Eat Like You Give a Damn

It’s Earth Week and we’re hearing all the awareness campaigns… Take shorter showers, change a light bulb, drive a hybrid, recycle etc. What’s noticeably missing is the most meaningful thing anyone can do to help the environment: Go vegan and stay vegan!

Our food choices have a significant impact on the environment. Eliminating animal products from one’s diet is one of the most meaningful things an individual can do to reduce his or her carbon footprint. What we buy and consume from the grocery store actually has more environmental impact than whether we carry it home in a reusable shopping bag or drive a hybrid to the store.

Animal agriculture is the culprit for many of the world’s most significant environmental problems — global warming, water use and pollution, massive energy consumption, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and species, as well as the profound impact fishing has on our oceans. A 2010 Report from the UN International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management strongly urges a global shift to a plant-based diet to both feed the hungry in the world and significantly reduce environmental impacts like climate change.

So why do animal products have such a profound carbon footprint? It’s a combination of things. Animal agriculture wastes massive amounts of energy and fossil fuels, and emits greenhouse gasses in the process. Factor in the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest for cattle grazing and raising soybeans to feed to animals, and you have a recipe for disaster in terms of climate change.

Climate Change: When it comes to climate change, farmed animals and their byproducts are responsible for 51% of annual worldwide human caused greenhouse gas emissions. This is according to a 2008 report from two prominent World Bank environmental advisers. They concluded that replacing animal products with plant-based foods would be the best approach for reversing climate change. They advise that this can reduce emissions even further than actions currently being taken to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy (see Livestock and Climate Change, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, World Watch Nov./Dec. 2009)

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Committee looked at the global impact of animal agriculture and found that farming animals emits more greenhouse gasses (18%) then all the world’s transportation— that’s all the automobiles, planes, trains and any other form of carbon-emitting transportation combined. So when you are considering how to significantly reduce your carbon footprint, often what comes to mind first is driving less or getting a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and while that certainly helps, your impact can be even more powerful by eliminating animal products from your diet.

A study by the University of Chicago found that eating a vegan diet is 50 percent more effective at fighting global warming than switching from a standard car to a hybrid.

Water: About 75% of all water-quality issues in United States waterways are the result of the animal agriculture. According to University of Chicago geophysicist and co-author of the study referenced above Gidon Eshel, this is because polluting our waterways is free: “If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag ― the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”

Globally, most of the world’s water is used for irrigation. Agricultural production, including farming animals, uses more fresh water than any other activity in the United States (See Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 78, No. 3, 660S-663S). In fact, over half the total amount of fresh water consumed in the U.S. goes to irrigate land to grow feed for livestock. Enormous amounts of additional water are used to water the animals, clean equipment, etc. A dairy operation that utilizes an automatic “flushing” system can use up to 150 gallons of water per cow per day (US Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service. “Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook.” USDA. April 1992: p. 4-8).

It takes less water to produce one year’s worth of food for a vegan diet than it does to produce one month’s worth of food for a diet with animal products. Producing 1 lb. of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 lb. of grain protein (See Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 78, No. 3, 660S-663S). It has even been said that a vegan can leave the shower running for a year and still not waste as much water as a meat eater in the same year.

Ocean Problems: While beef may be the thought of as the Hummer of land based animal products, shrimp consumption is the “bulldozer” of the sea. Shrimp is the most widely consumed seafood product in the US. The method for catching shrimp in the wild is trawling. Trawling involves dragging nets larger than football fields along thousands of miles of ocean floor. Anything that can’t squeeze through the mesh of the net gets scooped up. After scraping the ocean floor clear of coral, plants, and all the fish and marine animals in their path, trawlers leave huge gashes in the ocean floor.

Think about the size of shrimp. Think about the net that is used to trawl for shrimp and how tight the mesh needs to be to capture them. Everything bigger than the shrimp that’s in the area gets caught, too. According to the United Nations’ Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, this method results in by-catch levels of up to 85%. In other words, in some instances only 15% of the catch was the target species, and most of the by-catch is considered useless and discarded.

Much like intensive animal agriculture depletes the land, fishing is depleting the oceans. Today’s stocks of large fish are only at 10% of what they were in 1950. The scientific journal Nature estimates that it only takes 10-15 years to deplete 90% of a fisheries stock. At this rate, stocks are expected to be completely gone by 2048. With consumption expected to increase by 25% by 2015, this collapse could happen even sooner.

Deforestation: Animal agriculture is responsible for the deforestation of thousands of acres of forests that help purify the air, reduce carbon dioxide, and that are home to many species of plants, birds and animals. According to the United Nations, “In the Amazon, cattle ranching is now the primary reason for deforestation.”

Large-scale dietary change to a plant-based diet could actually reverse deforestation. In the US, over 400 million acres of pasture and range land could be reforested (See Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2006).

Not to mention much of the grain produced in the US is used to feed livestock, with more than 70% of grains being used for this purpose. Not only does this waste land resources, but it misdirects our food resources as well. Almost 20% of the world’s population could be fed on what is consumed by cattle in the US. It’s estimated that one acre of trees is preserved each year by each individual who switches to a vegan diet.

So if you truly want to be a good steward of the Earth this Earth Day, remember that being vegan is by far the most ecological dietary choice you can make.

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