Environmental Vegetarianism


I am often puzzled by people who claim to be environmentally conscious, who go green in their efforts to help preserve the planet’s natural resources, and yet at the same time they eat meat, a major contributor to the environmental problems we face today.

Not many people realise that the consumption of meat contributes to the increase of our carbon footprint, especially when eating the meat of poultry and cattle reared on farms meant specifically for human consumption.

I won’t bore you with statistics at this stage, but will present you with some known facts that will help you see how environmentally unsustainable meat consumption is.

It is a fact that we do not have an unlimited amount of land. It is a fact that we do not have unlimited water. It is a fact that there is no unlimited supply of crops. And the most alarming fact of them all – the world’s population is increasing and this increasing number of humans needs a place to live, water to drink and food to eat.

The same land, labour, water and fuel used to raise, slaughter, package and transport livestock is also needed to grow and harvest feed grain. And this double use of resources leads to a seemingly preposterous statistic: while the average vegetarian consumes between 135 kg and 180 kg of grain per year, the average meat-eater is responsible for the consumption of over 900 kg. Of course, 80% of that is first digested by cows, pigs and chickens, but it’s needless to say which diet affects the environment more.

Environmentally unsustainable
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that around 30% of land on earth that is not covered by ice is either directly or indirectly used in the production of livestock. In the Amazon, for example, almost 70% of the forests have been replaced by land that is primarily used as cattle pastureland.

Livestock production also leads to unsustainable water use. Livestock production demands high water usage, often depleting local supplies. Inadequate waste management also causes pollution that impacts water quality.

Over-grazing has resulted in the loss of biodiversity and productive capacity of ecosystems, particularly in arid areas.

A two-volume report titled ‘Livestock in a Changing Landscape’ came to these key findings:

  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth’s land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of earth’s total arable land.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (the beef, pork and poultry industries emit large amounts of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases).
  • The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter, with much of the world’s pastureland degraded by grazing or feed production, and with many forests cleared to make way for additional farmland.
  • Feed production requires intensive use of water, fertiliser, pesticides and fossil fuels.
  • Animal waste is a serious concern, since only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are actually absorbed and the rest pollute lands and waters.
  • Total phosphorous excretions of livestock are estimated to be seven to nine times greater than from humans.

The meat carbon footprint
The effect that meat production has on the environment is now believed to be even more damaging than the impact made on it by the transport industry.

Perhaps most notably, according to a recent study by NASA, eating meat is essentially the third largest net contributor to climate change pollution in the world (behind using motor vehicles and burning household biofuels — mostly wood and animal dung). Additionally, in total, an FAO study from a few years ago found that livestock production was responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution globally!

GHG emissions are increasing as products move along the assembly line of production before they finally reach the dining table. Almost half of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is attributable to animals and the booming meat-consumerism industry.

There are sources of GHG emissions that are usually unaccounted for in emission calculations. The accumulation of manure from livestock on a large scale, for instance, has resulted in methane gas emissions — another greenhouse gas — increasing significantly. This methane emission, however, does not stop here. Even more methane, along with nitrous oxide, is released into the atmosphere when such animal waste is being processed.

Producing food for food?
Cutting down on the production of meat and other animal products does more than just support the fight to conserve our planet and advocate for a more sustainable way of life through environmental vegetarianism.

What we often fail to realise is that the crops needed to feed livestock fuels a project that creates food to supplement the creation of food. Instead of supplying the grains yielded from the crops to human beings in desperate need of it and those affected by the world food crisis, they are being fed to livestock, exacerbating the current climate change crisis at hand.

Whichever way you look at it, the livestock sector emerges as a very significant contributor to environmental problems at every scale from local to global, including land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and pollution and loss of biodiversity.

The answer is simple. Limiting or abstaining from meat consumption would consume less of our limited resources. We have the power to help reduce global warming. Turn towards a vegetarian diet and help make a difference to the planet.

(Taken from my column in Sri Lanka’s Daily FT today – http://www.ft.lk/2011/06/15/environmental-vegetarianism/)

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