I have long been interested in becoming a vegetarian or at least trying it out. Originally, I was interested mostly for the health benefits.
When I went vegetarian, it didn’t last long (literally a week) because the more research I did, the more I realized vegan was the way to go. At first I switched to veganism with the exception of family farm animal products but that only lasted another two weeks because more research showed me that I should go full on vegan. (Free range farming is actually less sustainable than factory farming, a fact that should’ve seemed obvious but alas it wasn’t.)
Now that I’ve practiced this diet for over a year, health is probably the least important reason for me to stick to it. Now the biggest reason I am vegan is for sustainability. I follow quite a few pro-plant based diet environmentalists and there is a big question being argued amongst environmental and vegan threads. Can one be an environmentalist and eat animal products? Can you eat animal products and at the same time claim to care about the earth?
This question got a lot of attention after the documentary funded by Leonardo DiCaprio came out called Cowspiracy where the consensus was no, you can’t claim to care about the environment and eat meat. Of course a lot of meat eaters who consider themselves environmentalists were offended.
One can be an environmentalist in many forms. Maybe you are focused on ending global warming or maybe you want more biodegradable packaging, maybe manatees getting beat up by boats is your cause. We can argue about global warming, or what animal abuse looks like or what amount of litter is unavoidable ‘til our faces turn blue which is why I tend to lean towards sustainability as my brand of environmentalism.
There are roughly 7 billion people on Earth. On average, each person eats 74.6 pounds of meat per year (in the U.S. it’s 270.7). So that’s 523,000,000,000 pounds of meat per year. This figure includes beef, poultry, lamb and pork, not seafood. This number is expected to rise as more countries adopt westernized diets although as more Americans have jumped on the vegetarian/vegan train, the last 10 years have seen a decline in the amount of meat consumed per year though we still eat more meat than we did in the 1970s.
Roughly 19% (99.4 billion pounds) of the world’s meat consumption comes from beef. The average yield of retail cuts from beef is roughly 434 pounds per cow. 99.4 billion divided by 434 is roughly 229 million cows. So about 229 million cows are needed per year to feed the world. That’s a lot of cows….and that’s not including dairy cows, or cows that aren’t slaughtered nor produce milk. This is just how many cows are eaten each year.
So what does it take to raise the cows (we eat)? To produce one pound of meat it takes 1799 gallons of water, so roughly 1.5 trillion gallons of water for all of the cows we eat yearly. It takes 6.6 pounds of grain per pound of meat so roughly 656 billion pounds of grain. AND it takes 15 pounds of CO2 per pound of meat so roughly 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2.
So you think ok, I’ll eat poultry or pork or lamb instead. They’re smaller so they should be more sustainable. Let me break those options down for you too.
|Lbs Needed to Feed World||Animals Needed||Gallons H2O Needed||Lbs of Grain Needed||CO2 Emissions|
|Beef||99.4 billion||229 million||178.8 trillion||656 billion||1.5 trillion|
|Pork||193.5 billion||1.9 billion||111.5 trillion||812.7 billion||1.3 trillion|
|Lamb||26.2 billion||748.6 million||19.1 trillion||81.2 billion||419.2 billion|
|Poultry||204 billion||29.1 billion||95.5 trillion||856.8 billion||687.5 billion|
That’s a lot of finite resources being used.
But there are a couple of other issues I haven’t even talked about. Deforestation and manure.
Beef production accounts for the destruction of 6.7 million acres of tropical forest each year. That’s an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, each year. About half the world’s tropical forests have already been cleared. Because much of this destruction is happening in foreign lands, many of us are not even aware of the rapidly disappearing forests.
Just the cows the world eats produce about 4.9 trillion pounds of manure each year. That’s roughly 60 pounds of manure per cow per day. Or 13.5 billion pounds of manure a day. About 8% of that is recoverable. And that’s just cow shit. Poultry – 6.3 trillion pounds of waste a year. Lamb – 1.2 trillion pounds of waste a year. Pigs are the “shittiest” accounting for 10.9 trillion pounds of waste a year. Combine the four animals the world eats the most and that’s 23.3 trillion pounds of waste a year.
So where does it all go?
You may be thinking “well the animal poops out in the field and the manure acts as fertilizer.” This sometimes applies to cows or sheep/goats who are grazed on open fields. That’s a small percentage of the animal population. Factory farms certainly don’t have this luxury.
Generally speaking, most animals drop their waste in a house or barn where they are kept. The waste then must be transported out of the building (using thousands of gallons of water) and is stored in a giant outdoor pit known as a lagoon. As the waste decomposes it emits gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. These lagoons also tend to leak or rupture destroying local ecosystems. In June, a ruptured hose lead to hundreds of gallons of hog manure being leaked into local creeks and ditches in Iowa. There are countless cases just like this, some worse than others.
Water usage and CO2 emissions aren’t unavoidable no matter what your diet is. In fact, some plants such as lettuce (why anyone wants to eat green crunchy water is beyond me) have a high emissions rate and regular potatoes are the 10th highest food when it comes to environmental impact. (Funny enough, the healthier sweet potato has one of the lowest environmental impacts.) But guess what, the first nine foods with the highest environmental impact? All animal products.
At a basic level we all can see how animal products (whether meat, eggs, dairy etc.) require more resources to produce. A carnivorous diet is a two tier process. Grow the plants to feed the animal, raise the animal until it’s slaughtered. A plant based diet has one tier, grow the plants.
So back to the original question. Can you be an environmentalist and still eat animal products? Of course you can. The same as you can be a dog lover who doesn’t own any dogs or a great athlete who’s not very athletic (lookin’ at you Yao Ming). I get it, bacon is really hard to give up and we’re all human.
That being said, powerful leaders practice what they preach. It would be harder to take health advice from an overweight doctor who smokes right? Same thing with animal product consuming environmentalists. But guess what? You don’t have to go all in and you don’t have to do it right away. Pescatarian, vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian and vegan diets are all options. You could also become a vegan except for your weakness food. So, you’re a vegan except when it comes to cheese. Or you don’t eat any meat except for the steak your dad is famous for. Looking at the chart above, you can see that cows and pigs have a higher impact per animal unit (1000 pounds) than poultry so even eliminating red meat from your diet is helpful.
Here’s the thing. A traditional American diet, especially one that is increasingly becoming the norm around the world is not sustainable. Math shows us this. We have a finite amount of land and water to use for agriculture. If we keep our diets as is, eventually we will have no choice but to switch to plant based diets. I’d like to keep meat as an option. A special treat, for a special occasion. With current diet and population trends, one day meat will be something only the wealthiest in the world can afford.