Mass producers of the grain consumed in feedlots proudly assert that they are feeding the world, as if they want a medal for their efforts. This is an obvious consequence of cognitive dissonance. They have doubts about their own activities, but if you ask them what they fear about the future based on what they know, you will see "environmental impacts" in a different light.
If we assume that their primary motivation is to simply acquire wealth, then their greatest fears are directly related to their own knowledge that the methods they employ are not sustainable. It's clear to them that their children and grandchildren will not be able to carry on the family tradition as they have done for generations.
They drill the wells and monitor them. They know how long it takes to replenish the aquifers, how quickly they are being depleted, and how close to empty they have become. It's pretty grim. Sadder still is the response to increase production in order to more fully exploit the resource before it's gone.
I applaud those who recognize that personal choices can provide alternatives, but the converse is also true. Alternatives provide choices. If conditions that require alternatives are clearly end of game scenarios, then new choices arise if there is to be the start of another game. In the meantime, we are presented with false choices.
It takes a lot to get to the bottom of this, but I can present several examples of "Eco-meat-eater" individuals I've met who seem to have wildly different impacts on the environment.
Person 'A' buys grass fed beef directly from a local producer we personally met at a local farmers market. She was more than a bit disturbed to see the condition of open range land that had previously been used for natural production of beef. What had once been gorgeous and productive grasslands, with "grass as high as your saddle" according to reports, has now become vast undulating swells of barren dirt, gravel, and stone exposed to constant erosion. She asked if they were mine tailings, but they were not.
Person 'B' also eats meat. He raises poultry sustainably on his farm in North Carolina without a well and trades some of it for beef raised by his neighbor. It could be argued that he is more sustainable than his neighbor because poultry require less food than cattle, but they both eat more sustainably sourced poultry than they otherwise would, so he is driving better choices by providing alternatives. Even if they didn't eat meat, their products would replace very close to the same portion of products provided by mass husbandry. Buying their meat is definitely an incentive for them to continue producing it as they do, but they are both dedicated to holistic farming and also produce vegetables that are far superior to what you would find in a supermarket. Their vegetarian friends provide incentives for them by purchasing crops and by exchanging labor for a share of the goods. This kind of personal involvement is the best way to be certain of source sustainability. Buy his meat and his veggies. You don't have to eat the meat.
Person 'C' is a vegetarian and buys products that are labeled organic, sustainable, free range, grass fed, GMO free, etc. but she has no idea how those products are actually produced. She asked me if carrots grow on a tree, and it took a while for me to understand that she was not joking. Her husband eats meat and does not care how it's sourced. Her personal choice of remaining an herbivore has altered her husband's diet because he loves many of the dishes she prepares for herself. Her friends, relatives, neighbors and members of the church on potluck day praise her culinary talents and often prefer what she produces over other meat dishes available to them. Her personal diet has a much smaller footprint than her spouse's, but the secondary influence of her enthusiasm has a much greater effect.
Person "D" grows microgreens in his small apartment for himself and for anyone who visits him. His sister says, "Hey this is good" and sells some to a prep cook who wants to impress his boss who just happens to be a great chef. All four of these people eat meat, but all of them are also happily involved in a supply chain that is eminently superior in terms of sustainability. As a result of their activities, many people get introduced to the production and consumption of an alternative to poorly sourced food. A few of them start growing their own, but one actually starts producing microgreens on a larger scale. The portion of his product that is unsaleable or unsold goes to his neighbor who raises chickens in her back yard so she can sell eggs to get by. Person 'D' accidentally started something that resembles a food network, and he did it simply by exploring alternatives to what most of us recognize as unsustainable. The point is that his sister is an eco-meat-eater, but her influence didn't require purchasing anything. It was her mindset that triggered a small action which ended up being a key factor in the change that took place, perhaps with a greater overall effect.
