Environmentalists in Deep Denial

ImageWith Earth Day just around the corner, we can’t help but lament the depth of denial most of the environmental community is in when it comes to the issue of animal agriculture and meat. There are some notable exceptions, such as the World Watch Institute who says, “The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” But, on the whole the environmental community has chosen to remain comfortably unaware of the facts connecting our food choices with environmental sustainability, and several attempts by us to get the environmental movement engaged have resulted in a lackluster response.

The global environment has never been more challenged than it is today, so this failing on the part of the environmental community is especially tragic.  And, to be fair, many vegetarian groups and vegetarian books don’t give enough attention to this vital subject either, instead preferring to just focus in on health and or animal welfare with environmental issues only getting brief mention if any.

To help both groups in their advocacy we offer excerpts from our latest book, Say No To Meat! The 411 on Ditching Meat and Going Veg.  Good planets are hard to find, so let’s all do our part to spread the word that the food you choose to eat is probably the most significant environmental choice you can make!

How does eating a vegetarian diet help the environment?

Massive is the only word we can think of when it comes to the damage to the environment caused by raising livestock. Since one third of all the habitable land in the world is used for raising animals (or for growing crops to feed them), it’s not surprising that the animal agriculture industry has such a massive impact on our environment. Farm animals require huge amounts of feed, and the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow that feed are made from or using oil. Raising farm animals takes enormous quantities of fresh water for drinking and for growing their feed, and fossil fuel to power all the equipment, transportation, refrigeration and freezing that raising meat requires. Livestock produce greenhouse gases and emit water pollutants from their wastes and require evermore land to live on, resulting in ecological destruction.

You can make a big difference by the food choices you make. By choosing to follow a vegetarian diet, you are reducing the demand for meat and other animal products. This in turn has an impact on how many animals farmers decide to raise, how much resource they use, and how much pollution will be caused. While the impact of one person’s dietary change may seem small, as more and more people make this choice, the effects really add up. If everyone were to go vegetarian, there would be no need for a meat industry at all, and environmental problems such as global warming, water pollution and rainforest destruction would be drastically reduced.

Why does animal agriculture use so much oil?

It’s amazing how much oil is used to produce meat. In fact, agriculture uses 17 percent of all the fossil fuel (oil, coal and natural gas) in the United States, with meat production responsible for the majority of that portion. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that most animals are raised in so-called factory farms, where their feed is grown elsewhere and shipped in. These animals consume enormous quantities of crops–in fact about 70 percent of all the corn and 80 percent of all the soybeans grown in the United States are fed to farm animals. When we consider the fossil fuel used for meat production, we also have to take into account all the fuel used to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, and to water, harvest, and ship those crops throughout the animal’s entire lifetime, as well as that required for the transportation and slaughter of the animals, plus the shipping and refrigeration of the meat. All that fuel adds up. Grass-fed animals use less fuel, but these animals use so much land that it’s not practical to feed America’s meat habit this way.

Going vegetarian saves oil. Plant based foods are simply grown, harvested, shipped and eaten directly rather than wastefully being funneled through a farm animal first. Much less refrigeration is usually required for plant foods than animal products. But the big advantage is that it takes only a pound of grain to make a loaf of bread, whereas it takes over 17 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef, requiring much more fossil fuel.

We’re not kidding when we say that if you are still eating meat we would rather you drive your car to get places rather than walk!  Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University explains it this way, “It is actually quite astounding how much energy is wasted by the standard American-style diet. Even driving many gas-guzzling luxury cars can conserve energy over walking—that is, when the calories you burn walking come from the standard American diet!” So if you are an environmentally-conscious consumer looking to cut down on your use of fossil fuel, a non-renewable resource, switching to a vegetarian diet is a great place to start.

How is global warming affected by eating meat?

Global warming just may be the most serious environmental threat in human history. It’s caused by the production of large quantities of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. These gases trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and so contribute to the over-warming of the planet. Many scientists are very concerned that this warming is causing the glaciers and the polar ice-caps to melt, which is gradually causing a rise in the sea-levels. Low lying lands are at risk of being permanently flooded, causing many people to lose their homes and farm land. In other parts of the world, changes in weather patterns causing droughts will occur, causing famine. If the world continues to produce or increase global warming gases at the current rate, there will be an environmental catastrophe which could lead to the death of millions of people.

