Eating for a Healthier Planet: 5 Environmental Reasons to Cut Back on Meat

We are a world of hungry people. Like all living things, human beings require nutrition -- for us, in the form of other organisms -- to sustain life. It takes a lot of energy, water, and land to produce and transport enough food to nourish the roughly 6.8 billion people who live on this planet. The burden upon our Earth is not a small one, especially in high-demand  nations like the United States. The meat industry, by its sheer technical complexity and magnitude, is the most damaging food industry, especially given that its product is not necessary to sustain human life. In fact, the over-consumption of meat is a major factor in diseases that kill many Americans, such as cancer. Luckily for us in the United States -- a country of mass food consumption in which approximately 3,500 calories are consumed per person per day (see image blow) -- it is within our power to make positive environmental changes, and it is as easy as shifting our eating habits.

Credit; Rice University

How, one may wonder, can a citizen make tangible change simply by adjusting their consumer habits? There is a widespread misconception that, as individuals, we are powerless in affecting change, especially regarding dauntingly massive industries, like the agribusiness conglomerates, backed by many governmental lobby groups, which produces our meat. This, by a simple glance of our economic system, is false. If nothing else, one source of personal power within a capitalist society is our ability to "vote with our dollars." According to an article published on Global Animal, "The average meat-eater consumes approximately 100 animals every year." In other words, every animal not eaten will, eventually, lead to one fewer produced. By forgoing meat, or simply streamlining one's consumption, the individual can send a major message to industry-- a message which calls out for positive environmental change.

Factory Farms, such as the one shown above, are a major source of damage to our air, water, atmosphere and land

5 Ways You Can Help The Earth By Eating Less Meat

1. Eat Veggies, Save Water. As The Cornucopia Corner Weekly News has discussed in previous articles, we are currently in the beginning of a world water crisis. As such, water conservation is of utmost importance, and any opportunity to protect potable water is crucial to human survival. The exact amount of water involved in beef production is uncertain, but two sources cited on Global Animal indicate that it is quite high: "According to the Cattlemen’s Association (the very people supporting meat consumption), it takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. An independent source at the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Michigan State University claims that it actually requires about 2,500 gallons of water for just one pound of beef." Further, besides requiring a lot of water to function, commercial meat production also pollutes our waterways. According to a United Nations report, "Livestock production... impacts heavily the world's water supply, accounting for more than 8 percent of global human water use, mainly for the irrigation of feed crops." (author's note: food grown strictly to feed livestock animals). "Evidence suggests it is the largest sectoral source of water pollutants, principally animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures... It is estimated that in the USA livestock and feed crop agriculture are responsible for 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and a third of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads in freshwater resources. The sector also generates almost two-thirds of anthropogenic ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems. " In short: shifting to a plant-based diet can help conserve water, and protect potable water from contamination. 2. You can help slow down climate change.

The Greenhouse Effect, or the scientific process behind Climate Change, previously referred to as "Global Warming." Photo Credit: NASA

Reducing your "carbon footprint," a chic way to say "minimize your carbon dioxide emissions," has been an ongoing trend in the "Green" cultural phenomenon. Carbon Dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas at work in climate change, though. Methane, defined by NASA as, "a hydrocarbon gas produced both through natural sources and human activities, including the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture, and especially rice cultivation, as well as ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock," is another major force in climate change, trapping 21 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide. Nineteen percent of global methane emissions are emitted not by humans, but by livestock, who are artificially overpopulated for consumption. A concrete example of this lies with Circle 4 Farms: the world’s largest producer of pork with 1.2 million hogs raised and killed each year, creates more pollution than the entire city of Los Angeles (Global Animal). Simply stated, by putting more green on your plate, you can help relieve our planet of such an intense greenhouse effect. 3. A plant-based diet saves food from being wasted. It's a bit sad and ironic that an industry geared at creating food actually wastes lots of it. As stated by Bruce Friedrich, "While there is ample and justified moral indignation about the diversion of 100 million tons of grain for biofuels, more than seven times as much (760 million tons) is fed to farmed animals so that people can eat meat. Is the diversion of crops to our cars a moral issue? Yes, but it's about one-eighth the issue that meat-eating is." As these massive numbers can be difficult to conceptualize, think of it this way: according to PETA, it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of animal flesh. With 925 million malnourished people in the world, according to the World Hunger Education Service, food is a precious resource worth conserving. Forgoing meat is one indirect but effective way of doing so. 4. The fate of rainforest is in our hands -- or on our plates, rather. Lush forests, teeming with life, ravaged by roaring chainsaws, bunches of trees at a time; this image of destruction, tragically, is one that occurs every day, and our consumer habits directly control it. Cattle farming is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. According to an article in The Guardian, "Since the 1970s, when satellite mapping of the region became available, around a fifth of the rainforest has been destroyed, an area the size of California. Greenpeace US estimates that, between 2007 and 2008, another 3m acres (1.2m hectares) of the Brazilian Amazon have been destroyed." Though the Amazon may be quite far from where we are, humans worldwide depend on these forests for life; often called the "Lungs of the Earth," rainforests are responsible for continuously replenishing much of our planet's oxygen supply. To save the rainforest is to save our air, and thus, to save us. We can help by fighting the main cause of its destruction. 5. The food chain depends on our food choices.

The balance of nature relies on a very delicate system of give-and-take; when we as one species take too much, all else suffers. Shark finning, a gruesome practice which is depleting a valuable population of top-predators, is one horrific example of this phenomenon. However, it is not even remotely the only instance of this ocean-destroying phenomenon. According to Greenpeace, "90 percent of the large fish that many of us love to eat, such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate, and flounder - have been fished out since large scale industrial fishing began in the 1950s. The depletion of these top predator species can cause a shift in entire oceans ecosystems where commercially valuable fish are replaced by smaller, plankton-feeding fish." Farm-raised fish are no better; even more species are depleted, due to the massive quantities of feeder-fish caught from the wild to feed farm-raised fish. The seafood that we eat are not the only aquatic creatures affected by commercial fishing, either; trawling, the most often-used method of commercial fishing, consists of one giant net indiscriminately spread upon the ocean floor. Whales, dolphins, turtles, and seals -- including endangered species -- often lose their lives, casualties of this careless practice.

The powerful, shrewd lobbyists behind the fish and livestock industries have worked for years to try and convince Americans that meat is a necessary, healthy part of a balanced diet. However, the environmental data -- as well as the medical data -- suggests otherwise; according to the American Heart Association, "Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer... You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs." Sir Paul McCartney, the beloved Beatle, summed it up perfectly: "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is stop eating meat." Given the damage that the commercial meat industry is wreaking upon our planet, it's true; a vegetarian, or better yet, vegan diet is one of the easiest, most sustainable choices we can make as individuals. If you feel that you aren't ready to make the vegetarian leap, any decrease in meat consumption is helpful; Meatless Mondays, begun by the Johns Hopkins School of Health, are a simple weekly tradition to help clean up your environmental impact. On the other days of the week, ensure that the animal products you do purchase and consume are sustainably and safely raised, such as those sold at the Malibu Farmer's Market. As the Cornucopia Foundation slogan so eloquently states: "The future of our planet is not by chance... but by choice." You possess the power to make these choices. Elizabeth Neville The Cornucopia Corner Weekly News