Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ethical Vegetarianism

In addition to the arguments for vegetarianism, based on animal suffering, huge ecological impacts come from the raising of meat. These impacts include high-energy consumption, concentrated waste, deforestation and the destruction of habitat. Aldo Leopold once said, “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal” (Walters 1999, 192). Raising animals for the purpose of food is unsustainable on many levels. These systems do not promote healthy ecosystems and do not leave room for ecological self-renewal.

The contemporary production of meat and dairy require large inputs such as fuel and water and produce large waste outputs such as carbon monoxide and toxic runoff water. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method is an internationally standardized procedure that measures the energy use and ecological impacts of a process or activity. When LCA is applied to the production of meat and dairy in comparison to the direct consumption of grains, the results are staggering. By looking only at fossil fuel use we see that forty calories of fuel are required to produce one calorie of beef while only 2.2 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce one calorie of grains. If we apply this to milk production the results are that one calorie of milk requires fourteen calories of fuel (Baroni 2001, 285). Fuel is used for everything from machinery for milking, to heating, cooling and ventilation for feedlots, to the transportation of the meat to local grocery stores (Deckers 2009, 578). Because of the amount of fuel used in the production of meat, “the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions which is worse than the world’s entire transportation output (Cabrejas 2008). This statistic come strictly from the livestock sector and does not even take into account the fuel use and emissions from agriculture that produces the feed given to livestock, so if we take agriculture into account the fuel use and emissions are even higher. Livestock’s digestive systems also greatly contribute to the greenhouse gas emission outputs because they are given feed with a mixture or soy and corn, both of which animals like cows are not naturally able to digest. This gives cows digestion problems that lead them to emit more methane than they would otherwise.

The raising of livestock not only emits greenhouse gasses but add tons of unusable waste to our planet. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that “farm animals produce 500 million tons of waste a year in the United States alone” (Cabrejas 2008). The waste produced by livestock typically ends up in streams and rivers due to minimal federal guidelines to regulate how waste is treated, disposed of, and stored (“Meat” 2011).

Mass amounts of water are also used in the production of meat and in the agriculture system that produces feed for livestock. The World Watch Institute concludes that seventy percent of freshwater consumption on the planet comes from animal farming and agriculture (Baroni 2001, 284). This water is used to irrigate the fields used to grow the cereals that feed livestock, for livestock drinking water as well as cleaning stables, milking halls and slaughterhouses (Baroni 2001, 285). Because of the need for water in the process of meat production, one pound of beef ends up requiring 2,500 gallons of water. Soy production requires one tenth the amount of water and wheat requires one-hundredth the amount of water for production.
After the water travels through livestock and agricultural production, it becomes toxic runoff, unable to be reused and many times causing even further ecological damage. Runoff consists of manure, urine, pesticides, fertilizers and any other waste from production that may get into the water. This water then flows into streams, rivers and eventually the ocean. Animal waste runoff is one of the main causes of dead zones in coastal waters. Dead zones are nitrogen and phosphorus rich environments that are the result of upstream runoff from agriculture, animal production, and anything else that enters the watershed. The nitrogen in these environments cause algae growth that then causes oxygen depletion and ultimately creates an environment that can be home to a minimal number of living organisms (Bruckner 2011). This toxic runoff also finds its way into lakes. The EPA estimates that “between 35 and 45 percent of America’s rivers and lakes are classified as ‘polluted,’ and agricultural runoff is considered the largest contributor to that pollution” (Parachin 2010).

The Western world has progressively added more meat to their diet over time. Because of this higher demand for meat, agricultural land that would have otherwise been used to produce edible vegetables is being used to produce grains for animal feed and as production sites for raising animals. More than seventy percent of all agricultural land is now used for the production of animal products and over one-third of the world’s harvest of cereals is fed to livestock each year (Deckers 2009, 578).

William A. Alcott, a 19th century American educator, reformer and physician wrote that the production of an acre of land in vegetables and grains can sustain animal life sixteen times as long as when it is converted into flesh and the raising of animals for food (Walters 1999, 86). This statement was written in the 1800s as a response to Alcott reading reports by political economists of the time. Consider our lifestyles in the 21st century and how the statistic of 16:1 is probably far greater now. Alcott estimated that Americans eat an average of one whole meal of meat a day. By substituting vegetables for animal food, the United States could sustain sixty-six million people instead of twenty (Walters 1999, 87). Today, an acre of land could produce either forty thousand pounds of potatoes or two hundred fifty pounds of beef (Parachin 2010). Society’s demand for more meat is placing a huge strain on the environment and is causing a transformation of land use, not only from edible vegetables to feed for livestock, but from wilderness and forested areas, to degraded soil and deforestation.

Because of such a high demand for meat, the U.S. and other Western nations have less room to produce meat to meet the demand of its citizens. As a result, much of the meat is imported and forests at home and elsewhere are destroyed in the process. In the United States alone, 260 million acres, around 400,000 square miles, of forest have been lost for the purpose of more land for animal agriculture (Parachin 2010). The demand for meat continues to increase and because of this the United States imports over 200 million pounds of beef a year from Central America (Parachin 2010). Europe is just as bad, if not worse. Only twenty-percent of the proteins needed to feed farm animals originate in Europe (Baroni 2001, 6).

Importing meat has now become common and developing nations are being encouraged and pressured to turn their land into pastures to raise animals to meet this demand from the Western world. Latin America is one of the most affected areas. A study done by the Smithsonian estimates that every minute, seven football fields of land are destroyed to meet the need for more grazing land (Parachin 2010). According to the World Wildlife Federation, eighty-eight percent of rainforest that has been cleared in the Amazon is now used for grazing, and in Panama and Costa Rica it is about seventy percent (Baroni 2001, 284). Looking at the direct comparison of deforestation to eating meat it has been concluded that, “For each hamburger originating from animals raised on rain forest land, approximately fifty-five square feet of forest have been destroyed” (Parachin 2010). Deforestation and the destruction of habitat cause soil erosion and land degradation as well, leading to as a loss in biodiversity. As Aldo Leopold said, health is self-renewal, and the way we are currently living is destroying the environment to a point where it can no longer regenerate itself.

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