In the previous question, we saw just how much fossil fuel is consumed in the production of meat, and this of course is a major source of carbon dioxide. But the animals also produce carbon dioxide when they breathe, and many produce huge quantities of methane as flatulence and from their manure. Methane is 21 times more effective than carbon dioxide at heating the atmosphere. Since there are 56 billion farm animals raised for food in the world each year, (eight times the human population), you can see that added together, they must produce a huge share of the greenhouse gases which are causing our planet to warm up.

Get ready for this one. According to a recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Report, raising livestock causes more global warming than all the cars, buses, trucks, airplanes, boats and ships in the world put together. It turns out that whether or not you eat meat is much more important than whether or not you have a fuel-efficient car, whether or not you carpool or take public transportation, whether or not you buy local, whether or not you travel for vacation or stay closer to home.

Nothing is more important in the fight against global warming than becoming a vegetarian. In a recent report from the World Watch Institute, animal agriculture and the meat industry were found to generate 51 percent of the greenhouse gases. That’s more than all other sources put together.

By switching to a vegetarian diet, you can single-handedly reduce greenhouse gases by 3,267 pounds per person per year. If enough other people to follow your lead, the biggest source of greenhouse gases would be removed, and global warming wouldn’t be the impending crisis that it is today.

How does the use of water to produce meat cause problems?

You might think, especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest where it feels like it never stops raining, that water is no big deal.  But if you live in a drier place, like California, Arizona, or further afield in parts of Africa, Asia and Australia, water is a really big deal. There are continual debates, arguments, even battles, over how to share out scarce water resources, from local rivers and streams, between different groups of people. Fresh water is needed for basic human needs like drinking and washing. It’s used for industry, agriculture and in some places for hydro-electric power, and it’s used for recreation (fishing, boating) and watering lawns and golf courses. In dry parts of the world, where there is not enough water to go around, major compromises have to be made. Often these compromises are decided by who is willing to pay the most, and so poorer people lose out on what should be a basic human right, access to clean, fresh water.

Watering crops and grassland to be able to feed farm animals is a huge waste of water. By some estimates, it takes 5214 gallons of water to keep all the crops watered to feed a cow, and give it enough to drink, per pound of beef produced. Compare that to growing wheat or tomatoes or lettuce, which need less than 25 gallons per pound of food. When countries choose to raise animals for food, rather than feed their people crops directly, they are wasting precious fresh water which is desperately needed for other uses.

Since meat in western countries may come from many different sources, it’s very difficult to track down where the meat you eat has been raised, and where the crops it was fed were grown. But every time you choose a vegetarian meal, you can be sure that you are saving someone a substantial amount of water, which can be put to a more productive use.

How does raising animals cause ecological destruction?

Raising farm animals and harvesting fish is the single biggest cause of ecological destruction on both land and sea.  On land, ecological destruction is caused by overgrazing, causing soil erosion and desertification, and by the destruction of natural habitats, such as the Amazon Rainforest. In the oceans, industrial fishing causes massive disruption of the food chain and the underwater ecology of our oceans.

The fires burning in the Amazon are so bright the astronauts can see them from space.

Cattle ranchers in Brazil, which is now a major meat-exporting country, set these fires to clear land to raise beef, and to raise crops such as soybeans to feed the cows. In only 10 years an area twice the size of Portugal, the country which originally colonized Brazil, was burned down mostly just to clear land to raise beef. And in Central America, half their rainforest has already been destroyed in order to raise farm animals. Rainforest destruction is a continuing tragedy. The rainforest is home to many rare plants and animals which are losing their habitat and at risk for extinction. In addition, once the forest has been cleared, the land is particularly susceptible to soil erosion.David Kaimowitz, Director of the Center for International Forestry Research, doesn’t pull any punches when he says, “Cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil’s rain forests.”

Fishing is destroying the ocean’s ecology. Long nets used by industrial fishing boats catch many non-food species of fish which are then thrown back dead or dying. These species, which have been killed for no useful purpose, are removed from the oceanic food chain causing massive ecological destruction. Fish farming also generates a lot of waste. These fish are held in pens and are fed huge amounts of concentrated protein pellets. The leftover pellets, and the waste from the fish themselves, sink to the bottom of the ocean, generating bacteria which consume the oxygen that shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures need to survive, thus destroying their habitats.

What can I do about it?

The power is in your hands. Animal agriculture, and the crops needed to feed them, is a huge industry which causes untold damage to our environment. Every time you choose a vegetarian meal instead of a meat-based one, you are helping to limit that damage and taking a powerful step towards a more sustainable world.

This was an excerpt from the environmental chapter of Say No to Meat: The 411 on Ditching Meat and Going Veg by Amanda Strombom and Stewart Rose.