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A New Convert for New Reasons

For 35 years I have heard arguments in favour of vegetarianism and a vegan diet yet all have fallen on deaf ears. Although I can appreciate why any one of the usual reasons may be enough to motivate someone to eschew meat consumption, they never worked on me.

The common braai grill; about to become less common amongst the environmentally conscious? - photo courtesy of Johnny Greig: www.JohnnyGreig.com

I may, in the past, have occasionally had doubts about the wisdom of consuming flesh when stripping bare a barbecue rib or chewing through some particularly tough beef. Yet such thoughts were always banished to the back of my mind as I swam with the current, in the belief that eating meat was natural, harmless and indeed, necessary.

Recently however, upon discovering the details of the environmental impacts of large-scale, industrial meat production, that has all changed. It has been 6 months since I last ate meat. Milk and butter are also out. I simply recount my own personal experience. I do not claim to be the most active environmental crusader, nor would I expect 100% vegans to agree with all of my opinions.

Importantly, I believe that the vegan and vegetarian movement is on the cusp of a new phase, where the numbers of people deciding to avoid meat and animal products could be about to rocket.

After all, if an omnivorous Irishman, no great lover of animals (and indeed from cattle farming stock) can be converted, then millions more can ...

My Meaty Discovery

Recently I was sitting at my computer and looking for some quick fix entertainment from You Tube. For some reason, while thinking what to search for, thoughts of meat came into my mind and I began to watch some clips on the issues. This piqued my interest and soon I found myself on some of the more high-profile websites that advocate the avoidance of meat.

I skim read some of the old arguments that I had heard so many times before, but then was jolted to attention by a summary of environmental reasons to go vegetarian.

Being naturally wary of statistics I could not at first vouch for the accuracy of the stats I came across and repeat below. However, it only takes a moment to recognise the credibility of the sources and to convince me of my responsibility to take action. Some of them I had to read twice to fully appreciate their impact:

  • The sheer quantity of greenhouse gas: The meat industry contributes 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is 40% more than all forms of transport combined (every car, truck, boat and plane on the planet).
  • Global warming: Methane emissions cause half the planet's human-induced warming; and the number one source worldwide is animal agriculture.
  • Waste of land: Worldwide, livestock currently uses approximately 70% of all available agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the entire planet.
  • Your diet and water wastage: A totally vegetarian diet requires only 300 gallons of water per day to produce, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water per day. You save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you do by not showering for an entire year.
  • Catalogue of damage, disaster and waste: Mass agriculture of the type the world currently practices contributes on a massive scale to deforestation, air and water pollution, land degradation, land slides, loss of topsoil, climate change, the overuse of resources including oil and water, and loss of bio-diversity.

See the Appendix below for some more interesting and little known statistics.

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Why is this News Not Known to Everyone?

Should this not be on the news? How come I did not know any of this before? Why wasn't it included in some of the movie documentaries that have reached mass audiences such as Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' or Leonardo Di Caprio's '11th Hour'? I consider myself a reasonably well-informed individual. How come I did not know this stuff?

The production of meat takes 11 times as much energy as it does to produce te same amount of grain - photo courtesy of Johnny Greig: www.JohnnyGreig.com

Clearly agriculture is big business and while we earthlings continue to worship the Economy Uber alles (a central point in The 11th Hour), the power and influence of these colossal corporations will continue to hold sway. So is this information simply suppressed?

Well, while it may be in the public domain, it is certainly not publicised. It isn't reaching the public.

However, perhaps it is more a symptom of the triumph of media marketing over individual thought. So many people simply would not dream of exposing themselves to the harsh details. They simply consider consuming meat to be natural and the norm, as it has been throughout their lives and the lives of their parents. Or so the message has always been. Anyone who says differently must be an extremist with an agenda (see our vegan advocacy article for more on busting vegan stereotypes).

It has been said, with perhaps some justification, that Gore wanted to keep his message focused and targeted to the political situation in the U.S. The more in-depth book version of An Inconvenient Truth does suggest buying 'local' and eating less meat. It does deal with the meat industry and cites several statistics in support of the conclusion that: "If more Americans shifted to a less meat-intensive diet, we could greatly reduce CO2 emissions and also save vast quantities of water and other precious natural resources". However its omission from the movie version represented an opportunity lost for this key issue.

