Environment

Green with Skepticism: Vegetarianism

As of January 1, 2012 I have been a vegetarian. It originally started as a way to support my significant other, who really wants to be a vegetarian, but I’m the cook so he was often tempted by the glorious smell of bacon or steak….. But since then I have become the more avid vegetarian between the two of us for ethical reasons. 

I should start out by saying I checked with my doctor before starting this diet. She told me to only eat 2 -3 tofu meals per week and to try and eat fish twice a week, so I do that. I also eat protein rich foods like beans, nuts and seeds. If you’re going to be a vegetarian I highly suggest that you talk to your doctor and ensure that you can afford to take meat out of your diet (both monetarily and physically). And, as always, I am not an expert in this particular topic so please feel free to jump in and correct anything.

Anyway… now when the hubby and I go out for chow I am the one ensuring that I don’t eat meat. He will still go for a fast food burger, tacos or wings. We went to Medieval Times and he got the big ol’ leg of chicken and a rack of ribs while I munched down on hummus and rice with beans.

What has changed?

At first it was an issue of consent and animal rights (which I think is best saved for another post another day) and while this hasn’t become a non-issue for me, environmental impacts have become a larger one. The human population has reached 7 billion people – and we all need to be fed. I think people should substantially decrease their meat intake. In America it has become a symbol of freedom and manliness to eat meat. Things like the double down have emerged that just make me want to vomit. The relentless consumption of meat is costing us, big time.

I’m not a big fan of PETA but this quote really emphasizes my stance on meat consumption:

According to Environmental Defense, if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off U.S. roads.

Inefficient

Just on the face of it, the idea of growing crops to feed animals that feed humans is a mathematically bad idea.  In an ecological system, organisms are organized into different “trophic”, or feeding, levels, which indicate their positions in the food chain, with prey organisms at the bottom and predators at the top. In a food chain composed of grain, cows, and humans, grain would be of trophic level 1; cows that eat grain at level 2; and humans that eat cows at level 3. Whenever the trophic level goes up, the total biomass, or energy, decreases tremendously. This is because organisms are very inefficient at converting the energy they consume into their own body mass, and therefore an organism at level 2 must eat a lot of organisms at level 1 – many times their own weight – in order to survive. Much of the energy from the food they eat goes into self-repairing mechanisms and developing bones and skin that cannot be eaten by humans.

The degree of wastefulness of this process varies depending on which study one looks at.  According to organizations with vested interests such as the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, it takes 4.5kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef,  while the US Department of Agricultural Economic Research Service gives a figure of 16kg of grain for 1kg of beef (taken from The Food Revolution).  The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology assessed the studies in this area and released these results:

 
 
The amount of edible meat yielded (right column) is far inferior to the amount of feed required to grow it. In fact, these figures may still be very forgiving as meat contains a lot more water than wheat does. It must also be considered that the above efficiencies are achieved only by the intensive farming methods employed in factory farms in developed countries, and animals raised in developing countries would consume even more food. 
 
Land
 
The common statistic is that meat takes 7x more land than a plant diet does. Growing animals for food now accounts for over 30% of the entire Earth's land.According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), “the number of people fed in a year per hectare ranges from 22 for potatoes and 19 for rice down to 1 and 2 people respectively for beef and lamb”. The land used to produce meat would be several times more efficiently employed if used to grow soybeans, rice, corn, or wheat, both in terms of pure calories and proteins (2).
 
 
Energy and Transportation
 
According to one study, meat production requires 10 to 20 times more energy per edible tonne than grain production not to mention the transportation required to ship animals to the slaughterhouse and then shipped out to be sold. The crops will require tilling, irrigation, etc, there is transportation of the food to the animals, the animals to the slaughterhouse, meat to the processing plant, from the processing plant to the grocery store where it needs to be kept cold and then from the store to your house. That's a lot of transportation!
 

Water

A LOT of water is used for producing meat. The figures, again, are hard to nail down, with a study supported by the California Beef Council reporting 2680L of water producing 1kg of beef, while a report by a widely-published Cornell University ecologist, David Pimentel, tells of 100,000L of water per 1kg of beef (this figure was adjusted by Pimentel in a more recent article to around 50,000L per kg). This is huge! What does it take to grow wheat? 900L per kg! Fresh water is going to become more scarce and Canada can't support everyone (although we'll probably try because we love you).  

 

 
Cars vs. Cows
 
When asked about what the main contributors to global warming are, an average person would probably never pause to think about meat-eating, most would say "people" in general or might connect it to "cars". The annual addition of carbon into the atmosphere is estimated to be between 4.5 and 6.5 billion tons (3).
 
Why so high?
 
Because of the burning of fossil fuels to produce mineral fertilizers used to produce feed; methane release from the breakdown of fertilizers and manure; land-use changes for feed production and for grazing; fossil fuel use during feed and animal production; and fossil fuel use in production and transport of processed and refrigerated animal products.
 
