There is always that special friend, the person with dietary restrictions of the meatless variety, that one who brings the server aside and whispers, “Does this miso soup include fish sauce? If it does, I can’t have it,” to make sure that not a drop was touched by animal flesh. It may seem strange, rude even, to refuse the dish of a fancy restaurant just because part of the sauce was made with a part of an animal, or the soup contains traces of beef stock.
As a former “special friend,” or vegetarian, I can confidently say that every vegetarian has a reactive response to the inquiries of our unique eating habits: “Why don’t you just eat at little meat?” “Can’t you eat fish though?” “How are you going to get protein?” “Just eat the hamburger, don’t be such a prude.” “Not eating that chicken leg won’t save the chicken. The chicken is already dead.”
And so forth.
To be fair, most people I have met have never interrogated me to the extent that I have felt attacked, but it can be an annoying chore to go through the list of reasons why I chose to join the other 3.2% of U.S. adults who follow a vegetarian-based diet. The motivations behind a meatless diet are as varied as the people involved. There is the Healthy Vegetarian, whose decision to avoid meat will decrease their risk of cancers and heart disease by about half compared to meat eaters. Then, there is the Animal Lover Vegetarian, so emotionally attached to animals that eating one is like eating your own pet.
The one kind of vegetarian that doesn’t get as much spotlight, however, is the Environmentally Conscious Vegetarian, the one who would like to do his or her part to rescue the planet from future destruction from our mutual enemy: Global Warming. The reality is that eating meat takes a lot of energy from the earth, and by simply reducing meat consumption people can dramatically help the environment.
Many factors are involved in the creation of meat: land to raise livestock, grain to feed the livestock, fertilizer to grow the grain, transportation of the meat to commercial stores, and packaging the meat for sale. Not only do we use a large amount of land to raise livestock, which adds up to millions of acres in America, the land’s fertilizers and pesticides end up polluting nearby rivers.
In a TIME article, written by Brian Walsh, there are some staggering facts about just how much impact this industry has on the planet. Livestock production “makes up 40% of the global agricultural GDP.” These animals are fed with “1.3 billion tons of grain,” the same grains that could be used instead to feed humans in developing and poverty stricken countries. Also, raising livestock is also attributed to “14% of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” and “by the year 2050 it will increase to 39%” at the current rate of consumption.
The amount of energy saved by changing to a vegetarian diet, or even simply reducing the amount of meat consumed, would be significant. In 2007, the United States factory farms generated “500 million tons of manure per year, more than three times the sewage produced by the entire U.S. human population.” Unlike smaller farms that manage less livestock, the manure from the livestock in factory farms decomposes and releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, and also can seep into the groundwater if too much is spread out on the fields. Slaughterhouses were “responsible for discharging 30 million pounds of contaminants in 2009, including nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia. Nitrates are a significant source of drinking water contamination in agricultural communities nationwide.”
The Guardian states that simply reducing red meat in a diet can do more to reduce carbon emissions than giving up driving: “Red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions. When compared to staples like potatoes, wheat, and rice, the impact of beef per calorie is even more extreme, requiring 160 times more land and producing 11 times more greenhouse gases.”
In the future, technology is hoping to one day allow citizens to dine on meat created in the lab, seasoned to perfection, without the guilt of factory farms haunting our choices to eat animals. It’s estimated that in five to ten years, the first lab produced meat will look like a chicken nugget, using “80-95% lower GHG, 98% lower land use and 90-98% lower water use” when compared to conventionally produced meat in Europe. This meatless meat would contain zero hormones, antibiotics, and contain no risk for salmonella. This technology is so pertinent to our global health and future that the animal rights organization PETA is offering a $1 million prize to whoever can create an edible meat product using in vitro methods.
Saving the planet doesn’t have to be as extreme as abstaining completely from meat, but every effort to even reduce red meat intake can make a difference. Hopefully in the future, restaurants will be filled with faux meat options that taste exactly like the real thing.
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-Photo Credit: Michelle M.
-Written by: Megan K.