Home    Jewish Vegetarianism    Online Course    FAQ    Jewish Recipes
What You Can Do    Links    Feedback    Media


Can Vegetarianism Help Reduce Terrorism?
Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are horrific acts of dehumanization and failure to recognize the sanctity of human lives, and visible symbols of an increasingly irrational world. There is never any justification for acts of terror against innocent civilians. We join all people of goodwill in expressing our shock, outrage and sadness at these unspeakable acts of terror, and our hearts, condolences, and prayers go out to all those affected.

These barbaric acts changed the world in countless ways. Steps must of course be taken quickly to defend against additional terrorism and to punish those who plan and carry out these crimes against humanity.

In this context, it might be thought that other considerations, such as dietary choices, are inappropriate and even offensive. However, it is essential that these senseless acts of terrorism not further impede the already fragile global efforts to cooperate in addressing the world's pressing social, economic, and environmental threats. While there are no simple solutions to terrorism, perhaps we can look beyond the horror and productively to utilize our current feelings of vulnerability and sadness.

Although seldom discussed, animal-based diets and agriculture constitute what Jeremy Rifkin called "cold evil," a form of indirect, unconscious terrorism, which may also make future terrorism more likely. For a safer, more stable and sustainable world, it is essential that, along with other steps to defend against evil and irrational acts of terror, the effects of the mass production and widespread consumption of animal products be considered.

In 1992, over 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates – a majority of the living recipients of the Prizes in the sciences – signed a "World Scientists' Warning To Humanity." Their introduction states: 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, rivers and
streams, 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.

Many of the problems that the scientists are warning about, including hunger, water shortages, demand for sufficient energy, desertification, global climate change, and a culture of violence, are already having major negative effects and also have the potential of resulting in future acts of terrorism. Fortunately, these problems can be substantially alleviated through a shift to plant-based diets:

* The magnitude of world hunger is staggering: More than a billion people, over one out of 6 people in the world, are chronically hungry or suffer from malnutrition. Children are particularly victimized by malnutrition. Throughout the world, over 12 million children under the age of 5 die every year – about 34,000 each day – from diseases brought on or complicated by malnutrition. Each year, almost 8 million children die before their first birthday, largely due to malnutrition. Malnourishment also causes listlessness and reduced capacity for learning and work, thus perpetuating the legacy of poverty.

* Numerous factors, including rapidly increasing world population and affluence, environmental strains, climate changes, and significant decreases in clean water, arable land, fish catches, and land productivity all threaten the world's food security. Providing enough food for the world's rapidly increasing population will be a critical issue for many decades.

* Extensive hunger and malnutrition in so many parts of the world make
rebellion and violence more likely. Professor Georg Borgstrom, international expert on food science, fears that "the rich world is on a direct collision course with the poor of the world... We cannot survive behind our Maginot line of missiles and bombs. Unless the problem of global hunger is fully addressed soon, the outlook for global stability is very poor.

Can a shift to vegetarian diets make a difference with regard to world
hunger? Consider these statistics:

* It takes about 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of edible beef from animals raised in feedlots. Over 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and over one-third of the world's grain production is fed to animals destined for slaughter. If Americans reduced their beef consumption by 10 percent, it would free up enough grain to feed all of the world's people who annually die of hunger and related diseases. According to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, an Iowa-based non-profit research group, the grain fed to animals to produce meat, milk, and eggs could feed five times the number of people that it presently does if it were consumed directly by humans.

* Land that grows potatoes, rice and other vegetables can support about 20 times as many people as land that produces grain-fed beef. Feeding grain to livestock wastes 90% of the protein, almost 100% of the carbohydrates, and 100% of the fiber of the grain. While grains are a rich source of fiber, animal products have no fiber at all. This evidence indicates that the food being fed to animals in the affluent nations could, if properly distributed, end both hunger and malnutrition throughout the world.

Unfortunately, the world is moving increasingly to animal-based diets as people in nations that have been becoming more affluent, such as China, India, and Japan, move up the food chain. Because of a shift toward meat from grain-fed animals, China shifted in 1995 from a grain exporter to a major grain importer. If this trend continues, it will have very serious implications for future food security.