About 28% of the typical U.S. diet comes from animal sources, and generates the equivalent of nearly 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan diet with the same amount of calories (3).  An average driver switching from a typical American car to a fuel-efficient hybrid however saves 1 ton of carbon dioxide per year (4). Carbon dioxide, however, is not the only greenhouse gas produced by farm animals – they also produce methane and nitrous oxide, which have 23 and 296 times the greenhouse effects of carbon dioxide respectively (5).  The decomposition of fertilizers and manure is responsible for 80 percent of agricultural methane emissions and about 35-40 percent of total anthropogenic methane emissions; and as for nitrous oxide, livestock produces 65 percent of the total anthropogenic emissions (3).
 
Local Effects of Meat
 
Farming also causes harm to local ecosystems. Indirectly via climate change they affects ecosystems and species. Also livestock-related land use often directly destroys existing ecosystems, as land is cleared in order to build farms and irrigation systems, or when too many animals are allowed to graze in one area, gulping up plant species important to natural food chains.
 
Animal farming produces a great amount of emissions in the form of nutrients, pathogens, and waste, which greatly affect local ecosystems. One specific example is the nitrogen cycle. Until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process in the early twentieth century that allowed the artificial transformation of N2 into mineral fertilizers, the growth of organisms in natural ecosystems were highly limited by the amount of nitrogen available.
 
After the discovery however, an enormous amount of nitrogen entered the natural nitrogen cycle in the form of man-made fertilizers, such that today the natural rate of nitrogen addition has doubled over the original. Plants, however, have a limited capacity of absorbing nitrogen, and the excess amount enters a “nitrogen cascade” (6), in which the chemical is transported by water to surrounding ecosystems.
 
This nitrogen then greatly affects the composition of the ecosystem, often with disastrous consequences. For instance, excess amounts of nitrogen in a lake would stimulate the growth of too much algae, which decompose, sucking oxygen out of the water and creating dead zones uninhabitable by fish or other organisms. Human inhabitants near animal farms may also be greatly affected. Nitrogen may seeps into local drinking supplies, rendering them hazardous to health.
 
The great amounts of manure from livestock, being concentrated in small areas, may not be easily disposed of, and create a great deal of harm to local air quality, causing highly increased rates of asthma an airborne diseases. 
 
The Threat of Meat to Rainforests
 
The global increase in meat consumption causes forests in countries not necessarily eating the meat to be cut down to grow food for feeding animals. In Brazil, for example, vast areas of forest are being destroyed each year in order to grow soybeans that are exported to the US and Europe for feeding livestock. In 2002, 25,500 km2 of rainforest – an area the size of Belgium – was cleared, with the main reason being soyabean cultivation. All of this forest clearing then releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while decreasing the amount of trees that soak up carbon dioxide.  
 
Honestly, I used to say that everyone should eat whatever they want. But no matter what your faith or belief I think that we all want to preseve human life… we want to see what the next 400 years has to offer in terms of intellectual development and all that jazz. We can do great things if we start breaking our bad habits and I firmly believe that meat is one of those bad habits that needs to be drastically reduced, if not completely eliminated. A steak should be a luxury, not a staple food. Everyone needs to start making sacrifices to be fair to the rest of the people on the planet and to future generations.
Previous post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 4.16

Next post

Spirit Science?

katie

katie

Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish

18 Comments

  1. April 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm —

    Personally, I'm holding out for lab-grown meat, because if I was to ever go vegetarian I think I'd consume so much humous that I'd double my weight in a year.

  2. April 17, 2012 at 12:07 am —

    The efficiency argument is an interesting one, because it's highly context-sensitive.
    Growing crops to feed animals is ridiculous on the face of it. Farmers would far prefer to let animals eat whatever is growing on the ground underneath them. If it's possible to do where they live, that's exactly what they do. What you end up with is the counter-intuitive situation that it is more carbon-efficent for someone in the UK to eat lamb imported from New Zealand than to eat the home-grown product. And the lamb tends to be leaner, too.
    One more thing to keep in mind is that the feed conversion ratio and environmental efficiency of farm animals (not just meat, eggs and dairy as well) are both improving over time thanks to science. New statisical modelling techniques, more powerful supercomputers and high-throughput sequencing are a pretty powerful mix, as it turns out. (Full disclosure: I work on this very problem for a certain percentage of my time. The rest of it is trying to cure cancer.)

    • April 24, 2012 at 11:40 pm —

      Farmers would far prefer to let animals eat whatever is growing on the ground underneath them. If it's possible to do where they live, that's exactly what they do.

      It's far less expensive and takes less work and land area to feed animals grain and corn instead of grass, so most farmers prefer not to grass feed, even if it's possible where they live. The price of grass-fed meat is at least twice the price of factory-farm meat. My family owns a dairy farm, and if they switched to grass feeding, they would only be able to feed a small portion of the cows they have now (like closer to a tenth than a half) so it's usually not worth it economically.

      • May 2, 2012 at 4:05 am —

        My cousin owns a dairy farm, and it’s far cheaper for him to let the cows eat the grass under them than buy crops to feed them. I’m sure that your assessment of the economics of your family’s farm is correct, too. It all depends on where in the world you live.

