Reprinted from The Rant (October 2002)
When vegan diets are discussed, the environmental impacts of meat and dairy production are often overlooked. Environmental concerns are generally at the periphery of an argument crafted on the basis of animal rights. While the argument for animal rights fits nicely within a critique of a capitalist system that reduces both human and non-human life to commodities that can be bought and sold in the market, it is often difficult for people to understand the somewhat abstract concept of animal rights. Few people see anything inherently wrong with raising animals for food or using them as research subjects, and thus many arguments in favor of vegan diets on the basis of animal rights are presented in a rather elitist manner where activists criticize those that are complicit with the mechanized slaughter millions of animals each year.
As the world population grows, food production and distribution is going to be an issue that affects everyone. Both governmental institutions and mainstream non-governmental organizations have recognized that one of the defining issues in this century is going to be the Earths ability to sustain a rapidly growing population. Population growth is going to put an unprecedented demand on the food resources and current production will not meet demand. Moreover, the growing world population is not content with mere survival, rather through the cultural influence of American-style capitalism, many people want to increase their consumption to the levels of the United States. Clearly, a planet with finite resources cannot sustain consumption of resources on the level of Americans and it is estimated that an additional two Earths would be need to sustain consumption at such a level. Multinational corporations have claimed that their technology, especially genetically modified food, will be able to overcome these issues of demand by dramatically increasing production. However the major bio-technology corporations have been resistant to giving their genetically modified seeds away for the benefit of humanity, rather they continue to charge exorbitant royalties and seek stringent copyright protections in global trade agreements. As a result, poor nations will be forced further into debt, if they are even able to purchase the technology. There are also legitimate concerns about the environmental and health consequences of genetically modified food with many nations having banned it for these reasons.
While a massive reorientation of industry from profit-based to need-based production is needed to reverse some of these patterns, changes in diet would have a major impact. The production of meat and diary is ecologically devastating. Fifty-six percent of agricultural land is used to produce beef and 260 million acres of forest have been clear-cut to support Americas meat consumption. Clear-cutting of rain forests is largely undertaken for the purpose of raising cattle, with much of the meat going to the United States. While urban sprawl is often cited as a major factor in the destruction of forested areas, for every acre of land clear-cut for this purpose seven are clear-cut for raising livestock. The industrial farming practices that now dominate the dairy and meat industries generate massive amounts of pollution in the form of animal waste with the average dairy cow producing one-hundred-and-twenty pounds of wet manure per day. In addition to the problem of disposal, manure contaminates water supplies around the world.
Topsoil loss also results from the meat-based agriculture with 85% of US topsoil lost directly as a result of livestock farming. Already 75% of the topsoil has been lost in the US and meat consumption perpetuates a system that causes more topsoil loss.
Furthermore, meat production is wasteful and is neither sustainable nor intelligent use of land. Ninety percent of the protein in grain is wasted by cycling it through livestock while one hundred percent of dietary fiber is wasted. Even the production of the least efficient plants is ten times more energy efficient than the most efficient animal-based foods. With the amount of land needed to feed one person eating a meat-based diet, twenty people eating a vegan diet could be fed. Eighty percent of the corn and ninety-five percent grown in the United States is eaten by livestock, food that could sustain many more humans. Much of the food that could go to feed other people is used feeding animals that require five to ten times more plant food than humans do. Land would be more effectively utilized if production were directed towards plant-based diets, with one acre of land producing one-hundred-and-sixty-five pounds of beef while that same acre could grow twenty thousand pounds of potatoes.
In a society where large corporations have a disproportionate influence on policy compared to individuals in politics, it is the responsibility of individuals concerned with the environment to act individually and collectively to improve the current situation. Corporations are not going to change existing food production policies on their own and indeed the only way they will ever change is if are citizens movements to hold them accountable. People need to realize that individual dietary choices are responsible for environmental destruction from meat and dairy product, just as choosing to drive a car contributes to wars for oil. While this article has focused on veganism, it is certainly hard for many people to maintain a vegan diet, especially in this area and within the financial constraints of a typical college student. For those who are unable to go vegan, vegetarian diets have ecological and health benefits. If US citizens collectively reduced their consumption of meat by ten percent, sixty million people could be fed with the grain that would be saved. The decision to eat meat involves more than personal preference, it is not about whether or not you like hamburgersit is ultimately about the sustainability of life on the planet.