This past May, May 2nd to be exact, I decided to become a vegan. There wasn’t any life-turning event or magical moment when I suddenly transformed. It was a slow process of self-introspection and education about how farming practices impact the environment, how consumption of meat and dairy affect our health, and ethical concerns about the farming industry. These issues appealed to the adult within me that was constantly arguing with the child within me, who felt cheated out of the yummy foods she liked and cried out in defiance over a silly feeling of being somehow deprived. The truth is that almost half a year later, I don’t feel deprived. In actuality I found the transition to be far easier than I originally thought. I feel stronger in mind, body AND spirit; lighter; and empowered. My decisions do make a difference, as I am one of many people now choosing this diet and this lifestyle. Even Walmart released a statement appealing to suppliers to keep up the demand for more plant-based foods and beverages, “Even if your target market isn’t vegans or vegetarians, you may still have plant-based foods in your assortment that could meet the needs of these consumers.” This was in response to new statistics published in Supermarket News, “Thirty-six percent of consumers buy plant-based meats; 26% of consumers say they have reduced their consumption of meat in the past 12 months; and 58% of adults drink non-dairy milk, according to speakers at Expo East. Fifty-eight percent.”
So why is there an upwards trend in plant-based diets and veganism? Even Glamour Magazine asks the question, “Why is everyone going vegan?”
One of the main reasons I chose to cut out meat was the affect of meat farming on the environment. The first thing we think about, or at least that I think about, when I think of cattle farming is deforestation, especially of the Amazon rainforest. Raising cattle requires clear-cut land for pasture, and cattle farming is one of the main contributors to deforestation. An estimated 70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon basin can be attributed to cattle ranching. So why should we in the United States care about the Amazon? Trees are key players in transforming carbon dioxide to oxygen, which is fundamental to human survival and basic elementary school science. We all know that, but if we keep cutting down trees, not only do we lose our best tools to keep out planet healthy, reducing heat-trapping carbon dioxide and global warming, but we are actually contributing more carbon emissions through the actual burning of the trees. Deforestation is therefore a factor in climate change, and choosing to eat less or no meat will help reduce that affect.
Deforestation, or the clear-cutting of land, also takes away the natural habitat of many animal species, decreasing biodiversity, and potentially causing the unnecessary extinction of many animal species, including lemurs and parrots. So choosing to put down the steak knife not only saves the obvious lives of cows slaughtered due to demand for steak, but it also potentially saves the lives of lemurs, parrots and other animals whose habitats are being lost to desire for meat.
Clear-cutting land for grazing has another impact on the world you may not have considered. One acre of land can produce 250 pounds of beef OR 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 30,000 pounds of carrots or 53,000 pounds of potatoes. That’s a huge difference that could impact world hunger. Not only could land used currently for grazing animals be used to grow vegetable and grain crops to feed more of our own people and the people of the world, but much of the current grain we cultivate here in the U.S. is used to feed farm animals! Roughly 70 percent of grain grown in the U.S. is fed to farmed animals. The United Nations proposes to end world hunger by 2030 through the adoption of sustainable and healthy diets. As the world’s population grows, we need to consider more effective ways of feeding the people. And if the population of the world is not of concern to you, consider that here in the United States, one-sixth of our citizens are “food insecure,” meaning that they do not have enough to eat. Your choice to eat less meat can help feed hungry Americans.
“On our nation’s richest lands, farmers grow corn and soybeans used to feed livestock, make cooking oil, and produce sweeteners. Yet one in eight Iowans often goes hungry, with children the most vulnerable to food insecurity.” — Published in the New Face of Hunger
Factory Farming and the Environment
When we think of farms and farming practices, most Americans tend to think of the romanticized family farm with grazing cows, wandering chickens and maybe a goat or two. The reality is much different. In order to keep up with the demand of a growing population with a lust for animal meat and products, American capitalistic ingenuity has stepped up and created the factory farm. Gone are the days of lush meadows, hand-milked cows and pigs sloshing around in the mud. Now farms produce and process animals by the thousands to produce as much beef, bacon or chicken as possible with the smallest amount of space.
The factory farm is an efficient machine. It is an industrial behemoth that wrecks havoc on our planet similar to other factories, but there is something unique to industrial farming: manure. Producing a large number of animals produces in turn a large amount of animal waste. In California alone, factory farms produce more untreated manure than the entire population of the United States. The problem arises not only with the management of that waste (where does it go???) but also with methane emissions. Another huge impact on the environment from factory farming practices comes from those methane emissions. The first time I heard that cows had a large impact on the greenhouse gas issue, I laughed. “You mean cow farts???” Not quite.
Animal agriculture produces 35-40% of all yearly methane emissions and is responsible for 18 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, including 37 percent of methane emissions and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. The methane releases from the billions of animals on factory farms are much more efficient at trapping radiation on Earth than carbon dioxide by more than 25 times over a 100-year period. Plus there are other harmful compounds related by factory farms, such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, which can cause immediate negative health effects in humans. Not to mention the water pollution that has resulted from agriculture run-off.
The fact is that you can make a huge impact on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, while also helping to feed the hungry all over the world, simply by reducing, or better yet, eliminating meat and dairy products from your diet.
Eliminating meat and dairy from my diet has not only been super easy to do, but it makes me feel great knowing I am helping the planet, my fellow humans, and preserving the Earth for my daughter and her children for generations. Are you ready to forego a moment of pleasure to make a difference in our world?
In the next part of this blog, I will focus on the health reasons why I have chosen a plant-based diet, including scientific studies that demonstrate a healthier lifestyle that results from a vegan diet.
Hristov, A.N., Oh, J., Lee, C., Meinen, R., Montes, F., Ott, T., Firkins, J., Rotz, A., Dell, C., Adesogan, A., Yang, W., Tricarico, J., Kebreab, E., Waghorn, G., Dijkstra, J. & Oosting, S. 2013. Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions in livestock production – A review of technical options for non-CO2 emissions. Edited by Pierre J. Gerber, Benjamin Henderson and Harinder P.S. Makkar. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper No. 177. FAO, Rome, Italy.
Koneswaran, G., & Nierenberg, D. (2008). Global Farm Animal Production and Global Warming: Impacting and Mitigating Climate Change. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(5), 578–582. http://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.11034