Opinion: One Vegetarian Makes the Environmental Case Against Meat

Ms. Natalie Casson

The well being of our environment has been rapidly decreasing in the past decade, and likely global climates will be unable to handle more change.  We all know turning lights off and driving cars less helps our planet, yet almost every person is harming the environment dramatically on a daily basis: during our meals.  It was recorded in an article by the National Public Radio that in 2012, in America, we consumed over 52.2 billion pounds of meat.  That number feels almost too big to grasp, so let’s put it into perspective.  Let’s compare it to wheatone of the most fundamental crops in our world today.  Your average American citizen will consume around 132.5 pounds of wheat annually.  With 318.9 billion US citizens, we are consuming over 42.2 billion pounds of wheat a year.  10 billion pounds short of our meat consumption.

When I found this out, I was astonished.  Animals take up space, produce waste, and require huge amounts of food, chemicals, and water.  In 1909, it was recorded in the same article that around 9.8 billion pounds of meat were consumed: 42.4 billion pounds less than today.  Despite the population being lower, the proportions still don’t add up.  The meat consumption within the US has been growing exponentially and is continuing to do so.

Meat, pound per pound, has a much larger impact on our environment than any other food we consume.  The most unfortunate part of it all is many people, including myself before I began research, are not aware that what they eat affects the environment.  Often times people don’t jump to food when they think about the contributors to climate change and pollution; however, it has an incredibly large impact in many different ways.  In being conscious when choosing what we eat, we can reduce our carbon footprints and our effect on the environment.

So how exactly is our growing meat consumption affecting our environment?  For starters, our greenhouse gas emissions are significantly affected.  Domestic livestock produce incredible amounts of manure and waste.  According to the environmental protection agency, methane (a greenhouse gas with 60 times the impact on climate change compared to carbon dioxide), is released naturally with their digestion. So increase in numbers of domestic livestock increase methane emissions and pollution.  

Animals also require grazing space and huge amounts of vegetation for feed.  87% of agricultural land is used to raise animal for food.  We have to clear more and more land to keep up with our meat consumption in turn harming ecosystems, and in turn we are destroying more and more essential ecosystems and habitats for species.  

Also, according to the national institute of health, excessive meat consumption—especially red meat— have effects on health.  Previous studies have linked red meat to an increased risk in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Meat overall can affect you personally, and affect our world globally.  

According to CVU environmental science teacher Rick Imes, runoff from fields can also have a huge impact on ecosystems in lakes and rivers.  He stated that “cow manure is rich in nutrients (which is why it is often used as a fertilizer for plants), and runoff containing it can overload waterways with nutrients.  Nutrients are considered to be a good thing in general, but this can be too much of a good thing, triggering an explosive growth spurt of photosynthetic organisms like algae, outpacing the ability of consumers who would otherwise eat a lot of it.  When the algae mature and die off at once, decomposers will go to work, but all that decomposition requires oxygen, potentially leaving a shortage of dissolved oxygen in the water for other aquatic organisms like fish.”  Thus our increase in agriculture hurts the delicate ecosystems in the water as well as those destroyed for land usage and grazing.  

Now I’m not saying everyone has to become a vegetarian or the world is doomed.  If you enjoy meat substitutes such as tempeh, tofu, or seitan, then changing to those as often as possible could definitely be beneficial; however, the reality is that not many people are too eager to jump on the fake meat train.  Yet their are still small changes you can try to make that can help reduce the impact of meat production.  Many people have embraced the idea of making meat consumption as something that is not necessarily daily.  For example, the CVU cafeteria  has even embraced this idea with the concept of ‘Meatless Monday’.  

Other positive changes could be buying local meats.  When buying local, a person can reduce the carbon emissions needed to fuel the trucks importing your meat; nonetheless, according to the environmental working group, when you buy local vegetables versus local meat the impact in reducing carbon emissions is still more significant with plants.  Thus buying food locally is generally a good idea despite the type of food you are purchasing.  When asked about what kinds of diets are healthier for the environment, Mr. Imes concluded that “A plant-based diet is much more sustainable than a diet including meat, simply because animals are not very efficient at transforming the food they eat (and the energy it contains) into meat.  In fact, they are only about 10% efficient, meaning that it takes about ten pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.  A lot more energy and nutrients could be had from that ten pounds of grain than from one pound of meat.”  He also noted that if one is to eat meat, the best way to do so is to always choose to buy local meats when possible.

You could also try to limit your meat intake by even the slightest bit, and switch to a plant based protein.  For example, foods like legumes, tofu, seitan, tempeh, or quinoa can all be adequate in getting the protein you need to sustain your body without having as harsh an effect on the environment.  Even if you cut out meat a meal or two a week, you can make a significant difference.  

Today, we face so much contradiction in our lives.  There’s no doubt that the growing consumption of meat has become ingrained in the American way of life, however we live in a world facing the imminent  effects of climate change.  Can we find a balance?  Can we continue going down this route to a carnivorous lifestyle?  Since meat has such enormous impacts on our globe, we have to strike a balance.  By simply limiting our intake by the slightest bit or by changing where we purchase our food, we can help reduce the environmental impacts of what we eat.