that take in cows in need of rehabilitation, and/or a forever home. Here are just some of the organisations helping cows and other non-human animals:

Vale da Rainha – Minas Gerais, Brazil
Visit their website, Facebook, or Instagram

jemima webber
Jemima is a vegan writer from Australia. She has worked with global brands and charities, primarily focusing on animal rights and the climate crisis, as well as music and psychology. She previously held roles as the Head of Editorial at Plant Based News and Senior Editor at LIVEKINDLY. Jemima currently lives in Canada with her senior plant-based dog Levi. The pair have had the privilege of fostering cats in several countries and living at a vegan sanctuary for animals rescued from the meat, dairy, and egg industries.