Diet for an Imperiled Planet

It is becoming increasingly apparent that, in spite of recent increased awareness and improvements in some areas, our world is facing a host of critical environmental problems. Almost daily there seem to be newspaper and television reports related to issues such as acid rain, potential global warming, ozone layer depletion, erosion and depletion of topsoil, and the destruction of forests and other habitats. In 1993, over 1670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates, signed a "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity", designed to "increase awareness of the threat that global environmental degradation poses to humanity's life support systems." Vice President Al Gore has stated that the preservation of the global environment must be the "central organizing principle" for civilization today.

It is essential that there be renewed efforts on personal, local, and national levels to help move the world away from its present perilous course. The problems are so great and the issues so apparently complicated that many people may despair and feel that they can have little impact. However, there is something very basic that every person can do that collectively would play a major role in reducing environmental threats.

Many scientists are concluding that livestock agriculture is arguably the single greatest cause of environmental destruction. Several recent books, including Diet for a New America by John Robbins, Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin, and The Vegetarian Sourcebook by Keith Akers, have documented the very negative effects that animal-centered diets and livestock agriculture have on environmental quality and threats to ecosystems.

A prime reason that animal-based agriculture causes so many ecological problems is that it is requires far more resources than plant-centered diets:

1. The average person in the United States eats almost five times as much grain (primarily in the form of animal products, since the animals have been fed large amounts of grain to fatten them up quickly) as does a person in an underdeveloped country. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce one edible pound of feedlot beef.

2. About 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter. Half of our harvested acreage is devoted to producing feed-crops. A non-vegetarian diet requires over 3 acres per person, whereas a total vegetarian diet requires only about a sixth of an acre. An acre of land can produce 250 pounds of beef or 40,000 pounds of potatoes. Hence, a shift to vegetarian diets would free much valuable land, which could be used to grow nutritious food for people, at a time when an estimated 20 million of the world's people, over half of whom are children, die annually due to hunger and its effects.

3. The standard diet of a person in the United States requires an average of 4,200 gal. of water/day (for animals' drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing, washing, cooking, etc.). A person on a pure vegetarian diet requires as little as 300 gal./day. The production of one pound of steak uses an average of 2,500 gallons of water, the amount of water used for all purposes by a typical household in a month, while only 25 gallons are required to produce a pound of potatoes. More than half the water used for all purposes in this country goes to livestock production.

4. A non-vegetarian diet also wastes much energy. In the United States, an average of 10 calories of fuel energy are required for every calorie of food energy obtained; in many other countries, they gain up to 20 calories of food energy per calorie of fuel energy. To produce one pound of steak (500 calories of food energy) requires 20,000 calories of fossil fuels, most of which is expended to produce feed-crops. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from feedlot produced beef. Grains and beans require only two to five percent as much fossil fuel.

Many major environmental problems result from this wasteful use of resources:

1. The tremendous quantity of grains grown to feed animals requires extensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides. Much air and water pollution is caused by the production and use of these products. Various constituents of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, are washed into surface waters. High levels of nitrates in drinking water have caused illnesses for people as well as animals.

2. The concentration of pesticides in the body fat of animals due to "biological magnification" contributes to human health problems and costs. Over half of the pesticide residues in the U.S. diet are contributed by meat, compared to only about 10 percent contributed by vegetables, fruits, and grains. Ninety-nine percent of U.S. non-vegetarian mother's milk contains significant levels of DDT, compared to only 8 percent of U.S. vegetarian mother's milk. Animal agriculture has also led to the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed, which contributes to the explosion of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that increasingly threaten human life.

3. Demand for meat in wealthy countries also leads to environmental damage in poor countries. To save 5 cents on fast-food hamburgers exported to the U.S., the earth's tropical rain forests are being bulldozed at a rate of 100 acres per minute, a rate which would destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania every year. Half are already gone forever, and at current rates of destruction, the rest will be gone by the middle of the next century. What makes this especially serious is that half of the world's species of plants and animals reside in tropical rain forests, and some might hold secrets for cures of some of today's deadly diseases. Also, the burning of rain forests contributes to the greenhouse effect and reduces rainfall, with potentially devastating effects on the world's agriculture. Further, the rain forests are a major source of oxygen, and if they are destroyed we are at risk of having insufficient trees to provide adequate oxygen in the air.

4. American livestock produce about 20 times as much excrement as the entire human population of the country. Mountains of manure produced by cattle raised in feedlots wash into and pollute streams, rivers, and underground water sources. The meat industry produces more harmful organic water pollution than all other U. S. industries combined.

5. The production of feed-crops for animals is "mining" our soil. Each year 5 billion tons of topsoil are eroded in the U.S., and 85% is due to livestock agriculture. In some areas lower yields are occurring due to erosion and the reduction in fertility that it causes. Soil erosion also contributes substantially to air pollution, since the particulates of soil that blow off agricultural fields dwarf all other sources of particulates.

6. Large areas of land throughout the world have been destroyed by grazing animals. Overgrazing has been a prime cause of erosion in various parts of the world throughout history. Over 60 percent of all U.S. range lands are overgrazed, with billions of tons of soil lost every year.

Hence, in order to reduce the many ecological threats that increasingly threaten our nation and the world, it is essential that people move toward vegetarian diets. Such a change would have many other benefits, including improved human health, a reduction in health-care costs, and a reduction in the horrible conditions faced by the 9 billion animals that are currently slaughtered in one year in the United States.

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