* Due to heavy demand for water, there are serious shortages in about 80 countries (including Israel) which contain 40 percent of the world's population. According to a report released recently by Population Action International, over the next 25 years, the number of people facing chronic or severe water shortages could increase from 505 million to more than 3 billion. The report said water shortages would be worst in the Middle East and much of Africa. Globally, 2 billion people live in areas with chronic water shortages. A combination of population growth, drought, desertification, waste of water, and global warming is causing a serious water shortage in China that experts say could induce environmental and political crises. Officials are blaming drought for a 9.3 percent drop in the summer grain yield, and water rationing has been imposed on residents and industries in nearly 100 cities.

Pollution of lakes, rivers, and groundwater further limits supplies of usable water. In the past few decades, industrialization, population growth, and the heavy use of chemical fertilizers have doubled the amount of nitrogen in circulation, contributing to environmental problems worldwide and possibly to human health problems like cancer and memory failure. Hardest hit are coastal bays and oceans -- deadly algae blooms are cropping up from Finnish beaches to Hong Kong harbors, massive unexpected fish kills are occurring from aryland's Chesapeake Bay to Russia's Black Sea, and coral reefs are in decline around the globe.

Once again, a shift toward vegetarianism can make a significant difference. The standard diet of a meat-eater in the United States requires 4,200 gallons of water per day (for animals' drinking water, irrigation of crops, meat processing, washing, cooking, etc.) A person on a purely vegetarian (vegan) diet requires only 300 gallons per day. Animal agriculture is the major consumer of water in the U.S. According to Norman Myers, author of Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management, irrigation, primarily to grow crops for animals, uses over 80 percent of U.S. water. The production of only one pound of edible beef in a semi-arid area such as California requires as much as 5,200 gallons of water, as contrasted with only 25 gallons or less to produce an edible pound of tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, or wheat. Newsweek reported in 1988 that "the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a (Naval) destroyer."

Mountains of manure produced by cattle raised in feedlots wash into and pollute streams, rivers, and underground water sources. U.S. livestock produce an astounding 1.4 billion tons of manure per year (this amount works out to almost 90,000 pounds per second!), or about 130 times the amount excreted by the U.S. human population Food geographer, Georg Borgstrom has estimated that American livestock contribute five times more organic waste to the pollution of our water than do people, and twice as much as does industry.

* About 70 percent of the world's 13.5 billion acres of agricultural dry lands – almost 30 percent of the Earth's total land area – is at risk of becoming desert. Over a billion people in 135 countries depend on this land for food. Loss of agricultural land as well as the destruction of other ecosystems cause an increase of migration into cities, where increasingly crowded conditions lead to disease, hunger, and other negative effects of poverty, including greater potential for crime and violence.

As in every other threat considered in this article, there is a dietary connection. Grazing animals have destroyed large areas of land throughout the world, with overgrazing having long been a prime cause of erosion. Over 60 percent of all U.S. rangelands are overgrazed, with billions of tons of soil lost each year. Cattle production is a prime contributor to every one of the causes of desertification: overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of land, improper irrigation techniques, deforestation, and prevention of reforestation. According to mathematician Robin Hur, nearly 6 billion of the 7 billion tons of eroded soil in the United States has been lost because of cattle and feed lot production.

* At current rates of destruction, the world's remaining rain forests will virtually disappear by about 2031. According to a study published in the journal Science, as little as 5 percent of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil may remain as pristine forest by 2020. Researchers fear that roads, new homes, logging, and oil exploration will devastate the 1.3 million-square-mile Amazon forest, which makes up 40 percent of the Earth's remaining tropical rainforest.

Animal-based diets and agriculture again plays a major role in rainforest destruction. Largely to turn beef into fast-food hamburgers for export to the U.S., the earth's tropical rain forests are being bulldozed at a rate of a football field per second. Each imported quarter-pound fast-food hamburger patty requires the destruction of 55 square feet of tropical forest for grazing. Half of the rainforests 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 ominous is that half of the world's fast disappearing species of plants and animals reside in tropical rain forests. We are risking the loss of species which might hold secrets for cures of deadly diseases. Other plant species might turn out to be good sources of nutrition. Also, the destruction of rain forests is altering the climate and reducing rainfall, with potentially devastating effects on the world's agriculture and habitability.

