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Friday, November 7, 2008

Environmental vegetarianism

Environmental vegetarianism is the practice of vegetarianism or Veganism based on the fact that the animal production by intensive agriculture is environmentally unsustainable. The primary environmental concerns with animal products are pollution and the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land.

Environmental effects of meat production

Interior of a hog confinement barn or piggery

The use of large industrial monoculture that is common in industrialised agriculture, typically for feed crops such as corn and soy is more damaging to ecosystems than more sustainable farming practices such as organic farming, permaculture, arable, pastoral, and rain-fed agriculture.

According to a 2006 United Nations initiative, the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation worldwide, and modern practices of raising animals for food contributes on a "massive scale" to deforestation, air and water pollution, land degradation, loss of topsoil, climate change, the overuse of resources including oil and water, and loss of biodiversity. The initiative concluded that "the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."

Animals fed on grain need more water than grain crops. In tracking food animal production from the feed through to the dinner table, the inefficiencies of meat, milk and egg production range from a 4:1 energy input to protein output ratio up to 54:1. The result is that producing animal-based food is typically much less efficient than the harvesting of grains, vegetables, legumes, seeds and fruits.

The environmental impacts of animal production vary with the method of production. A Grazing-based production can limit soil erosion and also allow farmers to control pest problems with less pesticides through rotating crops with grass. In arid areas, however, it may as well catalyze a desertification process. In a world that utilizes around 30 percent of it's surface to raise livestock, it is important to recognize the potential effects grazing has on the soil.

Related economic and social considerations

Environmental vegetarianism can be compared with economic vegetarianism. An economic vegetarian is someone who practices vegetarianism either out of necessity or because of a conscious simple living strategy. Such a person may base this belief on a philosophical viewpoint, such as the belief that the consumption of meat is economically unsound or that vegetarianism will help improve public health and curb starvation. According to the Worldwatch Institute, "massive reductions in meat consumption in industrial nations will ease the health care burden while improving public health; declining livestock herds will take pressure off of rangelands and grainlands, allowing the agricultural resource base to rejuvenate. As populations grow, lowering meat consumption worldwide will allow more efficient use of declining per capita land and water resources, while at the same time making grain more affordable to the world's chronically hungry."

Environmental vegetarians call for a reduction of first world consumption of meat, especially in the US. According to the United Nations Population Fund "Each U.S. citizen consumes an average of 260 lbs. of meat per year, the world's highest rate. That is about 1.5 times the industrial world average, three times the East Asian average, and 40 times the average in Bangladesh." In addition, "the ecological footprint of an average person in a high-income country is about six times bigger than that of someone in a low-income country, and many more times bigger than in the least-developed countries."

The World Health Organization calls malnutrition "the silent emergency", and says it is a factor in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths which occur every year. Cornell scientists have advised that the U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, although they distinguish "grain-fed meat production from pasture-raised livestock, calling cattle-grazing a more reasonable use of marginal land."

Critics note, starvation in the modern world is largely a political problem and may not be solved through flooding world markets with more grain. Indeed, critics of environmental vegetarianism point out that should the U.S. give this "freed" grain to the developing world, it would amount to dumping, undermining local markets and worsening the situation. Among other results, this could lead also to a decrease in biodiversity. Some environmentalists go even as far as to characterise food aid, in particular grain, as a commercial enterprise interested more in supporting farmers in the developed world than alleviating famine in the developing world.


A widely adopted vegetarian diet, in and of itself, may not be enough to make the US food system sustainable unless renewable energy is also implemented. The support of alternative farming practices (e.g. well husbanded organic farming, permaculture, and rotational grazing) and certain plant commodity avoidance such as rice, also have a beneficial impact on environmental health and sustainable agriculture, though this would have little affect on animal welfare and rights. According to Cornell scientists, "the heavy dependence on fossil energy suggests that the US food system, whether meat-based or plant-based, is not sustainable."

Some environmental activists point out, adopting a vegetarian diet may be a way of focusing on personal actions and righteous gestures rather than systemic change. Dave Riley, an Australian environmentalist, echoes the views of some non-vegetarian environmentalists when he states that "being meatless and guiltless seems seductively simple while environmental destruction rages around us," noting that animals can contribute to the food chain. "For instance, yams, which keep poorly, are stored inside pigs, and today's rotting apples attracting fruit fly are tomorrow's bacon,". However, people who are meatless often do not ignore the environmental destruction that rages around them; environmental vegetarianism is how some people incorporate green living into their daily and dietary lives, which does not exclude them or anyone else from engaging in a range of other activities to protect, repair, sustain, and enhance the environment.

Some argue that the adoption of a lacto-ovo vegetarian or entirely plant-based vegan diet is best, but may not be totally necessary, because even modest reductions in meat consumption in industrialised societies would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources. "One personal act that can have a profound impact on these issues is reducing meat consumption. To produce 1 pound of feedlot beef requires about 2,400 gallons of water and 7 pounds of grain . Considering that the average American consumes 97 pounds of beef (and 273 pounds of meat in all) each year, even modest reductions in meat consumption in such a culture would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources."

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