Vegetarian Diets Might Not Be Quite as “Green”

I’ve come to admire the vegetarians and vegans that have some unshakable belief that their diet can cause a better change. As a vegetarian myself, I’ve realized that on those hard days when the only thing we crave is a piece of bacon, our best ally is our own motive. Some people are vegetarians because their health demands it. That requires willpower and therefore is highly commendable. Furthermore, as Lierre Keith said, “everything they say about factory farming is true: It is cruel, wasteful and destructive” (31), which in turn gives more reasons to set aside meat and advocate animal rights. Even animals deserve at least some level of respect. However, I’ve come across a different reason to be a vegetarian: to benefit the environment.

While I was browsing through ChooseVeg.com, there was a tab that gave these beautiful percentages about the environmental impact of a meat-based diet. There was a realization there: people can also be vegetarians because they want to benefit the environment. The facts ChooseVeg.com gave were so straightforward and utterly alarming that I find it hard to believe that any person who cares about the environment wouldn’t at least consider becoming a vegetarian.

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Image Credit: ChooseVeg.org
Image Credit: ChooseVeg.org
Image Credit: ChooseVeg.org

These facts are just so pretty it’s almost unbelievable. Can a vegan/vegetarian diet really have a positive effect in our planet? Can it really reduce environmental harm? I mean, compared to health reasons and animal rights, that vegetarian and vegan diets are “greener” seems a bit of a stretch to me. In addition, these facts are served on a silver platter. It’s like the data has been completely chewed and now I’m just expected to swallow. As professor Ph.D. William Jarvis so eloquently put it: “Although the arguments in favor of it appear compelling, I have learned to be suspicious, and to search for hidden agendas, when I evaluate claims of the benefits of vegetarianism” (57). In my opinion, being a vegetarian because it will help the environment is not really the best way to go about it. I do not even think that vegetarian diets are good for the environment overall. And it’s my goal for this post to make these vegetarians reconsider why they’re vegetarians.

Some people advocate meat consumption is a direct cause to global warming and human-caused environmental tragedies. So if less meat means better wouldn’t any meat at all be great? Katie Engelhart asserts, “livestock accounts for 18 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gases, more than those emitted by all forms of transportation combined, and is a leading cause of deforestation and water pollution” (57). In addition, ChooseVeg.org said on their website that 70% of the grain we grow is to feed animals instead of ourselves. Altogether, meat consumption, ecosystem damage, and greenhouse gas production are so clearly linked that it’s alarming. So a meat-free world could be just what this planet needs.

However, there are others that argue the opposite such as Bob Holmes, Lierre Keith and Tamar Haspel. Agriculture has a given negative effect on the environment (land is cleared up and entire ecosystems are destroyed just to cultivate food), which is undoubtedly amplified by feeding grain to the animals meant for slaughter. Even so, according to these authors, a plant-based diet wouldn’t make much difference since people still need to eat; fruits, vegetables and grains have to be grown somewhere. Due to this, they believe that a vegetarian diet is not the solution for our current environmental problems. In fact, they also introduce the “hidden costs” that a world without meat would entail, such as the question of insufficient and infertile lands for cultivation and how costly vegetables really are, in terms of methane emissions.

In “The Truth about Vegetarianism”, Lierre Keith, an American author, a radical environmentalist, and a food activist, blames factory farming and the industry’s dependence on grain to feed the animals meant for slaughter. It is extensively used to fatten cattle faster even though “you can feed grain to animals, but it is not the diet for which they were designed” (Keith 31). In other words, there’s a waste of food and resources on something that cows, pigs and chicken do not even need! Keith also expresses the need to take note of where that grain came from. It had to be grown somewhere; some large plot of fertile land had to be emptied, cleaned and cultivated to produce tons of grain to feed slaughter animals, which, again, they don’t even need. Bob Holmes wrote on his article “What’s The Beef With Meat?” that “as little as 10 per cent of that grain gets converted into meat, milk or eggs, so livestock amplify the environmental impact of farming by forcing us to grow more grain than we would otherwise need” (29). He says 10%; ChooseVeg.org says 70%. The point is: even 10% is not a small amount. This simply means that livestock, indeed, is harmful to the environment. At least in terms of grain usage and efficiency, omnivore diets are worse than vegetarian diets.