Person 'E' is a horror story. She lives in constant fear of animal products, GMO's, pesticides, germs, contrails, and radio waves. This effectively reduces her choices to almost nothing. Her ten year old daughter is the most malnourished person I have ever met. When she mentioned that she was hungry she was offered a ramen soup and I cringed. Sustainability of the planet suddenly seemed secondary to sustainability of her life. Farms don't produce people like that. Cities do.
Years ago in my country it was estimated that 90% of the population lived on farms. The influx of whole populations into cities not only increased the demand for those products, but it also fostered the ignorance required to perpetuate that system. Most of that farmland still exists, but it's now in the hands of mega corporations and much of it is devoted to mass husbandry. It will soon fail, and after it's abandoned we may get a chance to try something different, but who among us wants to or knows how?
Limiting population growth in general can be very helpful, but it doesn't follow that there will be a corresponding decrease in demand for poorly sourced meat. China made great efforts to control their pop growth in ways that westerners would find unthinkable, but they simultaneously encouraged urban migration. The increased affluence of city dwellers has led to a much greater demand for our terribly unsustainable products. Worse yet, it has led to a huge loss of the very skills required to return to the farm. It's much harder when you don't know how.
Unless you are prepared to move to a farm or personally produce something sustainably in the city, supporting and/or endorsing those who do so is the only reasonable way I can see for an individual in the city to counter this problem. If the net effect is too negligible, then natural limitations will soon force our hand.
I've gone as far as offering free land to anyone willing to manage it properly, but I've found no takers. I came up with the idea while attending a birthday party for a dog in a notable and somewhat affluent green community during a fascinating discussion about possible alternatives. Someone scoffed, "Who would do such a thing?" and although I was just their lowly landscaper I answered, "I will!" but I was surprised to discover a few years later, when I was actually able to put the plan into action, just how addicted to the city we have all become.
I picked up a homeless hitchhiker whose destination was a thousand miles away simply so he could collect $900 in food stamps. I asked him if the government were to offer him $900 worth of land instead of the food stamps, would he agree to use it to produce his own food? Nope. It sounded like too much work and he claimed he wouldn't know how to anyway. The point here is that despite his ignorance, lack of concern, lack of ambition, poor diet, and low purchasing power, he maintained a tiny carbon footprint. After doubling my passenger miles per gallon, he demonstrated his alternative mode of transportation. He loaded everything he owned onto a long board and hitched up his dog like a sled dog to take him somewhere else to panhandle a few coins. He and his dog both eat from dumpsters. Few of us are willing to be quite that eco-friendly.
Poverty is our friend. May we all become too poor to afford meat. May we be forced to plant something. May we find some tiny patch of soil to improve, anywhere, out of our desperate need to sustain our own lives. I fear there is nothing short of dire need that can alter our trajectory because there is a fear of change that keeps us stuck in our old ways, and nothing short of the threat of starvation is adequate to overcome it. I stop thinking about this as soon as the ramifications of that begin to sink in.
Imagine a person selling lemonade next to a Coke machine. He grew the lemons and wants to plant orange trees. His product is vastly superior and costs exactly as much as a soda. I'm tempted to make a video that documents how people respond to that choice in real life. It's the only plan I have to determine whether or not we are all doomed.
I avoid sugar, but I would buy lemonade from him for anyone standing around who was tempted to slip a few coins into the machine. It's a no-brainer. Become a vegetarian AND buy environmentally friendly meat. Serve it to carnivores with generous helpings of deliciously prepared organic veggies, and make sure the meat is tough, dry, and unpalatable. This worked well for Person "C" despite her profound ignorance. Re-examine what it means to produce food, and you don't have to know the first thing about raising your own, then re-evaluate what it means to be a consumer and pray you don't eventually become consumed by hungry cannibals.
The question is: "Is it better to abandon meat from my diet completely or to endorse eco-friendly meat production? The short answer is "Yes"
Be advised that it's not a choice between one or the other. That's a false choice. Don't accept it. The best answer, based on all of the above, is "Both!"