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Commentary :: Environment
25 Apr 2006
How can vegetarianism possibly contribute to saving the planet from an ecological catastrophe? You’d be surprised.
The following article was published in the April 25 issue of the
email Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter (jacdon (at) for free sub)


By Jack A. Smith

One of the most important tasks confronting human society in this 21st century is to develop an antidote to the devastating ecological consequences of 150 years of virtually uncontrolled industrialization. There are many factors involved in such an immense project, because the negative aspects of positive technological developments have been largely ignored throughout much of modern history.

Taking serious measures to counteract global warming is one of the most imperative of responsibilities, due to the proximity of the impending danger. Another is developing clean energy sources sufficient to power modern societies. And there are a multiplicity of other complex scientific, social, political and economic alterations that must be set in motion to avoid an environmental catastrophe.

One of the critical components in the drive for ecological balance has received little attention so far, but it will become fairly obvious in coming decades. In essence, the human diet will have to change, probably at some time during this century, because it is a major contributor to the environmental crisis, which we shall show in this article.

The diet of most of the industrialized world is based on the consumption of meat, fish and fowl — and the great majority of people as yet have no idea of the disturbing impact this has on the environment. It’s causing the depletion of forests and water resources; pollution on a mass scale, including the fouling of the air we breathe and the water we drink; the waste of energy resources; the extinction of certain non-farm animal species, and many other consequences that endanger the Earth’s ecology. In addition, the excessive concentration on producing animal flesh for consumption in the richer countries contributes to world hunger in the poor countries.

The thought of reducing or giving up a meat-based diet to eat vegetables, grains, fruit and nuts is a touchy subject with most people in America, just as giving up smoking was to many millions a few decades ago. Today those who quit their nicotine addiction or never began are glad of it, and those who haven’t quit are a diminishing and often worried minority, besieged by restrictive laws and high prices. Eventually, when it becomes environmentally necessary to switch diets, we suspect it will take several generations to complete the transformation, but it can be done.

Science has greatly strengthened the rationale for vegetarianism in the last half century. Back in the 1950s, when this writer became a vegetarian, only about 1% of the American people refused to eat meat, fish and fowl. Usually, decisions to do so were based solely on ethical considerations — for example, a disinclination to cause the discomfort and slaughter of animals when it was not necessary to consume their flesh for human well-being or survival. Many also believed that other species simply had a right to survive and live as free as possible.

But in more recent decades science has provided two substantial further reasons for switching to a vegetarian diet in addition to or in place of ethical concerns. These reasons will become more compelling as time goes on, particularly as this knowledge proliferates and when governments are obliged to get behind the idea. They are: (1) the considerable proven health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet; (2) the proven dangers to the world environment emanating from the mass consumption of farmed animals.

Today, largely due to knowledge of the health benefits, it is estimated that 3% to 4% of American adults are vegetarians and the number is growing. Perhaps a quarter to a third of this number are vegans who do not consume animal products (mainly eggs, dairy, and honey) as well as animal flesh. Time magazine reports that 10 million Americans consider themselves vegetarians. The National Restaurant Association suggests as many as 20% of U.S. college students identify themselves as vegetarians. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Vegetarian Journal in late 2005, “3% of 8-to-18 years olds say they never eat meat, poultry, or fish/seafood. A whopping 11% of 13-15-year-old females said they never eat meat.”

Increasing numbers of people have given up red meat or other categories of animal flesh, largely for health reasons, but are not yet vegetarians or vegans. Some selectively shun certain foods because they object to the way particular animals are forced to suffer — such as geese (force-fed), veal (cruelly confined calves), and lobsters (boiled alive), for example — though the generality of animal suffering has been rationalized and ignored.

The average American has grown up on a diet of animal flesh and enjoys it, without delving too deeply into how this particular food becomes available. There is a disconnect in the mind of many consumers — a large proportion of whom may consider themselves animal lovers — between the live animal they do not see and the plastic wrapped package they obtain in the supermarket or the burger procured at the fast-food counter. Few dwell upon the short, stunted and painful lives of the creatures sacrificed to make it all possible.

But the fact is that over 10 billion mammals and birds are slaughtered every year in the United States alone, according and government reports. In 2003, the total was 41.2 million cattle and calves, 133 million pigs, 4.1 million sheep, 291 million turkeys, 255.5 million ducks, 9.14 billion “broilers” and 425 million laying hens. This doesn’t include the slaughter of fish and aquatic life, which may equal that of the chickens. Worldwide, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the total of mammals and birds killed for food in 2002 was 51.2 billion. Statistically, the U.S., with about 5% of the world population, is responsible for almost 20% of the annual world kill rate.

We mention these extraordinary figures not to shock the reader about the extent of the carnage but to set the stage for explaining the environmental impact. We won’t even go into the matter of the horrors perpetrated upon our fellow animals in factory farms and slaughter houses for the same reason.

In terms of the gathering environmental crisis, one of the main problems emanating from an animal-based diet is that it requires an enormous infrastructure. The animals themselves must be fed, watered and medicated before the humans can be fed. The millions of acres in the United States devoted to raising farm animals are only a small proportion of the much greater acreage required to grow the food to sustain these animals. An estimated 80% of U.S agricultural land — nearly half the total land mass in the 48 contiguous states — is devoted to growing crops to feed farm animals.

Over 260 million acres of forests in the U.S. have been leveled to create the land to feed the animals. It takes one to one-and-a-quarter acres of land to grow the required 2,500 to 3,500 pounds of grain and soybeans to produce 165 pounds of feedlot beef. Some 80% of the American corn crop is consumed by farm animals, not humans. Over 95% of the oats go to animals as well. Some 70% of all the grain and cereals are fed to the farm animals.

By comparison, the same acreage required to sustain 165 pounds of beef could produce 20,000 pounds of potatoes for human beings. Look at it this way: 20 vegans can be fed well on a healthy diet of vegetables, grains and fruits on the same amount of land required to feed one meat eater. In terms of alleviating severe world hunger, which afflicts 852 million human beings (many millions of whom starve to death annually), the amount of grain and soybeans eaten by livestock in the United States could feed 1.3 billion people. Says PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), “animals require many times more calories . . . than they can possibly return in the form of animal flesh for meat-eaters to consume. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people.”

About 50% of the total water used in the United States every year for all purposes — from drinking to bathing to washing the car to industrial usages — is devoted to farmed animals, says the Audubon Society. In the 11 Western states it’s 70%, a factor behind the drying up of aquifers. More water is required for the production of beef than is used for America’s entire vegetable and fruit crop.

According to various vegetarian publications, some 2,500 gallons of water are required to produce one pound of meat. Those of our readers who dutifully conserve water will be astonished to learn that they could forego taking showers for an entire year and the saving would approximate the amount of water utilized to produce four quarter-pound hamburgers, according to the book “The Food Revolution” by John Robbins MD. The Center for Food Safety comments that “if water used by the meat industry was not subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, the cost of hamburger meat would be $35 a pound.” Quoting Newsweek, the same source points out that “the amount of water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a Naval destroyer,” literally. Incidentally, the amount of water in one shower is about the same required for a pound of wheat.

The main reason for the depletion of the world’s forests, including the Amazon rain forest, is the need to produce food and acreage for farmed animals. The forests are the Earth’s main instrumentality for converting carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas responsible for global warming) into oxygen. They are also the habitat of animal and plant life that suffer, often to extinction, when a major forest is demolished. According to, “The current rate of species extinction due to destruction of tropical rainforests and related habitats is 1,000 a year.”

PETA reports: “From tropical rain forests in Brazil to ancient pine forests in China, entire ecosystems are being destroyed to fuel our addiction to meat. According to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, the equivalent of seven football fields of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals.” Vegetarian sources point out that the result of one individual deciding to give up meat, fish and fowl “saves an acre of trees per year.”

On April 6, Greenpeace in Europe formally charged McDonald’s fast-food restaurants with “destroying the Amazon rainforest.” It is estimated that one quarter-pound hamburger requires the clear-cutting of 55 square feet of rain forest. According to the Environmental News Service (ENS), “using satellite images, aerial surveillance, previously unreleased government documents, and on-the-ground monitoring, Greenpeace says it has traced soya [soybeans] grown on land that once was rainforest to an animal feed producer whose chickens are processed into Chicken McNuggests and other McDonald’s products.” This fact had been kept secret.

Gavin Edwards, who coordinates the Greenpeace save-the-forests campaign, declared: “Fast food giants like McDonalds are trashing the Amazon for cheap meat. Every time you buy a Chicken McNugget you could be taking a bite out of the Amazon.” Soybean production in the Amazon has more than doubled in recent years to satisfy foreign demand for captive animal feed. ENS quoted an expert at Brazil’s University of Minas Gerais as saying that “by 2050 current trends in agricultural expansion will eliminate a total of 40% of Amazon forests, including at least two-thirds of the forest cover of six major watersheds and 12 eco-regions.”

Maintaining farm animals to supply a flesh-eating industrialized society is extremely costly in terms of energy usage. The environmental magazine “E” reported in 2002 that “More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production. Producing a single hamburger patty uses enough fuel to drive 20 miles and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil.“ Noting the fact that huge populations, largely in the third world, are too poor or without resources to indulge in a meat-based diet, reports that “the world's petroleum reserves would last [only 13 more years] if all human beings ate a meat-centered diet.” That number would increase to 260 years “if all human beings ate a vegetarian diet.”

America’s consumption of billions of mammals and birds each year is also a source of great pollution in the country’s soil, rivers and atmosphere. “Animals raised for food produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire U.S. population, roughly 68,000 pounds per second, all without benefit of waste treatment systems,” PETA declares. “According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, animals on factory farms in America produce 20 tons of fecal matter each year for every U.S. household. A pig farm with 5,000 animals produces as much fecal waste as a city of 50,000 people.”

Says Professor Peter Cheeke of Oregon State University, this situation constitutes “a frontal assault on the environment, with massive groundwater and air pollution problems.” Raw manure is reported to possess 160 times more “pollution strength” than raw municipal sewage. estimates that about “a billion tons of waste is produced annually by U.S. livestock in confinement operations which is not recycled. Feedlot waste often ends up in our water.”

