Our empty stomachs often make us think of what we want or should have for our meals. But when presented with such a relish, how often do we ask the question, “What makes up my meal?” Today, most people are heading towards being healthy and environmentally conscious. Some of us may have even taken a solid animal welfare stance. Nevertheless, we are always left with the choice to eat meat. Sometimes however, such a choice can be detrimental to the environment.
The growing scarcity of natural resources
By the year 2025, there will be 1.8 billion people living with absolute water scarcity. At present, 8% of the global human water consumption gets reserved for livestock purposes. Even the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) acknowledged the decline in fresh water storage.
Raising livestock has apparently contributed to water scarcity. Tracing back to farming processes that require the use of water, like growing food for livestock, meat production is clearly a water intensive process. “Eat a steak or a chicken and you are effectively consuming the water that the animal has needed to live and grow,” author of McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, John Vidal, said. Additionally, vegetarian author, John Robbins, once calculated and compared the pounds of water needed to produce a pound of vegetables like potatoes (60 lbs.), wheat (108 lbs.), maize (168 lbs.), and rice (229 lbs.) as opposed to a pound of beef (9,000 to more than 20,000 lbs.).
Furthermore, livestock has been a huge source of water pollution due to animal wastes including manure, antibiotics and hormones, and chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides.
With less consumption of animals each day, these species get to thrive naturally, without the interruption of various drugs as a means to fatten them quicker to keep them alive in conditional environments that would otherwise kill them.
Having a beef with beef
According to Vidal, meat eaters tend to need extra spaces of land to grow food compared to plant-based eaters. Today, a Bangladeshi family living off rice, beans, vegetables, and fruit may live on an acre of land or less, while the average American, who consumes around 222 pounds of meat a year or more, needs 20 times or more than that. On the other hand, the environmental organization, Sierra Club says that a simple breakfast consisting of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich saves as much as 2.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, 280 gallons of water, and 50 ft2 of land.
The key point in combating climate change in terms of being a vegetarian is to reduce the consumption of red meat, eggs, and dairy as opposed to totally being negligent of meat. This is because, while being a vegetarian or a vegan can partially favor climate changes, in an individual basis, certain nutritional benefits would be at the shorter end, namely, calcium, vitamins A and B12, and a few fundamental fatty acids. There are, however, great protein sources derived from plants. A few common examples are tofu and plant-based milks such as soy and almond milks.
While vegetarians have adopted having a ‘beef’ with beef, one can always opt in becoming a flexitarian—a new label for meat eaters who tend to eat meat, occasionally. One can also opt for being a reducetarian—meat eaters who tend to eat meat, far less. There are also those who provided unique propositions like Meatless Mondays which is a movement in promoting animal welfare through the avoidance of meat on Mondays.
Greenhouse gas emissions
A research report was published by the United Nations affirming that the livestock sector emerges as one of the top significant contributors to the most serious global environmental problems. According to FAO of the UN, CO2 emissions from raising farmed animals make up about 15% - 16% of global human-enforced productions, with beef and milk production as the primary culprits. More studies have revealed that eating 1 pound of meat emits an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases as driving an SUV per 40 miles.
Raising livestock has also caused the increase of the amount of methane (CH4) ) emissions in the atmosphere. According to the environmental group Earth Save, CH4 emissions cause 50% of the planet’s human-enforced global warming. CH4 is known to be 84 times more potent than CO2. Besides CH4, the United Nations accounts that 65% of the human-induced nitrous oxide (N2O) via livestock’s manure, is 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2.
According to author Joseph Poore, a plant-based diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce human impact on planet Earth. Having a diet composed of mainly vegetables does not only reduce greenhouse gases, but also global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use. In addition to having the lead in immediately reducing global warming, shifting away from CH4-emitting food sources is much easier than cutting CO2, because while building affordable transport solutions via zero-emission fuel sources is plausible, they would take many years to build.
An alternative lens
In 2015, Tom, Fischbeck, and Hendrickson, through their research, raised some eyebrows in the vegetarian community. Their study found that consuming citrus fruits, some vegetables, dairy, and seafood would posit more harm than having a meat-based diet. “Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think. Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken,” the study’s co-author, Paul Fishbeck, added.
The problem deepens when it’s not just meat, but rice too which has around 12% carbon footprint globally due to producing extensive methane. This suggests an alternative way of addressing the problem.
According to Applewhite (2018), “Caring about the planet and trying to do something about itis a noble cause. But with the stakes as high as they are, accuracy in messaging is important”. This alternative perspective in perceiving things can enlighten us, especially that everything has both pros and cons. In other words, studies have not found vegetarianism as bad for the environment. They just found that not every plant product is more environmentally friendly than every meat product.
Despite these slight bumps on the road, researchers at the University of Oxford still recognize that cutting down on meat and dairy could curb carbon up to 73%. Shifting to domestically grown fruits and vegetables can be a good way of living sustainably and avoiding unnecessary carbon footprints. With individualistic attempts, 60% of the stronghold of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions may be weakened. Therefore, in order to maintain global warming below 2°C, eating our way out of climate change is extremely crucial in curbing carbon and ensuring environmental sustainability.
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