There is a rising demand for food as the human population continues to grow; however, feeding so many people requires resources and transportation that often harm our land, water and air. Although it’s not possible to feed so many people and entirely eliminate the damage we do to the environment, we can reduce the harm we cause by switching to a vegetarian diet.
All food requires water, land and food of its own. However, meat uses more of these resources than plants do. Livestock like cattle, chickens and sheep are fed with grass, grains or feed, all of which require their own production. In the Amazon alone, 80 percent of soybeans farmed in the region are made into cattle feed. This requires more land than what the cattle take up by themselves. According to AgProfessional Magazine, it also takes more water because soy requires 3,738 gallons of water per bushel to produce. This adds up, so by the time a pound of beef finds its way to a grocery store, it has used roughly 1,800 gallons of water.
Even if all cattle were grass-fed, they require too much land to be sustainable. As it is now, ranchers clear vital forested ecosystems to make room for livestock. According to Greenpeace, 80 percent of deforested land in the Amazon has been covered by cattle farms. Already a threatened ecosystem because of logging and fires, the Amazon is also being destroyed to feed our population’s need for meat.
Animal farming is also harmful to our water sources. When agricultural runoff gets into bodies of water, the excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus create ‘dead zones’ where fish and plant life cannot exist. These dead zones are created when nitrogen and phosphorus, which typically feed cyanobacteria and algae, grow out of control and consume all the oxygen in the water when they die and are decomposed by bacteria. The increasing amount of livestock has led to more and more dead zones along the ocean coast which has threatened vital species and sometimes severely damaged aquatic ecosystems.
Animal farming also significantly affects our atmosphere. Timereports, “Livestock alone account for more than 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.” This is due in part to methane being released from decaying manure. Although methane does not stay in our atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it absorbs heat twenty-eight times faster and is therefore very dangerous when it is continually released from animal agriculture. Carbon dioxide is also produced from animal farming because livestock have to be transported from ranches to slaughterhouses, to factories, to grocery stores and, finally, to your plate.
Although plants require transportation as well, they don’t require as much transportation as meat, and don’t emit methane. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that animal protein requires more than ten times the fossil fuel than plant protein. Oxford Martin School researchers predict that if the world lived on a vegetarian diet, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 63 percent.
Switching to a vegetarian diet would do a lot to help the environment, but the economy would be severely impacted if meat consumption died down. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association reported that there are more than 700,000 cattle farms and ranches in the United States. This does not include the ranches producing other livestock or farms that make money producing feed. If people were to change over to vegetarian diets, these jobs would be put in danger. Although this is a possibility, it is a necessary consequence of trying to live more sustainably. People can alter their jobs, but we cannot fix our environment as easily.
Even though that burger looks good, it did a lot of damage to the planet to even exist. Convert to a vegetarian diet if you want to help limit the resources humans use, prevent the increase of greenhouse gasses and save ecosystems around the world.