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.
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.
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!
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.