Save the planet: Go Childfree or Vegetarian. Better yet, Do Both

Red meats, as in cattle and pigs, are generally agreed upon by “the experts” as not good for you. However, it’s not just the eaters of animals, but the rest of the planet and its inhabitants, that are paying a huge price for humanity’s ever-growing appetite for dead flesh.

     The June 2013 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter (NAH), published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, offers some revealing facts about the after-effects on the environment of raising animals for slaughter. We deal with many of these impacts and their consequences in our book, Enough of Us.

     According to NAH, it takes seven to eight pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef. But according to other sources, it may take up to 13 pounds of feed to produce one pound of edible meat. For pork, NAH says it takes almost six pounds of grain to produce a pound of edible pork (who would’ve thought that pigs are more efficient than cows in producing meat?).

     More farming in the United States is devoted to producing meat than any other purpose. Corn, soybeans, hay—the list of what goes into producing meat goes on.

     As NAH puts it, “The water and fossil fuels needed to grow all that grain and the sheer number of animals consumed cause considerable damage.”

Beef cattle are raisen in feedlots on huge factory farms

Beef Cattle on a factory farm. Photo courtesy Socially Responsible Agricultural Project

     We hear incessantly about the threat carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, poses for climate change. Methane, however, is even more potent and is one of cattle’s biggest outputs. It enters into the atmosphere when cattle pass wind and when they belch. Cows, pigs, sheep and other species produce both gases. But methane “has 23 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide,” says Robert Lawrence, professor of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

     There’s more bad news. Lawrence points out that, “Molecule for molecule, (nitrous oxide) has about 200 times the heat trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.” Although nitrous oxide from a canister might be fun at the dentist’s office, in agriculture it “comes from the intense application of nitrous fertilizers for the soy and corn being grown for animal feed.”

     According to Lawrence, “It requires about one thousand tons of water to produce a ton of grain.”

     Worldwide, about 80 percent of groundwater taken from shallow and deep aquifers is used for agriculture. And the use of those crops for animal feed is increasing.

     So what’s the connection between meat’s consequences and the choice between living a childfree life or one without kids? It’s simple. As human population increases, and as greater numbers of people move into more affluent lifestyles, the demand for meats of various kinds rises. With that, meat production and ergo the production of methane and nitrous oxide, and the consumption of freshwater, rise accordingly.

     In addition to the direct consequences of raising livestock, the preparation for raising farm animals involves its own destructive practices. As livestock production increases, the need for arable land grows. And that means forests are cut down. That does away with trees that convert carbon dioxide back into pure oxygen.

     There’s more. As Lawrence explains, “The soil is exposed and often tilled to prepare it for seeding for pasture. As soon as you begin to turn the soil … the organic material that’s trapped in the soil is exposed to the oxygen in the air and carbon dioxide is released.” While not much forest clearing for meat production goes on in the United States anymore, how are we to provide leadership and set an example for the rest of the world if we pursue environmentally disastrous lifestyles (to say nothing of the detrimental effects on our own health and healthcare system)?

Photo courtesy Socially Responsible Agricultural Project

Feedlot cows lying in their own waste. Photo – Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.

     We used to live in Fresno. We didn’t have to drive far out of town to come across cattle feedlots. And they’re not pretty. With both hog and cattle feedlots come high concentrations of animal waste. That waste is either bulldozed into large mounds or or dumped into cesspits. The result? More methane.

     While a human race that abjures meat in its various forms and reverts to a Stone Age diet would go a long way toward helping our ecosystem, that’s about as likely to happen as Jack in the Box offering an organic raw foods menu. So it’s up to all of those who care about these issues to spread the word. There are way more than Enough of Us.



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