Category Archives: Environment

Is Driving better than Walking for the Environment?

person-walkingcar-cartoonWhich is better for the environment, driving or walking? Before you rush to say “Walking, of course, because it doesn’t use any fossil fuel,” think again!

For the average American, walking actually uses quite a lot of fossil fuel, because the fuel the walker uses is the food they eat. Food takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce, and the food that takes the most is meat. It actually takes about 17 times more fossil fuel to get a calorie from meat than it does from wheat or beans. That means if you follow a meat-centered diet, you’re going to indirectly burn a lot of fossil fuel just by walking. Of course, vegetarians use far less fossil fuel.

According to Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University “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 [meat based] American diet!”

It takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce the fertilizers, the pesticides and to harvest all the crops we feed to animals. Also consider that 70% of the crops we grow in this country go to feed farm animals not people. It gets worse. The slaughterhouse, and all the refrigeration and freezing that meat requires, takes even more fossil fuel.

The result of all this is a fantastic inefficiency, and the way out of it is through a meat-free diet. Even better is a meat, dairy and egg-free diet. So, from the point of view of the environment, if you’re not yet a vegetarian maybe it would actually be better for the environment if you drove more and walked less!

Grass-Fed Beef – bad for us and for the planet

Recently, some people have been touting grass-fed beef as eliminating all the problems associated with meat, or as an equivalent alternative to going vegetarian. Don’t fall for it. Grass-fed beef is still bad for us, the environment and, of course, the cows.

Let’s take a look and see what some leading veg-authors have to say on the subject and then make a few observations of our own.

Environmentalist James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food, points out that grass-fed beef produces more methane, a global-warming gas more potent that carbon dioxide, than grain-fed cows do, and that large herds of grazing cattle cause enormous amounts of soil to be eroded, choking off the streams and wetlands. In choosing grass-fed beef, we trade some environmental problems in the switch and “no study I’ve seen convincingly shows that the exchange is worth it,” he says.  He further warns not to translate what is being done at the more responsible, small operator “boutique level,” to the national and international scene, where problems associated with overgrazing are so common. But perhaps most importantly for the world’s hungry, even grass-fed cows are still poor converters of plants into nutrients, and in most cases, the grasslands used for grazing could more efficiently and sustainably be used for producing various crops directly for human consumption.

Geophysiscist G. Eshel explains that “Since grazing animals eat mostly cellulose-rich roughage, while their feedlot counterparts eat mostly simple sugars whose digestion requires no rumination, the grazing animals emit two to four times as much methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This, and the faster weight gain by feedlot animals, result in significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions per pound of meat by grass-fed animals than by feedlot ones.” And there’s plenty of damage that grazing cows produce besides increased greenhouse gas production. Prof Eshel goes on to explain “Grazing cattle also compromise river systems in the fragile arid and semi arid environments in which they are disproportionately ubiquitous, and accelerate soil erosion. Because they eat much more dry matter then feedlot animals, they also pressure dwindling local water supplies exactly where they are most vulnerable.”

Leading author and advocate John Robbins also takes issue with grass-fed beef. While Robbins broadly agrees McWilliams’ environmental assessment and notes that “cattle grazing in the West have polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.” He also takes note of some other problems not resolved by grass-fed beef, and points out that “the lives of grass-fed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel.” Finally Robbins warns that grass-fed beef still have nutritional drawbacks associated with them, saying “I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grass-fed then it’s fine and dandy. Grass-fed products are still high in saturated fat (although not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients.” Robbins also notes that it can take up to 4 times as long to raise a grass-fed cow compared to a grain-fed one which could result in very significant shortages of supply.

Dr. Richard Oppenlander, author of Comfortably Unaware, agrees with the problems associated with grass-fed beef pointed out by the others, but then goes on to point out that grazing the number of farm animals necessary to satisfy the American meat habit would require more land than the country has, and so really can’t be done anyway because it requires so much land per animal. For instance, he calculates that to raise the current number of just cows and pigs produced in the US every year would require 2.6 billion acres of land if grass-fed – an impossibility since the country only has 2.25 billion acres total land mass to begin with.

Some people ask if local grass-fed beef is any better? That still doesn’t help because most of the carbon footprint is from the production of beef not its transportation. In fact, in the average household, 83% of the footprint comes just from producing the food, while transportation is just 11%.

Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University publishing the results of their research in Environmental Science and Technology say, “Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”

Here’s the bottom line. Grass-fed beef is still bad for the environment. And of course, even grass-fed beef still contains unhealthy amounts of heart disease promoting saturated fat and cholesterol, and even organic beef still contains cancer-causing industrial toxins that bio-concentrate in the cow over its lifetime. Almost as bad, cooking grass-fed beef still produces cancer causing HCA’s (Hetero Cyclic Amines ) and diabetes-promoting AGE’s (Advanced Glycation End-products).  Plus, let’s not forget that though its raising is a little better, even grass-fed cattle still face the slaughterhouse. The best choice is still going vegetarian.

We show the UW the way

population-health-initiativeVegetarians of Washington has submitted a population-health-initiative-proposal to the University of Washington Population Health Initiative, which aims to bring together the research and resources of the UW and partners around the Puget Sound and beyond to improve the health and well-being of people around the world.

Funded by a gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Initiative will focus on three key areas: human health, environmental resiliency, and social and economic equity.

Our proposal outlines the benefits to human health, the environment, global hunger and other social justice aspects. We proposed that the Initiative look for ways to educate the medical profession, NGOs, policy makers, teachers, farmers and the general public about the importance of a plant-based diet, and how to go about making the necessary changes. Our key conclusion states:

The potential for improving health and saving human lives by encouraging the world to shift to a plant-based diet is enormous. The costs of this project are small, in comparison to the potential huge global savings in healthcare costs, not to mention the potential for saving the planet from climate change and many other environmental crises, and freeing up vast quantities of land and water for an ever-increasing population.

They will be considering all proposals in January 2017. We hope they step up to the plate!

Dietitians on the Environment

academy-of-nutrition-and-dieteticsA new position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) highlights the benefit of a plant-based diet for both health and now the environment. The paper says plant-based diets are more environmentally friendly and sustainable than diets rich in animal products, noting that they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50 percent.

“Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage” the Academy says . “Becoming vegetarian can be beneficial to personal health and the environment,” says Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.”

More and more dietitians are publishing articles on the connection between our food choices and environmental sustainability. To learn more of how a veg diet protects the environment, see our many articles, or our printable Eating Green brochure.

Global warming breaks another record

While world leaders gather in Marrakesh, Morocco, for the next major United Nations Climate Change Summit meeting, the UN World Meteorological Organization has announced global carbon dioxide levels have passed a symbolic threshold. Global average carbon dioxide levels are above 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in 3 million years.co2-chart

Unfortunately, the grand strategic narratives around the Morocco conference will barely touch on one crucial aspect – meat and the massive greenhouse gas emissions that come from producing the livestock needed for it.

The Morocco conference is of vital importance, not just for climate change itself but for framing what kind of food policy follows. Why does food matter for climate change? Well, it’s a major driving factor. The UN’s own Special Rapporteur, Olivier de Schutter says it well, “There is no doubt in the scientific community that the impacts of livestock production [on climate change] are massive.” In fact, a study written by two senior economists at the World Bank showed that the livestock-meat sector of the economy is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Don’t hold your breath for the conference to recognize this, much less use the feared “V word.” While sobering evidence like this has mounted for years, climate change policy makers have focused their attention on energy rather than food. This policy blind spot is because tackling the emissions from producing food means tackling consumers’ food choices, and they’re simply afraid.

cow-lineupThe livestock sector’s impact on climate change has been persistently neglected – in both policy and practice – for a long time. Unlike other sectors such as waste, transport and energy, in which greenhouse gas emissions reductions have been attempted through varying means such as taxes, incentives or subsidies, the livestock sector has enjoyed an unprecedented freedom to carry on with “business as usual.”

But the environment simply can’t stand business as usual and demands courage from us all. Without tackling the problem of animal agriculture, we will not be able to solve the climate change problem.

To learn more about the meat connection to global warming, see our Global Warming Flyer.

The High Price of Pork

transport pigWhen it comes to pork, there’s a high price to be paid by the workers, by the environment, and perhaps worst of all, by the pigs themselves. The scale of the problem is enormous. We raise 120 million pigs each year in the US, and many millions more are raised around the world.

