Warner Pacific College
June 30, 2011
How does our diet impact the environment?
In America, the average adult consumes 222 pounds of meat and poultry annually. In contrast, consumers in the United Kingdom average 175 pounds per year. With this much demand for meat, what is the impact on our environment? Are there better ways to raise livestock that will not affect our air, water and land in such harmful ways? What can we do as a society to lessen the burden of resources needed to fulfill the ever-increasing demand for meat and dairy products?
Between 1961 and 2008, domesticated animals raised for food rose from 7.2 billion to 24.9 billion globally (Pimental & Pimental, 2011). This great increase in livestock has spurred wide-spread land usage for the production of meat. In addition to grazing land for the animals, more and more farmland is required to grow the grain and soy needed to feed the animals. This has resulted in the loss of many natural habitats and prairie pools which were once common in the mid-west of the United States. A loss of biodiversity is unavoidable when these important natural resources are lost.
More than 260 million acres of forest have been clear-cut in the United States alone to provide space for animal agriculture (Hackett, J. 2010). Much of these lands are used to commercially raise cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys and buffalo. In the everyday workings of a factory farm, precious fossil fuels are consumed while transporting feed to farms, live animals to slaughterhouses and animal carcasses (in energy-hungry refrigerated trucks) to processing plants. Once processed, the final products are then shipped to stores around the country and the world. An interesting fact I uncovered while researching this topic is that the energy & resources required to make a single hamburger is equivalent to driving 20 miles in a small car! This is attributed to the amount of water, grain, and land space needed to produce just a half pound of ground beef (Hackett, J. 2010). To produce 1 pound of feedlot raised beef product, approximately 2,400 gallons of water and 7 pounds of grain/corn is needed.
Another harmful by-product of factory farms is the amount of methane released into the atmosphere. Methane has 21 times more Global Warming Potential (GWP) than Carbon Dioxide and Nitrous Oxide has 296 times more GWP than C02. The livestock industry is a major contributor of these gases (Pimental & Pimental, 2011). These emissions are a primary cause of global warming, which is responsible for increasing the world’s temperature which in turn melts glaciers and polar ice caps resulting in rising ocean levels.
So, the news surrounding the effects of animal agricultural are certainly disturbing and do not provide a hopeful outcome for the future of farming. With the global population expected to rise to an estimated 9.1 billion people by 2050, the demand for meat and poultry is expected to increase right along with the population. Is it possible to farm sustainably? Yes. Low-input agriculture is one way in which we can reduce the amount of precious resources such as fossil fuels and clean water used for meat production. Organic farming is also useful in the reduction of harmful chemicals and pesticides commonly used in industrial agriculture.
But how do we combat this impending issue altogether? I believe the clear answer is to reduce our demand and consumption of meat. At a staggering 222 pounds per year, the US is once again setting a horrible example of gluttony and consumerism to the world, in my opinion. It is a simple fact that a person who exists primarily on animal proteins requires 10 times more land to provide adequate food than a person who lives on vegetable proteins (including nuts). This alone makes a switch to vegetarianism/veganism worth the effort. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and soy is not only healthier for your body, but healthier for the environment.
The Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, Dennis Avery has said, “The world must create 5 billion vegans in the next several decades, or triple its total farm output without using more land.” While this is a wonderful ideal, it is simply not going to happen. People will always want meat and dairy products, but my take on it is that (like most things we consume) we do not need the amounts we are consuming. I, for one, will be very diligent in the future when planning family meals. My family does not “need” to eat meat every day and lessening our consumption won’t impact us as much as it will certainly help sustain our environment and our precious earth.
Avery, D. (2007, January 10). Center Director an authority for vegan activists. Center for Global Food Issues. Retrieved from http://www.cgfi.org/2007/01/center-director-an-authority-for-vegan-activists/
Hackett, J. (2010, October 8). What does eating meat have to do with fossil fuels? About.com Vegetarian. Retrieved from http://vegetarian.about.com/od/vegetarianvegan101/f/fossilfuels.htm
Novak, S. (2011, June 7). UN urges a vegan diet to feed a growing population. Planet Green. Retrieved from http://planetgreen.discovery.com/food-health/un-urges-a-vegan-diet-to-feed-a-growing-population.html
Pimental, D. & Pimental, M. (2011, May 27). Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Retrieved from http://vegetarian.about.com/od/vegetarianvegan101/f/fossilfuels.htm