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Vegetarianism 101: The Environment

In the past five years, there has been a reawakening of environmentalism. People are switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, thinking about where they set their thermostats, and trying to conserve gas. The number one reason driving these changes (besides the fact that they can help you save money) is the Dreaded Greenhouse Gas Bogeymen and how said bogeymen influence global warming.

Don’t get me wrong: I think global warming is an issue that we absolutely need to be responsible about. However, there’s a lot more to keeping earth healthy for us and other species than just greenhouse gases and global warming. I’m talking water quality, air quality, soil quality. I’m talking biodiversity on land and in the water. One thing Al Gore didn’t mention in his film, An Inconvenient Truth, is that reducing your meat consumption or becoming vegetarian will cause perhaps the single greatest impact in reducing stress on the planet.

What's the carbon footprint of the livestock industry?

What is the carbon footprint of the livestock industry?

The Facts

In terms of the fossil fuels, water, and land consumed, vegetarian diets are much more economical than non-vegetarian diets. Statistics comparing the two are available all over the internet. Most compelling to me recently was a 2006 United Nations report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, which outlined the impact of the livestock industry on the environment. Here’s what it found.

  • The livestock industry contributed more to the greenhouse gases associated with global warming than all forms of transport (ships, semis, planes, trains and automobiles) combined. In other words, a vegan with a Hummer is doing more for the environment than a meat-and-potatoes gal with a Prius.
  • It is probably the largest source of water pollution, contributing to dead zones in coastal areas, bleaching of coral reefs, and human health problems. In the United States, with the world’s fourth largest land area, livestock are responsible for an estimated 55 percent of erosion and sediment, 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and a third of the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus (which contribute to devastating algae blooms) into freshwater resources. This is a consequence of large-scale feedlot operations, which we’ll explore more later. Small, integrated farms which use livestock as part of a closed circle of food production are a different story, but it’s basically a guarantee that the meat you’re buying at your chain grocery store is almost certainly coming from a large-scale feedlot operation.
  • The livestock industry may be the leading player in loss of biodiversity, since it is the major reason for deforestation, as well as one of the leading causes of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, and invasions of non-native species.

One of the hardest things to understand about modern agriculture is that it is strangely and most definitely not the happy, earth-friendly, healthful undertaking that we envision it to be. The mass production of meat is particularly damaging, from clearing of forests for grazing land to the huge lagoons of animal waste near large-scale operations, which can contaminate groundwater, kill fish in nearby bodies of water, and give off methane gas. Modeling food production after factory models is proving disastrous for our long-term food security, as well as for the health of our people and our land.

But Seafood is Okay, Right?

When making the choice of whether or not to eat fish, it is important to know that the oceans are currently dangerously overfished. According to the UN, some 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Farmed fish can take a great toll on the environment as well, polluting the environment with waste and drugs used to keep them healthy in confined spaces. Escaped fish can pass parasites, diseases, and weak genes to wild stocks. Plus, since farmed fish need to eat, the oceans are often further depleted to catch fish to feed farm populations of predators such as salmon.

Simply, mass-produced meat is a mess. So why do we mass-produce it like this? Unfortunately, the majority of people in the U.S. use meat as the centerpiece of their daily meals instead of a flavoring, an accent, or a special occasion dish. As a result, there’s a market for a whooooooole lotta meat. As long as the demand continues, the making of that meat is going to do a whoooooole lotta damage to our world.

Tomorrow, Vegetarianism 101 continues with a look at your health. Stay tuned!


3 Comments so far

  1. [...] Yesterday, I highlighted some of the ways in which the meat industry damages the environment and, by association, all of us who live in it. However, industrial meat is bad for your health in ways beyond the waste lagoons, greenhouse gas emissions, and antibiotic residues in waste. Let’s look at the facts. [...]

  2. [...] the past couple days, I covered some of the impacts of industrial ranching and CAFOs (Confined or Concentrated [...]

  3. Simple Spoonful » Review: Farmer in Chief October 20th, 2008 5:48 pm

    [...] Simple Spoonful since way back yonder in the early days, it will come as little surprise that modern agriculture–particularly meat–is bad for the environment. According to the 2006 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the mass production of meat is a [...]

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