Why It's Green To Go Vegetarian

Posted on: 20 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A vegetarian view on cutting your carbon footprint, and ending hunger.

If all the greenhouse gas emissions that your life produces were totted up, and you had to reduce those emissions, what would you think of giving up first - flying to take a holiday abroad? Driving your car? How about eating meat?

Vegetarians often find themselves defending their dietary choice, but research suggests that animal farming generates the equivalent of more carbon dioxide than transport, and meat-rich diets cannot feed the world. Could eating less meat be as good a way to conserve the environment as giving up those EasyJet breaks?

18 per cent of world global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production, whereas 13.5 per cent comes from transport, according to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2006. These greenhouse gases have high Global Warming Potential (GWP) and contribute to acid rain.

Livestock farming is also a major source of land and water degradation. Animals require much more water than the growing of grain to produce the same amount of protein. Tropical forests are destroyed daily to create more land to raise livestock and grow grain for animal feed. Livestock production is responsible for 70 per cent of Amazonian deforestation.

Scientists are not talking about a few chickens in a back garden. Due to intensive farming, livestock now use 30 percent of the earth's entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock. Meat and dairy animals now account for about 20 per cent of all animals on earth.

Livestock's presence in vast tracts of land and its demand for feed crops also contribute to biodiversity loss - 15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are in decline, with livestock identified as a culprit. At the same time herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures ruined through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. This figure is even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.

With food shortages increasingly in the news, can we afford to carry on wasting planet earth's precious land in this way? At least 70 per cent of all farm land in Britain is used to feed animals, according to Viva!, and rainforests are still being felled to graze beef cattle. If Britain went vegetarian, less than half the current land would be needed - vegan, less than a quarter.

It's a situation that's likely to get worse. With increased prosperity around the world, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

At the other end of the wealth scale, poor countries are being encouraged to grow cash crops such as animal fodder to earn foreign currency to meet their debt repayments - at the expense of food for home consumption. This has resulted in children starving alongside crops destined for the west's livestock. According to Viva!, most of this food is wasted as for every 10kg of vegetable protein fed to cattle, only 1kg is converted to meat.

So it seems there's more to becoming vegetarian or vegan than being sentimental about animals, and caring about animal welfare doesn't mean ignoring human suffering. Going veggie can help people around the world by easing food shortages, and hopefully conserving our environment.

The livestock business is among the most damaging to the earth's increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution and the degeneration of coral reefs. Animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops pollute.

Devastation extends to the oceans where 82 per cent of fish stocks are on the road to extinction. Livestock are estimated to be the main inland source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination of the South China Sea, contributing to biodiversity loss in marine ecosystems.

Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground water resources, and significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed. It takes 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef - but only 1,000 litres to produce 1kg of wheat, according to Viva!

The FAO report, Livestock's Long Shadow - Environmental Issues and Options, warns, "The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level."

There are other issues related to the rapid growth of livestock production, including substantial public health risks as, increasingly, animal diseases also affect humans. In addition such growth can lead to the exclusion of smallholders from growing markets, damaging local livelihoods and communities as well as the environment.

Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO's Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report, says, "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation."

In addition to improving farming methods with better soil conservation, irrigation systems and so on, such action could include improving animals' diets, the report notes. Treating animals well is good for the environment. As an alternative to intensive farming, meat and dairy consumers could go local, organic and free range - or go veggie, an everyday choice that could save the world!

If giving up juicy steaks and succulent bacon sarnies is just not an option, let alone turning vegan, why not consider meat a treat? By reducing the amount of meat in the average British diet and rejecting cheap over-processed food, consumers could find a partially meat-free diet better for the tastebuds and healthier too. Buying meat that you'll appreciate and using leftovers to make soup and so on means value for money. There are also plenty of tasty veggie alternatives to try, whether you fancy cooking up a gourmet black-eyed bean stew or simply making bangers and mash with vegetarian sausages.

If you're still unconvinced, perhaps one of our delicious recipes will tempt you to try veggie. For National Vegetarian Week 2008, from 19th to 25th May, the Vegetarian Society have produced some basic, simple recipes for new vegetarians or new cooks called Meat-free Made Easy. There's a quick Korma, Mexi baked tortilla, and ideas for sandwich fillings to liven up your lunchbox.

Related Links

Meat-Free Made Easy - Vegetarian Recipes

Web Links

The Vegetarian Society: www.vegsoc.org

Viva! (Vegetarians International Voice For Animals): www.viva.org.uk

Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations: www.fao.org

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