* Global climate change may be the most critical problem the world will face in the next few decades. There is a growing scientific consensus that we are already experiencing the effects of global warming, and that human actions
are playing a significant role. Global average temperatures have increased about one degree Fahrenheit since 1900. This doesn't sound like much, but it is causing major changes in our weather patterns. The warmest decade in recorded history was the 1990s. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1983, with seven of them since 1990. The global temperature in
1998 was the warmest in recorded history.

In the year 2000, in its Third Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N.-sponsored organization composed of leading climate scientists from over 100 nations, made two momentous revisions in its previous forecasts of global warming. It estimated that by 2100, the average world temperature could rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit, a range significantly higher than the 1.8 to 6.3 degree rise predicted by the IPCC in 1995. Also, the group became far more emphatic that it is human activities, rather than natural planetary cycles, that are "contributing substantially" to the increase, and they indicated that they expect these human contributions will continue to grow. The IPCC report, which runs to over 1,000 pages, was written by 123 lead authors from many countries who drew on 516 contributing experts and is one of the most comprehensive produced on global warming. Hence, the conclusions of the report represent an unprecedented consensus among hundreds of climate scientists from all over the world. This makes their summary statement that "Projected climate changes during the 21st century have the potential to lead to future large-scale and possible irreversible changes in Earth systems,'' with "continental and global consequences'' especially ominous.

While recent increased concern about global warming is very welcome, the many connections between typical American (and other Western) diets and global warming have generally been overlooked. Current modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of meat contribute greatly to the four major gases associated with the greenhouse effect: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons.

The burning of tropical forests releases tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and eliminates the ability of these trees to absorb carbon dioxide. Also, the highly mechanized agricultural sector uses an enormous amount of fossil fuel to produce pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other agricultural resources, and this also contributes to carbon dioxide emissions. Cattle emit methane as part of their digestive process, as do termites who feast on the charred remains of trees that were burned to create grazing land and land to grow feed crops for farmed animals. The large amounts of petrochemical fertilizers used to produce feed crops create significant quantities of nitrous oxides. Likewise, the increased refrigeration necessary to prevent animal products from spoiling adds chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere.

In 2001 a series of brownouts (rolling blackouts) in California and rapidly rising gasoline prices thrust the energy issue back into the foreground. Announcing the recommendations of his energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush argued that if America failed to act now, "this great country could face a darker future, a future that is, unfortunately, being previewed in rising prices at the gas pump and rolling blackouts in the great state of California." Bush stated that ''America needs an energy plan that faces up to our energy challenges and meets them.'' The White House task force?? report cited a ''fundamental imbalance between supply and demand'' and depicted the potential for a very gloomy energy picture, including high gasoline and electricity prices across much of the country, soaring natural gas prices causing havoc with farmers and the possibility of power blackouts in the West and Northeast. Responses to the Bush task force energy recommendations were predictable, with Republicans and oil, gas, and nuclear interests strongly supporting it, and Democrats and environmentalists loudly opposing it.

Whatever methods are used to produce energy, a shift to plant-based diets can sharply reduce demand for energy. In the United States, an average of 10 calories of fuel energy is required for every calorie of food energy produced; many other countries obtain 20 or more 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 in producing and providing feed crops. It requires 78 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of protein obtained from feedlot-produced beef, but only 2 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of protein from soybeans. Grains and beans require only two to five percent as much fossil fuel as beef. The energy needed to produce a pound of grain-fed beef is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline.

* Animal-based diets and agriculture also have implications re the possibility of the spread of anthrax and other deadly bacteria, as well as our ability to resist these bacteria through antibiotics. The October 2001 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported that three independent studies found that up to half of supermarket meat and poultry samples were contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria that each year kill thousands and sicken millions. All this is in spite of the implementation of the new, highly touted USDA meat inspection program and without the workings of anyone wishing us ill.

Now, consider the opportunity that a slaughterhouse provides to a bio-terrorist. US slaughterhouses have a very large turnover of undocumented aliens. It would be relatively easy for a bio-terrorist to enter the country legally or otherwise, join the slaughterhouse staff, and slip a powerful pathogen into a vat of ground meat destined for hamburgers or hot dogs (frequently eaten uncooked). The culprit would be long out of the country before the contaminated product reaches supermarket shelves and thousands of his victims begin dying. Anyone really concerned with anthrax or other form of bio-terrorism would be well advised to lay off meat and poultry for a while.