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Is Change Coming?

A 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report¹ highlighted all of these matters and more. History may look back at this report as the beginning of the great awakening with regards to modern meat. It has certainly brought the issue to the best informed of our population, and the effect of this has been to see signs that word is getting out.

The BBC recently had a televised debate on the issue of adopting a vegetarian diet to save the planet, and more and more elements of the issue are beginning to appear in mainstream media. However it remains, for now a mere whisper.

I sense that we will not have to wait too long before someone produces a documentary or movie which finally jolts the average person, or a considerable number of them, out of their trance. Imagine a Michael Moore documentary called something like 'Dead Meat'. Actually perhaps Michael Moore is not the best example, but if someone like him could become an advocate, then more people could hear the truth.

Either this, or we reach the tipping point where finally we all realise that it is time to pull out all the stops to arrest the global environmental decline, and the power of those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo is drowned out by the cries of a dying world.

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It is not THE answer

Of course, eliminating meat from our plates is not a complete answer to the Earth's problems in itself but it would be a huge contribution to easing the ailments of the planet. Buying local and organic produce are also important considerations for anyone with designs on an environmentally friendly diet.

While the conscious in society observe practices of reducing, re-using and recycling, and are mindful of their own carbon footprints and the impact their choices can make, eschewing modern meat must form part of that picture. There is a resounding truth to the adage "You simply cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist".

It is my belief that this is currently the most powerful and pressing argument to make if you wish to convert more people to the vegetarian or vegan fold.

So if you are an activist, then you should be working to educate people as to the effects of their choice to eat meat or not. If more knew the truth then more would join the cause. I am sure that the numbers of converts would explode as ordinary people, like me, see the full horror of the effect of their (erstwhile ignorant) support of the modern meat industry.

As for me, it has been amazingly easy to not eat meat. I don't feel physically too much different. I feel better about myself for not having dead animal matter inside my digestive system, and my digestive system thanks me for that ... regularly. I don't feel that I am making a huge contribution to saving the planet, but at least I feel I am now contributing less to its destruction. As with most right-thinking individuals, I will continue to have an open mind as to what other lifestyle changes I can make and advocate, to be a responsible earthling.

Written by Gavin Macaulay of Dive The WorldOpens in a new window, November 2008.

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References and Further Reading

¹ Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO): Livestock's long shadow, Environmental issues and optionsOpens in a new window - H. Steinfeld, P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, C. de Haan (2006).

An EarthSave International Report: A New Global Warming Strategy:Opens in a new window How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes - Noam Mohr (August 2005).

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Livestock Production: Energy Inputs and the EnvironmentOpens in a new window - David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel [Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.] (2002).

Toronto Vegetarian Association: Climate change: The inconvenient truth about what we eatOpens in a new window - Steve Leckie (2007).

Environment.co.zaOpens in a new window - A site covering environmental issues from South Africa, Africa and worldwide.

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Appendix

Here are some more interesting statistics brought to light by these recent studies:

  • Global meat consumption has increased 5-fold in the past 50 years; production of meat is projected to more than double again by 2050.
  • In the United States alone, more than 9 billion livestock are maintained to supply the animal protein consumed each year. This livestock population outweighs the human population by about 5 times.
  • Carbon dioxide emissions are not the main cause of observed atmospheric warming; methane is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. About 85% of this methane is produced in the digestive processes of livestock.
  • Livestock generates 65% of human-related nitrous oxide, mostly from manure, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2, and 64% of ammonia which contributes significantly to acid rain.
  • The fossil energy input of producing 1 kg of animal protein is more than 11 times greater than that for producing 1 kg of grain protein. In the US, the food production system uses 17% of the whole fossil energy used by the country.
  • Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein.
  • Western agricultural irrigation accounts for 85% of fresh water consumed by those countries. Agriculture, including livestock production, consumes more fresh water than any other activity in the United States.
  • The US food production system uses about 50% of the total US land area. About 60% of United States pastureland is being overgrazed and is subject to accelerated erosion.
  • The protein consumed per day on the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is 89g per day. This is significantly lower than the 112g for the meat-based diet but it is still nearly 60% higher than the protein RDA of 56g per day.
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