by Jim Motavalli Norwalk, CT
never been a better time for environmentalists to become vegetarians.
Evidence of the environmental impacts of a meat-based diet is piling up
at the same time its health effects are becoming better known. Meanwhile,
full-scale industrialized factory farming which allows diseases
to spread quickly as animals are raised in close confinement has
given rise to recent, highly publicized epidemics of meat-borne illnesses.
The first discovery of Mad Cow Disease in a Tokyo suburb recently caused
beef prices to plummet in Japan and many people to stop eating meat.
All this comes at a time when meat consumption is reaching an all-time
high around the world, quadrupling in the last 50 years. There are 20
billion head of livestock taking up space on the Earth, more than triple
the number of people. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global livestock
population has increased 60% since 1961, and the number of fowl being
raised for human dinner tables has nearly quadrupled in the same time
period, from 4.2 billion to 15.7 billion. US beef and pork consumption
has tripled since 1970, during which time it has more than doubled in
One reason for the increase in meat consumption is the rise of fast-food
restaurants as an American dietary staple. As Eric Schlosser noted in
his best-selling book Fast Food Nation, Americans now spend more money
on fast food $110 billion a year than they do on higher education.
They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers,
videos and recorded music combined!
Strong growth in meat production and consumption continues despite mounting
evidence that meat-based diets are unhealthy and that just about every
aspect of meat production from grazing-related loss of cropland
and open space, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of water
and grain to cattle in a hungry world, to pollution from "factory
farms" an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic
consequences. Oregon State University agriculture professor Peter Cheeke
calls factory farming "a frontal assault on the environment, with
massive groundwater and air pollution problems."
The 4.8 pounds of grain fed to cattle to produce one pound of beef for
human beings represents a colossal waste of resources in a world still
teeming with people who suffer from profound hunger and malnutrition.
According to the British group Vegfam, a 10-acre farm can support 60 people
growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn, and
only two producing cattle. Because 90% of U.S. and European meat eaters
grain consumption is indirect (first being fed to animals,) westerners
each consume 2,000 pounds of grain a year. Most grain in underdeveloped
countries is consumed directly.
While it is true that many animals graze on land that would be unsuitable
for cultivation, the demand for meat has taken millions of productive
acres away from farm inventories. The cost of that is incalculable. As
Diet For a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé writes, imagine
sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. Then imagine the room filled with
45 to 50 people with empty bowls in front of them. For the "feed
cost" of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full
cup of cooked grain cereal.
Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that reducing meat production
by just 10% in the U.S. would free enough grain to feed 60 million people.
Authors Paul and Anne Erhlich note that a pound of wheat can be grown
with 60 pounds of water, whereas a pound of meat requires 2,500 to 6,000
pounds. In his book, The Food Revolution, John Robbins estimates that
"youd save more water by not eating a pound of California beef
than you would by not showering for an entire year."
And in terms of pollution, the Union of Concerned Scientists points out
that 20 tons of livestock manure is produced annually for every U.S. household.
The much-publicized 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska dumped 12 million
gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, but the relatively unknown 1995
New River hog waste spill in North Carolina poured 25 million gallons
of excrement and urine into the water, killing an estimated 10 to 14 million
fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal shellfishing beds. Hog waste
spills have caused the rapid spread of a virulent microbe called Pfiesteria
piscicida, which has killed a billion fish in North Carolina alone.
Vegetarianism is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras
was vegetarian, and until the mid-19th century, people who abstained from
eating meat were known as "Pythagoreans." In the U.S., the 1971
publication of Diet For a Small Planet was a major catalyst for introducing
people to a healthy vegetarian diet. Other stimuli included Peter Singers
1975 book Animal Liberation, which gave vegetarianism a moral underpinning;
Singer and Jim Masons book Animal Factories, the first exposé
of confinement agriculture; and John Robbins 1987 Diet for a New
In the U.S., according to a 1998 Vegetarian Journal survey, 82% of vegetarians
are motivated by health concerns, 75% by ethics, the environment and/or
animal rights, 31% because of taste and 26% because of economics. Women
are more likely to be vegetarian than men; and surprisingly
Republicans are slightly more likely to abstain from meat than Democrats.
The American Dietetic Association says in a position statement, Appropriately
planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide
health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Vegetarians
now have excellent opportunities to put together well-planned meals. The
sale of organic products in natural food stores is the highest growth
niche in the food industry, growing 22% in 1999 to $4 billion, according
to Nutrition Business Journal.
Its never been easier to become a vegetarian, and there have never
been more compelling reasons for environmentalists to make that choice.
Its not always easy to do most environmentalists still eat
meat. As Wayne Pacelle, a vice president of the Humane Society of the
U.S. says, "Changing ones dietary habits is a process, not
an event. We may want people to change overnight, but its probably
harder to change your diet than it is to change your religion." However,
the tide is beginning to turn.
For more information about becoming vegetarian, contact: International
Vegetarian Union, (202) 362-VEGY, www.ivu.org;
North American Vegetarian Society, (518) 568-7970, www.navs-online.org;
Vegetarian Resource Group, (410) 366-8343, www.vrg.org.
Reprinted with permission from: E/The Environmental Magazine, Subscription
Department: (Subscriptions are $20/year) P.O. Box 2047, Marion, OH 43306
U.S.A. (815) 734-1242. On the World Wide Web: www.emagazine.com
Jim Motavalli is the Editor of E. Reach him via the E office at (203)