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.
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.
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!