Environmental Reasons to be Vegetarian
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With the obvious exception of humans, it's odd to think that any animal could seriously damage the environment. Beef cows, however, are giving it a go, and apparently they've been successful. Conservationists now refer to the animals as "hoofed locusts," and not only because they trample, pollute, and destroy all land they graze. Studies also show that cows play significant roles in deforestation, soil erosion, water scarcity, global warming, depletion of fossil fuels, and loss of biodiversity. Odd as it may sound, the environmental impact of the cow is perhaps even more calamitous than the automobile.

Of course, the problem is not really with the cows, but with eating them. Every time you swallow a piece of beef, you consume both food and natural resources twice. The same land, labor, water, and fuel used to raise, slaughter, package, and transport livestock is also needed to grow and harvest feed grain. And this double use of resources leads to a seemly preposterous statistic: while the average vegetarian consumes between 300 and 400 pounds of grain per year, the average meat-eater consumes over 2000. Of course, eighty percent of the meat eater's total is first digested by cows, pigs, and chickens. Needless to say, this process is both and extravagant and inefficient.

Given the above, anyone environmentally conscious enough to recycle should also consider reducing his or her meat consumption. Doing so is arguably more beneficial to the environment, and, in many ways, easier. While it's no picnic sorting and recycling trash, not eating beef requires little or no work at all. You only have to pick something else on the menu.

Finally, here's a modest proposal. Why not cut beef production in half and convert the cattle ranches of America's tornado alley into wind farms? Given the growing scarcity of fossil fuels, surely the plan holds enough economic potential to offset resulting job losses in the cattle industry. Until that happens, though, here are a few facts to consider about the environmental impact of the beef industry.

  • Nearly half of the total amount of water used annually in the U.S. goes to grow feed and provide drinking water for cattle and livestock.
  • In the US, 33% of all raw material consumption is used solely in the production of meat, egg, and dairy products.
  • The annual beef consumption of an average American family of four requires more than 260 gallons of fuel. The result is 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, or about as much as the average car over a six month period.
  • According to some estimates, supplying the entire world with a western, meat-centered diet would deplete the planet's oil reserves within ten years.
  • Cattle produce nearly 1 billion tons of organic waste each year. The average beef cow produces more than 47 pounds of manure every 24 hours.
  • From 1995 to 1997, more than forty animal waste spills killed some 10.6 million fish.
  • 85% of topsoil loss in the US is the result of livestock production, with each pound of steak resulting in 35 pounds of eroded US topsoil.
  • 260 million acres of US forests have been cleared for cropland to produce grain for livestock.
  • From 1960-1985 40% of the Central American rainforests were destroyed to create gazing land for cattle.
  • According to the US General Accounting Office, more plant species in the United States have been eliminated or threatened by livestock grazing than by any other cause.
  • In an effort to combat "nuisance" animals preying on livestock, in 1989 the US Department of Agriculture killed 86,502 coyotes, 7,158 foxes, 1,220 bobcats, 236 black bears, and 80 wolves. Four hundred pet dogs were inadvertently killed in the process.
  • Cows produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, three gases largely responsible for global warming. Through daily belching and flatulence, cows emit over twelve percent of the total methane released into the atmosphere per year.