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Fruits and veggies in a Barcelona market. Image by Hellebardius.By Zachary Shahan

As a vegetarian who believes that living a vegetarian life is more of a moral or spiritual issue than anything else, it is something I don't often bring up in discussion with others.

However, I have seen so many stories and studies about its link to widespread environmental problems lately, I felt impelled to write about it a bit myself.

Perhaps most notably, according to a recent study by NASA, eating meat is essentially the third largest net contributor to climate change pollution in the world (behind using motor vehicles and burning household biofuels — mostly wood and animal dung). Additionally, in total, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study from a couple years ago found that livestock production was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas pollution globally and a more recent study by Worldwatch Institute found that it was responsible for as much as as 51%!

If you look at the issue of energy alone (table below via Lloyd Alter of Treehugger), you can see that the energy required to produce one pound of meat is drastically more than the energy required to produce one pound of fruits or veggies.

energy required to produce one pound

As Praveen Ghanta says, "The data above indicate the huge difference in energy required from one end of the food spectrum to the other. Roughly twenty-five times more energy is required to produce one calorie of beef than to produce one calorie of corn for human consumption."

Brighter Planet produced a great report recently (a couple charts from it below) examining the relationship between food and carbon emissions in the US as well. The bottom line is, if you want to help the environment, cut meat out of your diet today.

carbon footprint food group

carbon footprint diet vegan vegetarian omnivore

Despite all of these environmental problems related to eating meat (and there are at least as many health issues — note that the ADA now recommends a vegetarian diet), global meat production (which has tripled in the past three decades) is expected to double by 2050 if current trends continue.

The new two-volume  report that makes this forecast, Livestock in a Changing Landscape, comes to these key findings:

  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth's land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of Earth's total arable land.
  • Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
  • Although 1 billion poor people derive part of their livelihood from domesticated animals, commercialized industrial livestock has displaced many small, rural producers in developing countries, like India and China.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (the beef, pork and poultry industries emit large amounts of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases).
  • The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter, with much of the world's pastureland degraded by grazing or feed production, and with many forests clear-cut to make way for additional farmland.
  • Feed production requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels.
  • Animal waste is a serious concern, since only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are actually absorbed and the rest pollute lands and waters.
  • Total phosphorous excretions of livestock are estimated to be seven to nine times greater than from humans.

Unfortunately, rather than address the broad externalities of livestock production, US government subsidizes it. The charts below, by Stephen McDaniel at Freakalytics, show that the US government heavily subsidizes meat and dairy while hardly giving a helping hand to fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes.


Nonetheless, you still have a choice and you can probably still save money switching to a vegetarian diet (especially if you include the health benefits of doing so). So, if you want to make a big green step, start on a vegetarian diet, or even a vegan one!

Related reading:
  Can We Stop The Next Fukushima Times 10,000? (Sep-13-2011)
  A World Of Plastic (Article And InfoGraphic) (Aug-2-2011)
  'Sustainability' Crunch: Dropping The 'S' Bomb (Jun-29-2011)
  Vegan Jelloware Re-Invents The Disposable Cup (Aug-14-2010)
  Female Babies In China Growing Breasts (Aug-14-2010)
  Dirty Little Secret: Who Wants To Live Forever (... (May-19-2010)
  Another Week On The Trek Toward A Drastically Ch... (Apr-6-2010)
  Edward Burtynsky - An Alternative Look At Progress (Jan-22-2010)
  How 16 Ships Create as Much [Sulfur] Pollution a... (Nov-23-2009)
  Livestock and Climate Change (Nov-17-2009)

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Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (May-3-2010)   
I would like to see a chart of the corporate profits vs. types of food, also. It will probably look similar to the subsidies chart, since the corporations own the government, but I'm only guessing...

Comment by: Zachary (Zachary Shahan) (Apr-11-2010)   

great points. all of them. one idea that i've come across recently, apparently a new trend, is weekday vegetarianism. seems like a good idea. for those who think being full out vegetarian is too difficult.

i could definitely do that with veganism, which i think i should go 100% on anyway.
Comment by:  Wavehunter (William Coffin) (Apr-6-2010)   Web site

Great article, Zachary. I can see myself in some of the things you say. I've long been a vegetarian but never tried to persuade others to follow my example. Now with the mounting evidence of the harm meat eaters are causing to the environment perhaps it's time for a change. (A recent article, on New Zealand lamb, is here.)

It seems to me the problem can be solved, or at least reduced, very quickly. Poorer people eat little meat - they simply can't afford it. It is richer people who eat most meat and, on account of their relative wealth, they have a choice. (Of course, I'm talking globally: poor people in rich countries may get through a good number of Big Macs and KFC buckets in their lives!)

Mind you, I'm open to criticism from vegans who could fairly say I don't go far enough.

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