About the Author
Alexandria Thibodeaux: vegan, environmentalist, health nut, lover of love, Montessori teachers’ assistant, and aspiring holistic dietician.
Too Many Animals?
Our planet is sick and the antidote is one you might not expect – less animal consumerism. The truth is, using animals for the production of goods is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. By definition, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “climate change refers to any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time. In other words, climate change includes major changes in temperature, precipitation, or wind patterns, among other effects, that occur over several decades or longer.” Perhaps the greatest solution to reducing climate change and living for the greater good of the planet would be to end the consummation of animals and adopt not only a plant-based diet, but also a plant-based lifestyle.
Did you know that 21 billion heads of livestock are currently on our planet? That is triple the amount of humans. What’s makes this truly disturbing is the fact that these animals are mass produced, in factories. This is nature; these are animals, not inanimate objects. To maintain all these animals, valuable natural resources are spent on them instead of people. The livestock, in turn, inflict mayhem on the environment.
Let’s Talk About Burps
As many people are aware, an issue contributing to climate change is the rapid emission of gases into the atmosphere that trap heat and cause the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is the dangerous gas that people hear most about- it’s released from peoples’ cars, heaters, and lungs. However, there is a more detrimental gas that is trapped in the atmosphere that receives little attention- methane. It “traps 21 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Methane is a naturally occurring trace gas and a normal part of our atmosphere” (Silverstone). One of the biggest sources of methane is burps. And the 1.3 billion overfed, never exercised cows on the planet burp quite a bit. “Each cow produces anywhere from 100 to 520 quarts of methane gas daily [and] methane emitted by livestock accounts for 19 percent of total global methane emissions ” (Silverstone). Additionally, livestock even produce more methane than that of waste treatment plants, landfills, and the methane people use as natural gas to heat homes.
If we chose to not eat red meat, or at least significantly cut down on it, there would be a reduction in the number of cows cattlemen need to raise, which will in turn, reduce the amount of gases they emit.
Amazingly, if every person in America adopted a plant-based diet, the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas production by 6 percent overnight! 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced in the United States, so 6 percent is a significant amount.
In addition to the contribution to climate change, factory farming creates toxic muck on the planet. The meat industry is nasty. The feces, fertilizers, and other muck gets into the soil and can seep into nearby water tables and rivers. Since there aren’t any laws that regulate the amount of waste disposal of animals, things get out of hand very quickly. “Livestock produce 130 times more waste than humans do! In fact, one farm in Utah with 500,000 pigs produces more fecal matter than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan combined” (Silverstone 25).
Water Waste and “The Dead Zone”
Because factory farms are so unsanitary, almost all the animals get sick at one time or another so they need to be given large amounts of antibiotics. Also, since Americans strive to have huge steaks, huge chickens, huge turkeys, and huge sausages, they are pumped full of hormones to make them fat. As a result, their waste is filled with these antibiotics and hormones that seep into the soil and water supply, which is extremely unhealthy for human consumption. There are several farms alongside the banks of Mississippi, so agricultural waste seeps into the river at a frightening rate. There is a large excess of nitrogen produced from fertilizer and feces that it has created a spot called “the Dead Zone”, which is at the gateway of the river in the Gulf of Mexico. The dead zone does not have any oxygen and consequently, cannot sustain life. In 2008, this area was 8,000 square miles. This is “responsible for 17 times more water pollution than a bowl of noodles” (Silverstone).
As if this industry weren’t harmful enough, meat wastes water. Most people are probably unaware that massive amounts of the earth’s water are used for agriculture. “Forty-two percent of fresh water available to us in the United States is used for agriculture” (Silverstone). Some of the water is used to grow grain for people, some is used to grow grain for animals, and some is used for hydrating and washing animals. Chair of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. George Borgstrom, believes it to be roughly 2,500 gallons. Those 2,500 gallons of water is per pound of beef, not per cow- that’s astounding. To compare, only thirty-three gallons of water are needed to grow one pound of carrots. “One 16-ounce steak uses the amount of water you need for 6 months of showers (Silverstone)! What’s more, is that if animals were not mass produced in factories like cell phones, and water was not polluted by waste from factory farming, that water could be used to resolve worldwide water conflicts.
Dairy cows, like beef cows, burp very often and create greenhouse gases. Dairy cows also create toxic waste due to the fact that their feces is filled with antibiotics and hormones that seep into the soil and water supply which show up in rivers and soil that travel quite far from the original site. This unsanitary waste can also leach into the drinking water supply. Pregnant cows also consume enormous amounts of food. This is necessary to make a baby, but let’s not forget, these cows are overfed anyway. This product requires land, water, fertilizer, energy, labor, and transport that could be used more effectively for other things, such as growing food for humans. Furthermore, diary cows drink more water than beef cows! Cows must drink water to produce milk, “so a lactating cow drinks 30 to 50 gallons of the stuff a day” (Silverstone 41). This could fill a bathtub. So really, the standard eight glasses a day of water is actually a half a gallon. Dairy farms use millions of gallons of water each day.
Starving for Less Meat
In addition to the problem of water pollution and loss of water, meat creates a loss of food because animals eat A LOT of it. Over 50 percent of United States grown corn is consumed by animals. Only about 8 percent of corn is grown for human beings to eat. What’s even worse, cows can’t even digest corn! They are meant to eat grass!
Moreover, “Sixty million acres of the United States are devoted to” growing hay primarily for livestock, while we use only 13 million acres to grow fruits and vegetables” (Silverstone). This is such an irresponsible use of food considering that there are 1.2 billion people that do not have enough food to eat every day, yet so much effort is put forth to ensure that 20 billion chickens, pigs, and cows are getting fatter by the minute.