There are also threats to our ability to respond to diseases because of the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics. Over half the antibiotics produced in the United States are routinely fed to animals in their feed. It would be impossible to maintain healthy animals under the cramped conditions of "factory farming" without these drugs. Further, for reasons which are not fully understood, the antibiotics also seem to act as "growth promoters" leading to heavier animals and thus more weight for the market, providing even greater incentive to administer drugs.

Unfortunately, this practice places enormous "selective pressure" on the bacteria which inhabit these animals to develop resistance to the antibiotics in the feed. Genes which neutralize the effects of antibiotics arise as a result of this selective pressure (i.e., in the presence of antibiotics, only those organisms which have the capability of neutralizing the antibiotics will survive). These resistant genes are easily transferred from one bacterium to another, and they may protect germs which cause human disease from antibiotic treatment.

There has already been a tremendous increase in antibiotic resistance in common food poisoning bacteria like salmonella,45 but the problem is even worse than simply the antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the food animals themselves. Bacteria also have the capability of rapidly transferring and spreading the antibiotic-resistant character to other bacterial species, including those which cause other diseases. Therefore, diseases which are not even related to food consumption may become resistant to antibiotics, and hence a much greater threat. For example, staphylococcus bacteria have been isolated in recent years which are resistant to every known commercially available antibiotic. If this organism gets into one's blood stream, the person will very likely die.

As a result, there is a scientific consensus that the extensive use of antibiotics to produce meat and other animal products, along with their over-use in medicine, has increased resistance among bacteria and jeopardized human health by causing diseases that are difficult or impossible to cure. For example, in 1997, the World Health Organization called for a ban on the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed. In 1998, the journal Science called the meat industry "the driving force behind the development of antibiotic resistance in certain species of bacteria that cause human disease," and later that year, the Center for Disease Control blamed the use of antibiotics in livestock feed for the emergence of salmonella bacteria resistant to five different antibiotics. Joshua Lederberg, M.D., a Nobel Laureate, stated "we're running out of bullets for dealing with a number of these infections. Patients are dying because we no longer in many cases have antibiotics that work."

The widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed is thus a global threat to human health for every individual on earth. People need prescriptions for these drugs, yet the animal industry uses them casually. This irresponsible misuse of antibiotics is unilaterally disarming our species from a last line of defense, and devastating epidemics may well be the legacy of the hunger for inexpensive meat.

* Another benefit of a shift toward plant-based diets is a reduction in the current widespread violence in the world. Presently 10 billion animals in the US alone and 45 billion animals worldwide are cruelly treated on "factory farms" and then slaughtered for consumption. Many practices are particularly shocking: the force-feeding of huge amounts of grains to ducks and geese to produce pate de foie gras; the raising of veal calves who are taken away from their mothers almost immediately after birth, and are kept in narrow pens, where they are denied exercise, and fed a diet deficient in iron and other essential nutrients; the killing of over 250 million male chicks immediately after birth because they can't lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much meat. There are documented studies that violence towards animals by children is a strong predictor of violent and criminal behavior in the adults those children grow up to be.

In view of these many negative effects of animal-based agriculture, it is scandalous that U.S. meat conglomerates, aided by the World bank and other international financial institutions, are promoting food policies and trade agreements that would double world production and consumption of meat and other animal food products in the next 20 years. Most of this expansion would take place in less developed nations, through massive factory farming operations similar to these currently being used in the developed world. This would have very severe consequences for the poor countries and worldwide: more hunger, more poverty, more pollution, more animal suffering, less self-determination for the people in low-income nations, and less water for everyone.

When we consider all of the negative effects of animal-based diets, it is clear that animal-centered diets and the livestock agriculture needed to sustain them pose tremendous threats to global survival and increase the potential for future terrorism. (The direct negative effects on human health of high fat, high cholesterol, low fiber animal-based diets should also be considered.) It is not surprising that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) ranks the consumption of meat and poultry as the second most harmful consumer activity (surpassed only by the use of cars and light trucks). It is clear that a shift toward vegetarianism is imperative to move our precious but imperiled planet away from its present catastrophic path and to reduce the potential for future terrorism.

Back to the Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights