by Noam Mohr
If you care about the environment, you had better be a vegetarian. Why? Because meat consumption is one of the primary causes of environmental devastation, including the misuse of natural resources, the polluting of water and air, and the destruction of rainforests. All this comes in addition to the immense cruelty to animals and the contribution to the world hunger problem caused by the modern meat industry. In short, a carnivorous environmentalist is a hypocrite. Strong words? take a look at meat industry and judge for yourself.
Modern meat production is both wasteful and destructive. Each pound of steak from feedlot-raised steers that you eat comes at the cost of 5 pounds of grain, 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about twenty-five pounds of eroded topsoil. Indeed, over a third of the North American continent is devoted to grazing, and over a half of this country's cropland is dedicated to growing feed for livestock. What is more, the livestock industry consumes over half of the water used in the US.
In every one of these ways, as discussed below, a vegetarian diet exerts less strain on our resources that does a carnivorous one. First let us compare the energy efficiency of plant foods to meat. Among plant foods, oats are the most energy efficient. For every calorie of fossil fuel used to grow oats in the United States, 2.5 calories of food are yielded. Similarly, potatoes yield just over 2 calories of food per calorie of fossil fuel input, and for wheat and soybeans the number is 1.5. On the other hand, the most energy efficient meat produced, range-land beef, produces only one-third of a calorie of food per calorie of fossil fuel expended. Feedlot beef, the most inefficient meat, produces one calorie of food every 33 calories of fossil fuel consumed! The numbers for poultry, lamb, eggs, and milk production each fall somewhere between the numbers for range-land and feedlot. In general, this means that growing crops is at least five times more energy-efficient than grazing cattle, 20 times more efficient than raising chickens, and over 50 times more efficient than raising feedlot cattle! In this way, the meat industry wastes energy resources such as fossil fuels that were naturally formed over millions of years, and in the process spews pollution into the environment through burning vast amounts of fossil fuels.
The modern meat industry also wastes a huge quantity of water. The amount of water needed to produce a pound of meat is fifty times that necessary to produce a pound of wheat. As Newsweek put it, "The water that goes into a 1000 pound steer would float a destroyer." As a result, underground pools of water around the world are drying up. Animal production is the major cause of falling water tables and drying wells across cattle country from western Texas to Nebraska, as the Ogalalla Aquifier, a huge underground lake that took fossil fuels millions of years to create, is consumed.
Meat production around the globe not only wastes the water it uses, it also pollutes the water it does not use. According to statistics from the British Water Authorities Association, in 1985 there were 3500 incidents of water pollution from British farms. In one example, 110,000 fish were killed when a tank at a pig unit burst, releasing a quarter of a million pounds of pig feces into the River Perry. Most charges of serious river pollution made recently by water authorities in Britain are now directed against farmers. This water pollution can be explained by the fact that animal farms produce an enormous amount of waste material. A modest 60,000-bird egg-factory creates 82 tons of manure each week, and a typical unit of 2,000 pigs creates 27 tons of manure and 32 tons of urine in a week. In the Netherlands, so much more manure is produced than can be safely absorbed by the land that the excess, some 44 million tons of manure a year, would fill a freight train stretching from Amsterdam to the farthest shores of Canada! Of course, this manure is not shipped to Canada, but instead sits at home and wreaks havoc on the local Dutch vegetation.
In the United States, farm animals produce 2 billion tons of manure each year, or ten times the amount produced by the entire global human population. Half of this is produced by animals raised in factory farms, and does not return to the land. As one pig farmer put it, "until fertilizer gets more expensive than labor, the waste has very little value to me." With less meat in demand on a global scale, we could put an end to the problems of excess manure, urine, feces or other waste material from a massive livestock population.
Perhaps the most devastating environmental impact of America's appetite for meat is deforestation. The primary reason for the destruction of rainforests in countries like Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, is to provide grazing land for cattle, virtually all of which goes not to the poor in these third world nations, but rather is exported to wealthy countries like the United States.
In fact, in the past 25 years almost half of the tropical rainforests of Central America have been razed, mostly in providing beef to North America. The impact is enormous. It is estimated that 90% of the plant and animal species on earth live in the tropics, many still unrecorded by scientists. Every day more of these species are pushed to extinction as a result of Americans' meat-centered diet. The clearing of these forests also leads to a great deal of erosion, increases runoff which causes flooding, takes away the wood peasants often rely upon for fuel, and has been blamed for decreased rainfall. In addition, the earth relies upon these rainforests to cycle carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It is the destruction of these forests and the resultant buildup of greenhouse gasses that is the cause of global warming. By destroying these forests, we cause climactic changes which can kill off countless species, cause widespread droughts, and flood large areas of land my melting polar ice caps.
Meat production is not only damaging to the environment, but in more immediate ways to the global human population as well. Land that could be used to grow food to feed hungry people is instead used to grow food for the animals we eat. In the process most of the nutrition from land crops is lost. It takes 21 pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of calf protein. Indeed, whereas one acre of land planted with peas or beans yields 300 to 500 pounds of protein, this same acre fed to animals yields meat with only 40 to 55 pounds of protein. According to most estimates, plant foods provide about ten times as much protein per acre as meat. And it is not just protein being wasted. Broccoli, for instance, produces 5 times as much calcium per acre as milk, and 24 times as much iron per acre as beef. Oats yield 6 times as many calories per acre as pork, the most calorie-efficient meat, and 25 times as many as beef.
Indeed, it has been pointed out that if Americans alone reduced their consumption of meat by half, they would free enough food to make up the world's calorie deficit four times over. In a world where people are starving to death by the tens of millions, suffering from malnutrition at even greater numbers, and driven to farming practices that desert their land in order to eke out a subsistence, America's meat consumption not only wastes land, but wastes desperately needed food.
It goes without saying that meat eating is cruel. Literally billions of animals are killed every year to feed Americans alone. These animals do not spend their life roaming free in the barnyard, as they once did. Today, virtually all of the meat we eat comes from factory farms in which animals spend their lives suffering atrocious conditions. Eating meat is cruelty towards animals. If we care about human beings, about animals, as well as about the environment that we all share, then there exists only one reasonable course: to become vegetarian. Meat is a gross waste of our natural resources, a major source of pollution, and the main cause of the destruction of the earth's rainforests. Only a vegetarian diet is consistent with a sincere concern for the environment. If you care about the world we live in, recycling aluminum cans is not enough. A vegetarian diet is not only good for your health, it is good for the planet.