Meat and Oil
Further damage to the climate is implicated with the excessive use of oil by the meat industry. “It takes more than 11 times the energy to create animal protein than grain protein” (Silverstone). Considering the fuel used to plant, water, and harvest the grain that livestock eat, the grains’ transportation, the energy that factory farms use, transportation of livestock to slaughter, and the distribution of meat to people, meat seems to be made of fossil fuel as opposed to beef, pork, or poultry.
Here is some food for thought: 97 pounds of beef are eaten by the average American per year, which requires energy that equates to 29 billion gallons of gas.
What about Fish?
Often times, people do not consider fish to be meat, or do not think of fish consumption as a detriment to the environment or human health. On the contrary, fish consumption is hazardous to the ocean and human health. The ocean is literally being fished out. As a result, further efforts must be made to dive deeper to find them. In turn, this process displaces various kinds of marine and plant life that are necessary members of the food chain. Fish farming will not resolve the issue because 2 to 5 pounds of small fish are needed to create just one pound of farmed salmon, clearly unsustainable.
A Vicious Cycle
Furthermore, the meat industry is ruining American soil. 160 million acres of federally owned land, given to farmers, are grazed by livestock. Consequently, over 50 percent of the topsoil of American land has been lost since cattle started grazing over 140 years ago. 100 to 800 years is needed to create just one inch of topsoil, and since the birth of America, 6 inches have been lost- that’s tragic. Topsoil is essential to sustain life. Without it, plants would not grow, and without plants, all animals would die. By allowing livestock to stomp on, defecate on, and kick up this valuable soil, we humans are only hurting ourselves. If enough soil has been dried and displaced, the rich and fertile soil becomes desert and there is no recovery from this in the near future. Desertification and overgrazing is a global problem. If the damage came to a halt now, food could be grown for humans, trees could be planted to absorb carbon dioxide (their main job) and produce oxygen. Wild animals’ natural habitats could be restored, which would preserve biodiversity. Major issues could be resolved if depended less upon livestock.
Unquestionably, meat destroys the precious rain forest too. Glutinous America has such a high demand for cheap meat “that the South and Central American cattle industries are clearing rain forest to make room for cattle pasture. In fact, cattle pasture is the number one factor in the destruction of the rain forest, and we’re losing 2.4 acres of it per second. That’s 144 acres per minute. Seventy-five million acres per year” (Silverstone)! Before this damage, the rain forest covered 14 percent of the planet, but that has been reduced to just 6 percent. As a result, biodiversity is being significantly reduced.
“It is estimated that within a 4-square-mile patch of rain forest, you would find the following: 60 types of amphibians, 100 species reptiles, 125 different mammals, 400 types of birds, 750 trees, and 1,500 species of flowering plants” (Silvestone). It is believed that every hour, the extinction of roughly six animals or plant species occurs due to destruction of the rain forest- that is quite devastating. Biodiversity is incredibly important to the sustainability of life. Over billions of years, the natural properties of the earth have evolved into a very elaborate and dynamic system. Every single organism has a unique and important job. We need bees to pollinate the flowers and plants. Without them, we’d die. We need worms to nourish the soul. We need fresh air and water. These biosystems collaborate to produce these necessities, and humans are ruining it for selfish and unnecessary consumption of animals. Also, thousands of tropical plants in rain forests have been recognized by scientists to have properties that fight against cancer and 70 percent of those plants are solely found in rain forests. Clearly, we need to leave it preserve them.
Believe it or not, cleaning products are connected to animals too because conventional cleaning products are tested on animals. Cleaning products have a crazy amount of chemicals that are not good for humans and not good for the environment. We flush cleaning products down our drains and that gets into the sewage and water systems- ick! Bug sprays that are sprayed on our grass do the same damage. Nail polish, hair dye, laundry detergent, shampoo, toothpaste, all contain nasty, unnecessary chemicals.
Luckily, there are cruelty free products made for every type of product, and they all avoid the use of harsh chemicals, and of course, no animal testing. It’s a win-win! Also, instead of shopping for cruelty free products, often times one can make their own cleaning products at home with simple household items. Cleaning products to the same job chemical-filled products do, using vinegar, water, salt, baking soda and borax!
Making a Positive Change
The good news is, there is a way to preserve the planet in a substantial way. Adopting an animal product- free- lifestyle is one of the best ways to preserve the environment and help the planet. As a bonus, it saves animals, helps to provide great amounts of food for impoverished people, is better for human health in a number of ways, and creates less cruelty and violence in the world. Biodiversity would be preserved and the ecosystems balanced. And the planet would be in less turmoil!
A good way to transition to this lifestyle is to first lower your intake of animal foods-especially red meat, and to gradually continue to reduce the amount and frequency of meat you eat. Even a small step like incorporating Meatless Mondays into your life can make a huge difference! Remember, a little goes a long way- every act of sacrifice and kindness is significant. Next, you can start lowering your dairy intake little by little and eventually, begin to look for alternatives to leather, wool, and other animal skins. Making small adjustments at a slow pace makes these transitions easier.
To get some good information on how to help the planet through a plant based lifestyle, check out the book The Kind Diet or the interactive extension of the book, http://thekindlife.com/ Both sources provide incredible amounts of information on how to be kind to the planet through a plant-based lifestyle, in a simplistic and fun dialogue. Greenpeace and Green America, environmental protection organizations, also have some great information on the environmental benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/multimedia/goodies/green-guide/green-lifestyle/go-vegetarian/
Could you go without meat? What reservations or questions might you have about a plant based diet? Alexandria will address them in the comments section.
Silverstone, Alicia, and Victoria Pearson. The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet. [Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale, 2009.