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The Environmental Crisis: Walking Softly on the Earth

There are profound environmental consequences to a world that contains 22 billion farm animals, which is more than three times the human population. Farm animals require an enormous amount of feed, fresh water, medicine, and fossil fuel. They produce greenhouse gases, emit water pollutants from their wastes, and require ever-more living space, resulting in ecological destruction.

Put a Veggie Burger in Your Tank

Consider fossil fuels. Many people are surprised to learn that walking actually uses more gasoline than driving! That's right, walking actually uses more fossil fuel than driving. That is, unless you happen to be a vegetarian.

The reason behind this startling fact is that the average American diet is so meat laden, and meat is so wasteful of fossil fuel. Professor David Pimentel explains, "It is actually quite astounding how much energy is wasted by the standard American-style diet! This is because the energy needed to produce the food you would burn in walking a given distance is greater than the energy needed to fuel your car to travel the same distance, assuming that the car gets 24 miles per gallon."

Agriculture uses 17 percent of all the fossil fuel in the United States, with meat production responsible for the majority of that portion. Since fossil fuel is not a renewable resource, good environmental practice would suggest cutting its use to a minimum. Just as some people make their transportation choices with fossil fuel conservation in mind, many people are also making their food choices with fossil fuel conservation as a priority.

Consider how all that fossil fuel is used in farm animal agriculture. Large quantities of fossil fuel are used in the production of fertilizers and the fueling of irrigation pumps. Fossil fuels are also used in the production of pesticides and herbicides. And of course fossil fuels are used to run the farm machinery needed to apply the fertilizers and pesticides and to plant and harvest the crops. Now consider that once the crops are harvested, two-thirds of them are transported with vehicles powered by fossil fuels so they can be fed to farm animals. The animals are eventually trucked to slaughterhouses, and then their flesh is stored in refrigerators and freezers, often for an extended time. All this takes even more fossil fuel.

The same thing is true of calories. Getting calories from animal-derived foods is very inefficient compared to plant foods. Statistical data shows that if you compare corn and beef, for instance, corn gives 60 times more food energy than beef per calorie of fossil fuel used in production.

With all this in mind, you can see that the difference in fuel efficiency between producing vegetarian food and animal-derived products is quite large. This difference in efficiency translates to the substantial reduction in the amount of fossil fuel used in a vegetarian diet.

Something Smells

How can it be put politely? A big part of the environmental problem caused by raising animals can be summed up in two words: feces and urine. All of that food and water fed to farm animals is excreted sooner or later, and it isn't a pretty sight.

There are 9 billion farm animals in the United States, and 22 billion worldwide, which creates a rather large pile of poop. In total, 130 times more animal waste than human waste is produced each year. In 1997, poultry, swine, beef, and dairy facilities produced a total of 291 billion pounds of waste.

Some of this waste can be used as fertilizer, but a lot is just stockpiled. Look out when it rains! Much of that poop winds up in our rivers and streams untreated and is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the United States. It often results in massive fish kills. For instance, in 1995 in Nebraska, 50 percent of all agriculture-related fish kills investigated were due to livestock waste. In 1996, that percentage rose to 75 percent. In 1997 and 1998, 100 percent of agriculture-related fish kills were traced to livestock waste.

Anyone who has worked with farm animals knows that they "go" when they want and where they want. No one has ever potty trained them. Often the urine and feces are collected and stored in animal waste lagoons. In 1995, in North Carolina, one of these lagoons gave way and spilled 95 million liters of pig waste into the surrounding countryside and rivers. A few weeks later, another lagoon spilled 34 million liters of chicken waste into a North Carolina waterway. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents.

Farm animal waste can also get in our drinking water and raise nitrate levels, creating a serious public health threat. High nitrate levels near large farm animal operations have been linked to miscarriages and cancer. The problem may be widespread. For instance, during the 1990s, in one of the chicken-producing sections of Maryland, one-third of the homes had nitrate levels in their wells above safe levels established by the government.

In addition to polluting the waterways and drinking water, there's a problem with all that poop that should not be overlooked: the smell! In addition to the noxious odors of animal feces, the urine from farm animals creates an ammonia-like smell. Clearly there are quality of life issues for anyone within smelling range.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, also generates a lot of waste. Daniel Pauly, professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has this to say about aquaculture, "They're like floating pig farms . . . . They consume a tremendous amount of highly concentrated protein pellets, and they make a terrific mess." Fish wastes and uneaten feed smother the sea floor beneath these farms, generating bacteria that consume oxygen vital to shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Disease and parasites, which would normally exist in relatively low levels in fish scattered around the oceans, can run rampant in densely packed fish farms.

The problems of animal wastes are a natural consequence of raising so many animals for food. The volume produced is so large that it is straining the environment and building to the point where future catastrophes are inevitable.

It's Getting Hot in Here!

Another problem associated with animal agriculture is the production of greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat in the earth's atmosphere and contribute to warming up the planet. Global warming is currently the focus of intense concern by environmental scientists.

According to a recent report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than the transportation industry. (Note: Some greenhouse gases are more powerful than others. For example, methane is 21 times more effective than carbon dioxide at heating the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions are often calculated in terms of how much CO2 would be needed to produce a similar warming effect. This is called "CO2 equivalent.") That's more emissions than all the cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes put together. Remember that the production of food from animals uses most of the fossil fuel in American agriculture. When fossil fuel is burned, carbon dioxide is emitted. Carbon dioxide is a familiar greenhouse gas, but there are other greenhouse gases as well. Methane is important because it is more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane is produced in the animal waste lagoons mentioned earlier in this chapter. It is also produced in the stomachs and intestines of farm animals. As you can see in Table 6.3, livestock and manure constitute a significant portion of methane emissions. Equally important are nitrogen oxides, which also come from animal wastes.

A switch to a vegetarian diet would reduce greenhouse emissions by 3,267 pounds per person per year. Now consider that there are 300 million Americans. If we all went vegetarian, we would reduce American greenhouse emissions by about 980 billion pounds per year! 

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

It doesn't take man long to use up a continent. - Robert Frost
Consider the effect that raising meat has on some of the world's ecosystems. Soil erosion is a significant ecological concern. One measure of a country's wealth is the quality and quantity of its soil, since this determines agricultural output. Soil doesn't appear overnight. It typically takes about 250 years to produce one inch of farm soil. With this in mind, the importance of soil conservation becomes clear.

Unfortunately, raising cattle is the primary cause of soil erosion in the United States today; livestock grazing accounts for 85 percent of topsoil loss. Obviously, this has serious implications for American agriculture.

Many people are concerned about the growth of the world's deserts. It is important to recognize that the most significant cause of desertification in dry and semidry regions is overgrazing by too many livestock. According to the Council on Environmental Quality, overgrazing has been the most potent force behind desertification, in terms of the total acreage affected, within the United States. Not only an American problem, desertification is being experienced in places like China, where the Gobi Desert is overtaking what was once productive agricultural land, and in sub-Saharan Africa, where desertification is a major factor in famine.

There has been a catastrophic clearing of the Amazonian and Central American rain forests which has largely been done to create grazing land so that cattle can be raised for export, primarily to European markets. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, beef exports have accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The total area destroyed increased from 102.5 million acres in 1990 to 145 million acres in 2000. In only 10 years, an area twice the size of Portugal was destroyed, almost all of it to clear pasture for cattle. David Kaimowitz, Director of the Center for International Forestry Research, says, "Cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil's rain forests."

The rain forest is home to a large number of animals and plants, including many rare and endangered species that are being destroyed by cattle ranching. Almost as bad is the fact that tropical rain forest land cleared for pasture is very susceptible to soil erosion, given the special nature of rain forest soil and the special climate in tropical regions. Switching to a vegetarian diet would go a long way in helping to preserve tropical rain forests.

Your Environmental Footprint

Food is more than just a meal; it is a major industrial endeavor of mankind. Raising animals for food wastes water, grain, and oil, and causes massive ecological destruction, just to produce a product that is much less nutritious than vegetarian alternatives.

We all walk on the earth and can't help but leave a footprint. Following a vegetarian diet is a way of walking more softly on the earth. Leaving a smaller footprint not only sustains the environment right now, it helps preserve it for future generations. As I often say, "Walk softly and carry a big black bean burrito!"

Excerpt from The Vegetarian Solution: Your Answer to Heart Disease, Cancer, Global Warming, and More by Stewart Rose. Stewart is the Vice President of Vegetarians of Washington and he produces the annual Seattle Vegfest, the largest vegetarian food festival in the US. Stewart talks about a wide range of topics concerning vegetarianism and veganism.