Modern livestock agriculture and animal-centered diets not only contribute to the cruel treatment of billions of animals annually and an epidemic of heart disease, cancer and many more diseases. They also have devastating consequences for the environment, and for scarce resources. 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 40 percent of the grain grown worldwide are fed to 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.
Intensive livestock agriculture is a substantial contributor to many environmental problems. Livestock in the United States produce an incredible 86,000 pounds of manure per second, and much of it ends up in rivers, lakes, streams, and underground water sources. The amount of waste produced by 10,000 cattle in a feedlot equals that of a city of 110,000 people. In addition, huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in the production of animal feed crops end up in surface and ground waters.
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.
According to a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (In carbon dioxide equivalents) than all the cars, planes, ships and other means of transportation combined (18 percent versus 13.5 percent). Making the situation still worse, the UN report projects that the number of farmed animals will double in the next 50 years. If that increase occurs, the resulting increase in greenhouse gas emissions would negate reductions from increased efficiencies and reductions in other areas, making avoiding the most serious effects of global warming very difficult. Since we are already seeing many examples of droughts, heat waves, major storms, widespread wildfires, the rapid melting of glaciers and polar icecaps and some climate scientists are warning that global warming may soon reach a tipping point and spin out of control if major changes do not soon occur, a shift toward plant-based diets is essential.
Cattle ranching is a major cause of deforestation in Latin America.
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 overgrazing causes erosion and the creation of deserts throughout the world. Cattle production is a prime component of the causes that lead to desertification: overcultivation of the land, improper irrigation techniques, and deforestation. According to the Worldwatch Institute, each pound of feedlot steak "costs" about 35 pounds of eroded American topsoil. U.S. cattle production has resulted in significant bio-diversity 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. The number of wild animals on the American range has dropped sharply, largely due to their inability to compete with cattle for food. Many species of plants and animals are disappearing annually because of the rapid destruction of rain forests.
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 4,200 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 up to 5,000 gallons of water, while only 23 gallons are needed to produce a pound of tomatoes. It takes about a hundred times more water to produce a pound a meat than it does to produce a pound of grain.
Another important resource issue today is energy, and livestock agriculture requires far more of it than does the production of vegetarian foods. The production of one pound of steak (500 calories of food energy) uses 20,000 calories of fossil fuels, most of which is used to produce feed crops. The annual beef consumption of a typical American family of four requires more than 260 gallons of fuel, as much as the average car uses in six months.
When one considers the above facts, as well as the soaring health care costs associated with degenerative diseases caused by animal-based diets, it becomes increasingly clear that vegetarianism is not only an important individual choice, but also an imperative for national solvency and global survival. 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.
You can contribute to a more humane, peaceful, and healthy planet by further educating yourself on this issue. 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. Enlighten others through personal conversations, meetings with opinion leaders in your community, 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 recovery 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.
Richard H. Schwartz president@JewishVeg.com
Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island Author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival and Mathematics and Global Survivaland over 130 articles at JewishVeg.com/schwartz, President. Jewish Vegetarians of North America Associate producer of A SACRED DUTY
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