As we stand on the edge of a new millennium, many foresee it as a time of potential unparalleled abundance and prosperity. We have seen recent incredible advances in communication, transportation, applications of computers, and many other fields of technology, and there is a widespread feeling that these trends will continue and even accelerate. For many, this optimism was captured by a headline proclaiming, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" for a Business Week August, 1998 "Special Double Issue on the 21st Century Economy", forecasting even faster rates of technological inventiveness and economic growth in the century ahead.

However, there are many problems that threaten to derail these rosy projections. While it is generally overlooked, animal-based diets and agriculture play a major role in these threats. The following is a brief analysis of some of these problems and the impacts that the production and consumption of animal-products have in each case.

* Many experts think that the greatest threat that the world will face in the early decades of the new millennium is related to global warming. The warmest year in recorded history was 1998, and that year also had the largest recorded annual increase. The 14 warmest years in recorded history have=20 occurred in the last 20 years.

Largely as a result of this global warming, recent storms, floods, and tropical forest fires have been more harmful than ever before. The total economic damage in 1998 from these events was greater than that for the entire decade of the 1980s, and almost 50% greater than for any previous year. An indication of the seriousness of the problem is that the U. S. Insurance industry is among the leading advocates of a reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Current livestock agriculture contributes greatly to all four major global warming gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons. Every year millions of acres of tropical forest are burned, primarily to raise livestock, releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The highly mechanized agricultural sector uses a significant amount of fossil fuel energy, and this also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle emit methane as part of their digestive and excretory processes, as do termites who feast on the charred remains of trees. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used to produce feed crops for grain-fed animals create significant amounts of nitrous oxides. Also, the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling adds chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.

* Our planet faces a wide array of very serious environmental threats. The earth's forests are rapidly shrinking, fisheries are collapsing, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, coral reefs are dying, precipitation in many areas is increasingly acidic, and the ozone layer is being depleted. The rate of destruction of plant and animal species may be the greatest since the dinosaurs disappeared.

Intensive livestock agriculture is a substantial contributor to many of these environmental problems. Livestock in the United States produce an incredible 86,000 pounds of manure per second, and much of it ends up inrivers, lakes, streams, and underground water sources. In addition, huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in the production of animal feed crops end up in surface and ground waters. Since 1970, more than 25 percent of Central American forests have been destroyed in order to create pasture land for cattle. The production of just one imported quarter-pound hamburger requires the clearing of up to 55 square feet of rain forest Livestock production is a prime component of the causes of desertification: over cultivation of the land, soil erosion and depletion, improper irrigation techniques, and deforestation. U.S. cattle production has resulted in significant biodiversity losses. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, more plant species in the United States have been threatened or eliminated by livestock agriculture than by any other cause.

* Many regions have recently experienced droughts, and there is new evidence that water scarcities will be the new millennium's leading resource issue.

Animal-based agriculture is also extremely wasteful of resources. A meat- and dairy-centered diet requires about 17 times as much land, 14 times as much water, and more than ten times as much energy as a completely plant-based diet. More than half the water consumed in the United States is used to raise livestock, primarily to irrigate land growing livestock feed. While a typical meat-eater's diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water daily, a pure vegetarian's diet only uses 300 gallons. In California, the production of just one edible pound of beef uses many hundreds of gallons of water, while only 23 gallons are needed to produce a pound of tomatoes.

* There is much evidence that providing enough food for the world's rapidly increasing population will be a critical issue facing the world for many decades. In his recent book, Tough Choices - Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity (W. W. Norton, 1996), Lester R. Brown, President of the Worldwatch Institute, indicates that a combination of rapidly increasing world population and affluence, environmental strains, and climate changes have combined to sharply reduce the world's reserve grain stocks.

Non-vegetarian diets are a major factor behind the present widespread hunger that results in an estimated 20 million people dying each year due to lack of adequate nutrition. Seventy percent of the grain grown in the United States and two thirds of its exported grain is consumed by animals destined for slaughter,while hundreds of millions of the world's people are chronically hungry. To make matters worse, the United States is one of the world's largest importers of meat, much of which comes from countries where there is extensive hunger. because of its recent increased affluence, the Chinese people have sharply increased their consumption of animal products and this has shifted China from a grain exporting country to a major grain importer, with serious repercussions for the world=92s hungry people.

* National health care costs have been soaring; they have increased from 6% of the United States gross national product in 1970 to over 15% today, and are projected to double in a decade.

Epidemiological studies indicate that populations of countries where meat consumption is high (such as the United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia) have much higher mortality rates from heart disease, several types of cancer, and strokes, compared to countries where meat consumption is low. A variety of health problems, including colon cancer, adult-onset diabetes, hemorrhoids, constipation and diverticulosis, have been linked to diets low in fiber. Only plant foods contain fiber; there is no fiber in any animal product. According to a U. S. Surgeon General's Report, 68% of all diseases in the United States are diet-related.An article in the peer-reviewed journal "Preventive Medicine" (24, 646-655 (1995)) revealed that annual medical costs in the U. S. associated with diseases resulting from animal-centered diets are comparable to those associated with cigarette smoking.

Unfortunately, contemporary western medicine has for the most part focused on the treatment of diseases, rather than on their prevention. Medical schools primarily teach that prescription drugs are the most powerful tools doctors have for treating disease; diet and other lifestyle changes are almost never presented as therapeutic tools. Once a doctor enters medical practice the drug message is reinforced: drug companies give out free samples; virtually all the advertisements in medical journals are for prescription drugs; the bulk of medical literature relates to the use of drugs and drug comparisons. Hence, the generally accepted response to many diseases today is to prescribe medications first and perhaps recommend lifestyle changes as an afterthought.

The many connections between the production and consumption of animal products and the threats discussed above have generally been ignored by environmental, health, and hunger groups and by politicians. One recent exception is the "Union of Concerned Scientists", a Boston- based environmental group that has been trying to alert people to global warming and other environmental threats. In a recent (1999) report, that analyzed the ecological costs of various activities and products, they state that, environmentally speaking, the worst thing you can do for the planet is drive your sport utility vehicle to the local store for a prime sirloin.

The seriousness of global threats in the new millennium is indicated in a "World Scientists' Warning To Humanity" signed in 1993 by over 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates -- a majority of the living recipients of the prize in the sciences. Their introduction stated: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about." The scientists' analysis discussed threats to the atmosphere, water resources, oceans, soil, living species, and forests. Their warning: "we the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated"

It is critical that people become aware of the far-reaching consequences of animal agriculture in order to shift away from a diet that is bankrupting the United States and the world, crippling and killing 1.5 million Americans annually with chronic diseases, threatening the world's ecosystems, wasting scarce resources, contributing to world hunger, and cruelly exploiting animals.

People can contribute to a more humane, peaceful, and healthy planet in the next millennium by further educating themselves on these issues. Such books as Diet for a New America by John Robbins (Stillpoint), Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin (Dutton), and Vegetarian Sourcebook by Keith Akers (G P Putnam's) are excellent places to start. Once informed, people can enlighten others through personal conversations, meetings with opinion leaders in their communities, letters and op-ed articles to newspapers and other publications, and calls to radio talk shows. There is a world to be saved, but global survival is largely dependent on the demise of intensive animal agriculture. Within an individual's daily choice of diet lies the power to create a better world.

Return to The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights - Main Page