PETA continued: “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that chicken, hog and cattle excrement have polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. . . . Factory farms produce millions of pounds of dust each year containing feces, mold and bacteria that pollutes our air.”

There is simply no question that world hunger and low-caloric intake could be significantly reduced if nutritious food grown for animals was eaten by people.

According to Dr. Waldo Bello of the Philippines, the executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, "There is enough food in the world for everyone. But tragically, much of the world's food and land resources are tied up in producing beef and other livestock — food for the well-off — while millions of children and adults suffer from malnutrition and starvation. In Central America, staple crop production has been replaced by cattle ranching, which now occupies two-thirds of the arable land."

PETA points out, “American companies are moving into Latin American countries and buying up land and grain so that they can raise animals to sell to meat-eaters in the States. These companies use the resources that should be used to feed the local people, so millions of people in Latin America and around the world are going hungry while animals raised for food gobble up their grain and destroy the environment. In Guatemala, for instance, 75% of children under the age of 5 are malnourished, and yet the nation continues to produce and export 40 million pounds of meat to the U.S. every year. Instead of feeding the world's hungry, we take their grain and land to feed our addiction to meat, eggs, and milk.”

In this connection, other sources report that the U.S. annually imports 200 million pounds of meat from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama while the “amount of meat eaten by the average person” in these countries “is less than consumed by the average American house cat.”

In terms of global warming, the industrial world’s addiction to meat is a major producer of three greenhouse gases — methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide.

Methane is an important ingredient in natural gas, a principal energy source, but it is also more complicit in global warming than carbon dioxide, though it dissipates more quickly. According to the EPA, “Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for approximately 9-15 years. Methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a hundred year period.” The EPA regards “ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock” as among the largest sources of methane emissions in the U.S. Ruminant animals (cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels) produce significant amounts of methane as part of their normal digestive processes.

Excess carbon dioxide is largely a derivative of the automobile culture and power plants but also emanates from animal manure, not to mention the prodigious emissions of CO2 by all the farming and transport vehicles required to sustain the growth, slaughter and delivery of some 10 billion animals to American dinner tables each year. In this regard, PETA points out that “the average American diet requires about 400 gallons of oil per year, almost twice the amount required for the average vegan diet.”

Nitrous oxide accounts for 5% of total U.S. greenhouse emissions and is largely a product of agricultural activities and animal waste.

Clearly, in our view, efforts to avoid an ecological disaster, including global warming, eventually must include the elimination of farmed animals as a source of human food. There is sufficient non-animal food to sustain the entire population of the world many times over, and it is more healthful as well.

Additional benefits include a halt to the decimation of the world’s forests, and the reversion of part of the enormous acreage devoted to growing animal food back into forest land. Advances also will occur in the reduction of air, ground and water pollution; in the expansion of water supplies for human purposes; in major savings of energy resources; in the reduction of animal extinctions, and in the restoration of environmental balance.

In addition there is another benefit, well understood by those who primarily transition to vegetarianism for ethical reasons. The amount of suffering we humans inflict upon animals is cruel and immoral. It is a crying shame.

We close with two quotations. First, these words from the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I think everything connected with vegetarianism is of the highest importance, because there never will be any peace in this world so long as we eat animals. . . . I became a vegetarian because all my life I had felt guilty and ashamed that I had eaten the flesh of an animal. I think that animals are just as much God’s creatures as men are. And we have to respect them, and love them, not slaughter them.”

And from Pete Seeger: “Becoming a vegetarian is not merely a symbolic gesture. Nor is it an attempt to isolate oneself from the ugly realities of the world. . . . Becoming a vegetarian is a highly practical and effective step one can take toward ending both the killing of nonhuman animals and the infliction of suffering upon them.”


Editor’s note: If you have an interest in vegetarianism and animal rights there are many websites with information. The VivaVegie Society’s includes a free download of an informative 16-page pamphlet, “101 Reasons Why I’m a Vegetarian.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,, offers a vegetarian starter kit and much useful material, including frequently asked questions on topics from vegetarian-vegan practices to animal rights, activist news, a cruelty free shopping guide, etc. They also sponsor a children’s website,, and

Green People, at, includes a listing of vegetarian organizations among its resources. Farm Sanctuary,, focuses on farm animals and provides a website research report on “The Welfare of Cattle.” The North American Vegetarian Society is at In the Hudson Valley you can reach the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society at, and the Catskill Animal Sanctuary at The Vegetarian Resource Group has a full-service website, Friends of Animals, which seeks to “free animals from cruelty and institutionalized exploitation around the world,” is at Animal Concerns is another animal rights group with a good website at

Use Google (check “vegetarian organizations”) to locate hundreds of interesting additional websites and links. Check “vegetarian recipes” for menus. Vegetarian Times magazine has lots of recipes, Over the decades, but less so in recent years as non-meat dishes have become more popular, people used to ask quite seriously, “but what do you people eat?” Actually, vegetarian cuisine is varied, superb and healthful.

This work is in the public domain