Not surprisingly, farming does have an environmental mark and its ecological impact is huge; “all agriculture damages the environment […] produces more greenhouse gases than all methods of transport put together, and contributes to a host of other problems, from nitrogen pollution to soil erosion” (Holmes 28). So while tons of grains are being produced, in expense of arable land, not a small percentage is being used to feed animals. There’s also the issue of insufficient land for cultivating. Rocky terrains and arid landscapes are not suited for agriculture; “and not just mountaintops in far distant Nepal, but close by in, say, New England. […] The logic of the land tells us to eat the animals that can eat the tough cellulose that survives here” (Keith 32). It’s a cycle that humans can take advantage of. To raise livestock on these unusable lands basically enables a process in which the cow feeds not only humans but the environment as well: its manure feeds the soil, plants, and insects and helps the land stay diverse.

Remarkably, animals don’t require grain to survive; “for most of human history, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on land that wasn’t suitable for ploughing, and in doing so they converted inedible grass into edible meat and milk. […] Moreover, for semi-arid or hilly land, modest levels of grazing may cause much less ecological damage than growing crops” (Holmes 29). Therefore, by feeding grain to livestock, we’ve wasted food resources that should’ve been meant for us and we’ve worked the land inefficiently.

The solution is, for lack of better words, straightforward. Not simple, per se, but it’s clear what has got to be done: stop feeding grain. It is a commodity meat industries have heavily relied on because it speeds up animal growth. So the change may prove to be really difficult and there are a lot of uncertainties. For example, what if the pasture grass isn’t enough? Holmes suggests “another alternative, though: […] returning animals to their original role as waste-disposal units, eating food leftovers and grazing on land not suitable for crops” (31). We know pigs will eat just about anything, chickens following close behind so, “fed in this way, livestock represent a net gain of calories and protein in the human diet while dealing with some of the estimated 30 to 50 per cent of food that goes to waste” (Holmes 29).

Furthermore, there’s also the issue of greenhouse gasses, which are byproducts of livestock’s digestive systems. This is a real concern, something that Katie Engelhart goes over often in her article “Save The Planet Stop Eating Meat”. She said, “the vegan diet is a more effective way of curbing climate change than driving a hybrid car” (56) and “that forgoing red meat for veggies just a day a week would save 1,860 km of driving a year” (56). Overall, her main point falls back on the greenhouse gas emissions problem and the fact that livestock produces a lot of methane, which is not good for the atmosphere.

Just to spice things up with similar data from an opposing source, according to Tamar Haspal, “one cow’s annual output of methane — about 100 kilograms — is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline”(1). And let’s not forget to mention that methane has over four times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon (1). In addition, “it takes six pounds of feed to make one pound of beef, but only 3.5 pounds for pork and two pounds for chicken” (1) so it’s quite striking how not eco-friendly cows are. Therefore, it is safe to say that Egelhart has a point.

However, we are looking this as an emissions-per-kilogram scale, as opposed to a much more realistic emissions-per-calorie scale. In other words, “if you stop eating beef, you can’t replace a kilogram of it, which has 2,280 calories, with a kilogram of broccoli, at 340 calories. You have to replace it with 6.7 kilograms of broccoli” (Haspel 2). That’s quite the food for thought, if you ask me. Just how much arable land will have to be used to cultivate 6.7 kg of broccoli for every single person? A lot.

