Food Choices for a Healthy Planet

The Environmental Case for Vegetarianism



Although we live in a predominantly meat-eating society, there are numerous benefits to being a vegetarian or vegan. Whether we choose to live a cruelty-free life by not consuming factory-farmed animals that live under horrendous conditions or opt for a diet that is less contaminated by toxic additives and byproducts of the meat industry, there are far-reaching consequences of consuming flesh on a global scale to consider that trump our individual preferences.

Experts predict that the worldwide consumption of pork, beef, poultry and other livestock will double by 2020. According to the Woods Institute for the Environment, at Stanford University, the growth of the meat industry mirrors the rise in global population, but increasing gross domestic product per capita in developing countries boosts the demand even higher. It has been shown in developing countries that when people have more money, they tend to increase the amount of meat and animal products in their diets.
One of the biggest environmental impacts is the consumption of vast amounts of water for livestock production.

The Water Education Foundation states that it takes 2,464 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. In contrast, only 25 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of wheat. The United States Geological Survey says that 40 percent of fresh water used in the U.S. in 2000 went to irrigate feed crops for livestock.

The meat industry also has a significant impact on global warming. According to the Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, an international consortium of government and private agencies based at FAO headquarters in Rome, livestock production, including animal waste, accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The meat industry is the number one source of methane, a gas that traps heat in the atmosphere and causes the Earth’s temperature to rise throughout the world, releasing more than 100 million tons a year. David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University, states that 40 calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce one calorie of protein from feedlot beef, while only two calories of fossil fuel are needed to produce one calorie of protein from tofu.

All of the livestock being raised throughout the world produce enormous amounts of manure and urine, which in turn pollute natural resources. Some farmers spray the manure on nearby fields for fertilizer; however this can be expensive, doesn’t provide the best nutrient balance for growing plants and can spread diseases carried in the waste to humans. In 1995, 25 million gallons of manure and urine spilled from a hog farm lagoon into the New River, in North Carolina. More than 10 million fish were immediately killed and 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands were closed to shell fishing. In the Gulf of Mexico there is a 7,000 square mile “dead zone” where there is no aquatic life, due to pollution from animal waste and chemical fertilizers.

Small farms with free-roaming animals are disappearing in many parts of the world. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) data indicates that three-quarters of the world's poultry supply, half of the pork and two-thirds of the eggs currently come from industrial meat factories. More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8 percent is used to grow food for direct human consumption. There would be a fairer distribution of food and resources in the world if the food fed to farm animals was used to feed people. If resources from meat production were diverted to other uses, there could be enough food to feed everyone on the Earth.

If society was more aware of the full cost of meat consumption and production, including environmental degradation, maybe that would cause people, communities and countries to rethink their crop and livestock systems. We need to adopt policies that provide incentives for better management practices that focus on land conservation and more efficient water and fertilizer use, making a huge difference in saving our natural resources.

Mary Gutierrez is the executive director of Earth Ethics, Inc. For more information, visit EarthEthics.us.
 

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