The environment pays a high price for concentrated factory-style pig farming. Factory pig farms produce huge amounts of manure – much more than can be used as fertilizer. This manure is stored in lagoons that can leak or break open after a good rain, and cause massive amounts of water pollution as the runoff enters the lakes and streams. This results in massive fish kills and food chain disruption. Methane, a greenhouse gas much more damaging than carbon dioxide, is given off from these lagoons, contributing to global warming, and the intense smell reduces the air quality in the surrounding neighborhood to an often unbearable degree.

Pig farming is wasteful too. Pigs, like other farm animals, are food factories in reverse, returning far less in pork than the calories and protein they are fed, since most of the nutrition fed to a pig is used for the animal’s energy and metabolism. When there’s so much hunger in the world, and most of the world’s agricultural land is already being used to the maximum, feeding so much of our crops to farm animals is not the best way to feed people. The situation can be summed up by saying that pork production is both wasteful and polluting.

Things aren’t so good for the slaughterhouse workers either. Many of the more than 150,000 in America work in pig slaughterhouses. By many measures they have the worst and most dangerous job in America, and they suffer badly, both physically and emotionally. Few can stand to stick at this job for more than a year. Almost no one speaks up for them. While many consider slaughterhouse workers to be part of the problem caused by pork, we recognize that they are its victims as well, as they pay a high price for working in this industry and only do so because of the lack of other options available to them.

But it is the pigs themselves that pay the highest price. Most pregnant pigs spend most of their lives “stored” in crates so small that they cannot move more than a couple of inches, and can never turn around. For almost her entire life, iron bars will hold a mother pig on the slotted concrete floor as she produces litter after litter. Her heaving belly, waving head and dark-rimmed eyes are the only parts she seems free to move. These enclosures, called gestation crates — and separate farrowing crates that hold sows while they give birth and suckle their newborns — have unleashed a furious battle between pork producers who call these crates safe, and opponents who say they amount to cruelty.

Moving animals from one stall to another, or onto the truck to the slaughterhouse, is where much egregious abuse occurs. Weeks after taking a job as a breeding technician at Eagle Point Farms, an anguished Sharee Santorineos sat down and wrote a three-page complaint. “I seen pigs that are pregnant beat with steel bars,” said her letter to the Illinois Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare. “I seen them kicked all over their body.” But, as is so often the case, no action was taken. This story is repeated again and again across the country.

Even under the most controlled conditions within the industry, farm animal transport is stressful and harsh. The animals are deprived of food, water, and bedding during transport. Trucks are so overcrowded that animals are unable to rest, and may trample or fight with one another in search of space. This sad chain of events ends in the slaughterhouse. And, as the saying goes, if slaughterhouses had glass walls we’d all be vegetarians.

While we applaud those working for animal welfare to improve conditions for the animals, and the environmentalists for trying to enforce regulations to protect the ecology, the only real solution to this problem is a vegetarian solution. By following a vegetarian diet, we reduce the demand and therefore reduce the production of pork. If enough people were to go veg, the pigs, the workers and the environment would all be spared the high price of pork.

The Global Cost of Not Going Veg

Globe - blue & greenA recent Oxford University study highlights the human, environmental and economic cost the world faces if we don’t go veg. On the health side, the report shows that millions of lives will be lost due to meat, dairy and egg-related diseases. From an environmental perspective, eighty percent of agricultural greenhouse emissions come from livestock. While  the economic cost is already high, Oxford University estimates that by 2050, raising and consuming meat will cost the world as much as $13 trillion per year in increased medical costs and environmental damage. They say the most effective diet to stem this rising tide of pollution and illness is the plant-based or vegan diet.

There isn’t a moment to lose. The world is careening towards an environment never before experienced by humans, with the temperature of the air and oceans breaking records, sea levels reaching historic highs, and carbon dioxide surpassing a key milestone, a major international report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found. Last year was the warmest on record, with the annual surface temperature beating the previous record set in 2014. The oceans also reached the highest temperature on record. As would be expected, the sea level rose to a record height as well. “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” says Michael Mann, a leading climatologist at Penn State, “They are playing out before us, in real time. The 2015 numbers drive that home.”

While most environmental agencies and organizations are slow to recognize it, our food choices are make or break factors when it comes to global warming. A UN report said that raising livestock causes more global warming than all the cars, trains, trucks, air planes and ships in the world put together. Meanwhile a report from the World Watch Institute said that raising livestock causes more greenhouse gas emission than all other sources combined.

Adopting a plant-based diet has always been a good thing to do for the world, but now it seems imperative, if we are to avoid some pretty serious consequences at the global level.

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