In my last blog post I talked about the origins of my vegetarianism. Now I’d like to discuss why I think everyone should embrace the vegetarian lifestyle for at least a portion of every week, if not every day. Not only will it help your health (assuming you don’t eat pizza and French fries like I did in college practically every day) but it will help the environment. How so?
The average consumption of meat in the U.S. is eight ounces a day, which is twice the average of the rest of the world. That equals 200 pounds of meat per person per year. The meat and dairy-based diets that we have in the U.S. are very resource intensive; and it’s not just a problem in the U.S. In places like Brazil, where they consume a lot of beef, it is estimated that 1,250 acres of rainforest were cut down in just a five-month period to create grazing land for cattle. If that continues unabated for a year that’s at least 3,000 acres lost and most likely unrecoverable. Nearly 20 percent of the land across the world (not counting that covered with ice) is used for the growing of livestock.
So eating meat uses up a lot of land that could otherwise be used for wildlife habitat, growing vegetables and fruit for the ever-expanding world population, setting aside parks for recreation, and a whole host of other, better things. But it’s not just land conversion that’s a problem with the meat industry. According to an article in the New York Times on January 27, 2008 by Mark Bittman:
“To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”
So the raising of livestock is a very energy intensive industry. It also has a huge impact on water resources. According to an article in the Cornell Chronicle on August 7, 1997, animal agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of water in the U.S.:
Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters (26,417 gallons) of water for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters.
With the droughts that have been ever-present these last few years in the Western and Southern United States, where many of our grain-fed cattle are raised, this will continue to be a major issue as reservoirs and groundwater reserves dwindle.
David Pimentel, an ecology professor at Cornell University, said that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with the grain that we instead feed to our livestock. A wholesale switchover would never happen, but imagine if we converted even a fraction of the soybean and corn fields to growing other vegetables and fruits instead? But with the current manner in which the federal government provides subsidies to large scale farmers that grow corn and soybeans, and not to small scale veggie farmers, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. That will be fuel for a future blog post…
In the meantime, please allow me to introduce you to the Meatless Monday movement. Meatless Monday began in 2003, launched by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In May, 2009, Ghent, Belgium, became the first non-U.S. city to go meatless. Shortly thereafter, Paul McCartney introduced the U.K. to Meat-Free Mondays. Meatless Monday is now active in 34 countries. The website, http://www.meatlessmonday.com, has a wide variety of tasty recipes to prove to you that eating vegetarian dishes can be just as enjoyable and filling as one with meat in it. Check it out and let me know what you think.
And for those times when you know you’re going to eat meat, consider eating as efficiently as possible. What I mean by that is choosing animals that are better at converting their food to flesh. Pimentel found broiler chickens to be the most efficient, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. Other ratios range from 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs. And of course if you select locally raised animals, especially grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, a deer that you hunted yourself, etc., you will have a lower carbon footprint than if you choose a steak from a feedlot in Colorado.
Many people ask me, “Don’t you worry about not getting enough protein?” No, I don’t. I know that I can get enough protein from the veggies and legumes I eat, and the studies agree. According to Mark Bittman’s article, the average American consumes close to 110 grams of protein a day, about twice the federal government’s recommended allowance (which others suggest is larger than it needs to be). Out of that total, 75 grams come from animal protein. We could easily live off 30 grams of protein a day, with all or most of that coming from plant sources. So giving up meat for Meatless Monday won’t leave you feeling tired or sluggish. Not to worry.
So what are you waiting for? Give it a go! The planet, the animals and I will give you a big round of applause.