How Green is Vegetarianism?


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Prachanart Viriyaraks.

Turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. Unplug your power strip. Drive a Prius.

There are a multitude of tips that the government propagates will help the environment. One advisory that is so often left out, however, is to lower your meat consumption. Have you ever seen a commercial on TV advising you to eat less meat for the good of the environment? Likely not.

And that’s because the discussion surrounding the meat industry and people’s dietary preferences has joined politics and religion in that little group of touchy topics that ignite too exhausting of a debate. Often, vegetarians feel preachy, meat-eaters feel attacked, and it pretty much becomes a dispute as to who’s causing more harm to the environment.

Be that as it may, scientists, politicians, and economists all agree that the way in which we are breeding meat is harming the ecological balance of our planet. The process consumes our limited land and energy supply, wrecks our forests, pollutes our water and air, and is responsible for a significant portion of Earth’s climate change.

In 2006, the UN calculated that the combined climate change emissions of animals bred for their meat was 18 percent–more than cars, planes, and all other forms of transport put together. As of 2013, that number is 14.5 percent, which is still larger than transportation’s 13 percent emission rate. Considering this fact, adopting a vegetarian diet is actually one of the most helpful things you can do for the environment.

For one, it would lower the amount of global-warming-causing gases produced, especially methane and nitrous oxide. The UN calculated their 18 percent figure by determining how much methane is produced from the bodily gases of cattle, the gases from the manures they produce, the oil burned to take the carcasses to the markets at which they will ultimately be sold, and even the gas used to cook the meat.

While CO2 tends to be the greenhouse gas we hear about most when discussing global warming, lowering the amount of methane and other nitrous gases would be a more efficient method of cooling the Earth down at a faster rate. Because the turnover rate for most ruminant farm animals is one or two years and the turnover rate for cars and power plants is decades, a shift in diet would result in an almost immediate drop in methane emissions. Meanwhile, changing the fossil-fuel-dependent-infrastructure that the economy relies on so much today would take many years to develop.

A diet change would also spark the renewal of an environment so deeply devastated by the meat industry. Overstocking of fragile lands has led to massive soil erosion and desertification in many areas of the world and overgrazing the land has caused losses in fertility and flooding.

Factory farms are also direct contributors to ozone pollution and acid rain due to the manmade ammonia used to cleanse a variety of meats today. Additionally, the monumental waste produced by our livestock all too often seeps into our water supply, spreading dangerous fecal matter that contain harmful pathogens like salmonella and E coli.

Most importantly, our livestock take up so much of the land that we desperately need. With the population of the Earth expected to reach somewhere between 9 and 13 billion by the turn of the 22nd century, the planet cannot afford to use 30 percent of our available ice-free surface area for livestock and the crops grown to feed them. At the end of the day, meat has become a diet luxury that we are still deluded into treating as a diet necessity. The faster we realize that, the better off we’ll be.