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Greening Our Homes and Institutions Through Vegetarianism

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Perhaps the most important thing that one can do to make our homes and institutions more environmentally friendly is to switch toward a plant-based diet and encourage others to do so. Please consider the following facts:

1. It takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of feedlot beef for human consumption. 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. While one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land growing potatoes can feed 22 people, and one hectare growing rice can feed 19 people, that same area producing beef can feed only one person.

2. 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. The production of 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.

3. Producing animal products also wastes 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.

4. Almost 6 billion of the 7 billion tons of eroded soil in the United States has been lost because of cattle and feed lot production. Cattle production is a prime contributor to each of the causes of desertification: overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of land, improper irrigation techniques, deforestation, and prevention of reforestation.

5. Mountains of manure produced by cattle raised in feedlots wash into and pollute streams, rivers, and underground water sources.

6. The tremendous amount of grain grown to feed animals requires extensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which cause air and water pollution.

7. Demand for meat in wealthy countries leads to environmental damage in poor countries. 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.

8. Current modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of meat greatly contribute 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 enormous amounts 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.

When we consider all of these negative environmental and climate-change effects, and then add the harmful effects of animal-based diets on human health and global hunger, it is clear that animal-centered diets and the livestock agriculture needed to sustain them pose tremendous threats to global survival. 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.

Jeremy Rifkin summarizes well the very negative effects of animal-based agriculture:

The ever-increasing cattle population is wreaking havoc on the earth's ecosystems, destroying habitats on six continents. Cattle raising is a primary factor in the destruction of the world's remaining tropical rain forests. Millions of acres of ancient forests in Central and South America are being felled and cleared to make room for pastureland to graze cattle. Cattle herding is responsible for much of the spreading desertification in the sub-Sahara of Africa and the western rangeland of the United States and Australia. The overgrazing of semiarid and arid lands has left parched and barren deserts on four continents. Organic runoff from feedlots is now a major source of organic pollution in our nation's ground water. Cattle are also a major cause of global warming... The devastating environmental, economic, and human toll of maintaining a worldwide cattle complex is little discussed in public policy circles... Yet, cattle production and beef consumption now rank among the gravest threats to the future well being of the earth and its human population.

The aims of vegetarians and environmental activists are similar: simplify our life styles, have regard for the earth and all forms of life, and apply the knowledge that "the earth is the Lord's." In view of the many negative effects of animal-based agriculture on the earth's environment, resources, and climate, it is becoming increasingly clear that a shift toward vegetarian diets is a planetary imperative.