Image Credit: Washington Post Website “When a food’s carbon footprint is measured in terms of weight — how many kilograms of greenhouse gases are generated to produce every kilogram of the food — vegetables and legumes look good. But when the focus is changed to measure climate impact by calorie, some results are quite different; tomatoes, broccoli and cheese are reordered most significantly.” (Haspel 3)
Image Credit: Washington Post Website
“When a food’s carbon footprint is measured in terms of weight — how many kilograms of greenhouse gases are generated to produce every kilogram of the food — vegetables and legumes look good. But when the focus is changed to measure climate impact by calorie, some results are quite different; tomatoes, broccoli and cheese are reordered most significantly.” (Haspel 3)

Looking at the chart above, things certainly look different. Although beef and lamb still look bad in terms of emissions-per-calorie, pork and chicken are doing so much better. So maybe, eating meat isn’t so bad for the planet, if it’s pork and chicken. As Haspel further adds, whether or not vegetarianism is kinder to the planet wholly depends on considering the animals that aren’t on the Environmental Working Group’s chart: “deer and Canada geese do active damage in the areas where they’re overpopulated, and wild pigs leave destruction in their path wherever they go” (2). So maybe vegetarianism is biased to animals that are completely regulated by the meat industry.

Just considering the issue of grain will lead us to assume that vegetarian diets can be better for the environment. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re better overall or that meat-based diets do not harm the ecosystem. I agree that there are a lot of things that are not efficiently done, and vegetarian and omnivore diets are equally responsible for the environmental harm caused by agriculture. They’re both too dependent on it.

It’s obvious there is no set solution. It’s going to be near impossible to keep this planet intact; we are obviously going to leave a mark, whether we want to or not, we are going to somehow harm the environment and disturb the ecosystem. But I believe we can work with that, we can make changes to our current livestock system: feed them less grain, if not none. Yes, this will most definitely reduce the amount of meat available; grain is given so the animals grow faster so there’s more meat readily available at our disposal. If we take away grain, cattle won’t grow as fast. Therefore, we are going to have less meat. Prices will definitely go up. Other social issues will arise; it’s to be expected. But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I acknowledge “it is ample consumption of fruits and vegetables, not the exclusion of meat, that makes vegetarianism healthful” (Jarvis 57). In other words, even though I am a vegetarian, eating meat is not a bad thing and I condone those that prefer meat-based diets.

In conclusion, vegetarian diets also have their negative impacts on the environment, “think of all those felled forests and ploughed-up prairies, all the irrigation water, manure, tractor fuel, pesticides and fertilizer” (Holmes 28). Just because you eat more fruits, grains and vegetables, it doesn’t make your diet more sustainable or eco-friendly. And the same can be said with meat-based diets. One cannot ignore the methane emissions of cows and the fact that grain is used to feed the population’s demand of daily meat. Just like Tamar Haspel, I am strongly convinced that “animal welfare is important, and my take on meat is that we should eat less of it, pay more for it, use all of it, and know where it’s from” (4). I definitely do not advocate for or against vegetarian diets, but my take on this is to give new perspectives; reasons to be a vegetarian are vast, but if it’s for the environmental benefit, then it’s never too late to find another reason to be a vegetarian.

Works Cited:

“Get Ready to Save the World.” ChooseVeg.com. MercyForAnimals.org, n.d. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.chooseveg.com/environment>.

Engelhart, Katie, and Nicholas Köhler. “Save The Planet Stop Eating Meat.” Maclean’s 123.11/12 (2010): 56-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=48748688&site=ehost-live>.

Haspel, Tamar. “Vegetarian or Omnivore: The Environmental Implications of Diet.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/vegetarian-or-omnivore-the-environmental-implications-of-diet/2014/03/10/648fdbe8-a495-11e3-a5fa-55f0c77bf39c_story.html>.

Holmes, Bob. “What’s The Beef With Meat? (Cover Story).” New Scientist 207.2769 (2010): 28-31. Academic Search Alumni Edition. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a2h&AN=56473451&site=ehost-live>.

Jarvis, William T. “Why I Am Not A Vegetarian.” Nutrition & Health Forum 13.6 (1996): 57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9709121898&site=ehost-live>.

Keith, Lierre. “The Truth About Vegetarianism.” Mother Earth News 240 (2010): 30-35. Academic Search Alumni Edition. Web. 12 May 2015. <http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a2h&AN=51192742&site=ehost-live>.