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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 05:21 am

Time to stop eating meat

Every aspect of meat production is an environmental disaster

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Just about every aspect of meat production is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic consequences.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES

Vegetarians and vegans argue that eating meat is bad for the environment. How true are these claims?

There has never been a better time to go vegetarian. Mounting evidence suggests that meat-based diets are not only unhealthy but that just about every aspect of meat production — from grazing-related loss of cropland, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of water and grain to cattle, to pollution from “factory farms” — is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic consequences. There are 20 billion head of livestock on Earth, more than triple the number of people. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the global livestock population has increased 60 percent since 1961, and the number of fowl being raised for food has nearly quadrupled in the same time period, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion. The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to make 1 pound of beef represents a colossal waste of resources in a world teeming with hungry and malnourished people. According to Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people growing soy, 24 people growing wheat, and 10 people growing corn — but only two raising cattle.
Food First’s Frances Moore Lappé says to imagine sitting down to an 8-ounce steak. “Then imagine the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls. . . . For the feed cost of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.” Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer says that reducing U.S. meat production by 10 percent would free grain to feed 60 million people. U.S. animal farms generate billion of tons of animal waste every year, which the Environmental Protection Agency says pollute our waterways more than do all other industrial sources combined. The infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prudhoe Bay, but in the relatively unknown 1995 New River hog-waste spill in North Carolina 25 million gallons of excrement was poured into the water, killing 14 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of shellfishing beds. Hog-waste spills have caused the rapid spread of Pfiesteria piscicida, which has killed a billion fish in North Carolina alone. In addition to polluting water, beef production alone uses more water than that used in growing our entire fruit and vegetable crop. And more than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production. Meat also increases our carbon footprint. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock around the world contribute more greenhouse gases (mostly methane) to the atmosphere — 18 percent of our total output — than do the emissions from all the world’s cars and trucks. “There is no question that the choice to become a vegetarian or lower meat consumption is one of the most positive lifestyle changes a person could make in terms of reducing one’s personal impact on the environment,” says Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute. “The resource requirements and environmental degradation associated with a meat-based diet are very substantial.”

For more information: Food First, www.foodfirst.org; UN Food and Agriculture Organization, www.fao.org; Worldwatch Institute, www.worldwatch.org.

Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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