  3. April 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm —

    Vegetarian…eat fish

    Righto then.
    The fact your argument overlooks, though, is that land can't just be used for anything. Some land simply can't grow crops at all, or human-edible crops. Ceasing animal farming on such land actually makes the process less efficient.

    • April 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm —

      Right, vegetarian…eat fish. Like I said – my dr. recommended it so i get local fish at least once a week sometimes twice, but it's super expensive. And any local, non factory farm meat (when i visit my mom in Guelph, for example…we go to the local butcher's farm and pick it up directly) I eat as well. I need to make sure I'm healthy and local/small farm meat doesn't go against my ethics.

      • April 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm —

        Words have meanings for a reason. You can't just go throwing them about using them to mean whatever the hell you want them to mean. A vegetarian is someone that doesn't eat meat. Not someone who eats fish regularly and other meat every now and then.

        • April 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm —

          Some words have very specific meanings, while many others have multiple meanings. The word vegetarian has grown to connote many different lifestyles that are largely similar. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy and ovo-vegetarians eat eggs. Just because they include some meat products doesn't mean they don't still share the majority of the ethics and lifestyle with other vegetarians. It would be saying because someone is 75% Asian they shouldn't be called Asian. Pedantically arguing about the meaning of this one word is to miss the whole point of the article – that most of our current methods of meat-production is highly ethically problematic.

          • April 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm

            Dairy and eggs aren't meat.
            Your example is completely invalid, because nobody eats solely meat. We're not differentiating 'people who eat meat' from 'people who eat not-meat'. If we were, then whatever comprised the majority of your diet would suffice if someone were to insist on labeling you. But since most people eat mostly not-meat anyway, why the fuck is eating slightly more not-meat and slightly less meat – but still plenty of meat – worthy of distinction?

          • April 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm

            Because most people eat chicken, cow or pig on a daily basis … if not more than once a day. I haven't eaten chicken, cow or pig since I took the label of being a vegetarian. I guess if you want to be pedantic you would call me a pescetarian but I am allergic to shellfish and hate the taste of most fish so I eat very little of it when I do eat it.
            It is *very* worthy of distinction because I still actively avoid cow/pig/chicken/etc. where others do not… these are staple foods in todays north american diet.

          • April 17, 2012 at 3:33 pm

            "But since most people eat mostly not-meat anyway, why the fuck is eating slightly more not-meat and slightly less meat – but still plenty of meat – worthy of distinction?"
            Because maybe you should read Katie's argument a bit better before posting. She said she eats fish once or twice a week, which is pretty different from the average American diet of getting about 25% of daily calories from meat, wouldn't you say so? And yes, if you got over 95% of your calories from vegetables, I'd call you a vegetarian.

          • April 17, 2012 at 4:19 pm

            katie: except when it comes from that small farm, right? I don't eat pig. At all. Do I get a label?
            John Xu: Then you clearly don't understand what vegetarianism is.

          • April 17, 2012 at 5:09 pm

            I haven't had meat off the farm but I may if I go home and my mom  has some – yes I may consider eating it because it's logially inconsistent for me to be against it. But when I get back to the city I'll still call myself a vegetarian. This is really far off of the point of the post, though. You can remove the point where I say I'm a vegetarian and everything in the post still stands….

  4. April 19, 2012 at 2:56 am —

    One more thing, while I think of it: Most of the problems identified in this post aren't true of insects. Even though we eat more meat than we should, we'd all be better off if we ate less livestock and more insects.
    I say "more" insects because, of course, we already eat quite a bit. Just not on purpose.

  5. April 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm —

    Much of the energy from the food they eat goes into self-repairing mechanisms and developing bones and skin that cannot be eaten by humans.

    Presumeably we use some of this for leather, suede, pet food, glue, vitamin supplements and whatever else? 

    • April 23, 2012 at 9:03 pm —

      This is a good point which would have to go into any analysis about what the net impact would be of transitioning to a no-meat economy.
      We're not talking shark fins or mink, where you just use one part of the animal and throw the rest away. Pretty much every part of a cow or sheep is used in one way or another. For many of the materials that we get from farm animals, we either don't have a good synthetic substitute. If we do, it's invariably made from petrochemicals, and hence has a similar or worse carbon footprint.

  6. April 24, 2012 at 11:23 pm —

    Great post!
    FYI, someone who eats fish but no other meat is a pescetarian, not vegetarian. The reason these terms are important to me is where I live there are a lot of people say they're vegetarian when they eat chicken or fish too. Then when I go to a restaurant and ask if a dish is vegetarian, or let a party host know I'm vegetarian, they think it's OK if it has chicken or fish.
    Also, a vegetarian diet is way less expensive than one that includes meat. Beans, rice, lentils, and peas are my staples and they're just about the most inexpensive foods you can buy.

  7. February 15, 2013 at 7:39 am —

    I doubt Katie will ever see this, but I just wanted to say that last year I became a vegetarian because of this post. To my pleasant surprise, I’ve lost at least thirty pounds thus far. Thanks! 😀

Leave a reply