What’s the harm in a hamburger every now and then? If you’ve ever been involved a “morality” debate about vegetarianism, you know this question inflames passions and produces heated opinions, but it’s virtually impossible to back up these heated opinions with hard data and statistics.
But when it comes to the environmental effects of meat-eating, we can focus the discussion less on vague notions of morality and philosophy, and instead focusThe issue is that a hamburger is not just a hamburger; it’s the result of a long, energy-intensive chain of production that places enormous pressure on ecosystems and cornerstone resources like food and water. Let’s explore the issues to learn why going ‘veggie’ can help save the planet.
1. Climate change
Did you know vegetarian diets help mitigate the effects of global warming? In a widely-circulated 2006 report on the causes of climate change, the United Nations concluded a total of 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the animal meat industries—more than all forms of transportation combined.
It’s the result of tens of billions more energy-intensive animals being imposed on the biome, all exhaling that much more carbon dioxide and producing that much more methane-generating manure.
With a 70 percent increase in livestock production expected by the year 2050, the problem may get worse before it gets better. Dropping meat is an important way to help minimize the disastrous warming of the planet due to climate change.
Meat-eaters require a lot more land for their food compared to vegetarians. According to The Smithsonian, worldwide, we’re currently bulldozing the equivalent of seven football fields a minute in order to sustain the meat habit.
Nearly one-third of the earth’s available surface goes to support livestock economics, and this land suffers dramatically for it. Loss of biodiversity and soil fertility are major problems aggravated by overgrazing in region after region.
And before it gets to your plate, your meat plows through a lot of food. Livestock now consumes more of the world’s crops than humans. Meanwhile, more than a billion people go hungry each day.
3. Water Use
The largest consumer of fresh water on earth is not humans, but our livestock. The footprint comes not only from water used to satiate and clean livestock, but also from the breathtaking quantities spent growing crops to feed this oversized population of animals. More than 2,400 gallons of water are needed to produce just a single pound of meat.
By 2050, water scarcity will be much more intense. The UN predicts two-thirds of the world’s population won’t have access to clean water. This intensifying water crisis would certainly be a lot less painful if we all went vegetarian.
Rainforests are important because they harbor the greatest biodiversity of organisms on the planet. Half of all species make their home in tropical rainforests like the Amazon, nearly half of which is projected to disappear by the year 2050.
Meat consumption isn’t the only driver of deforestation, but it is a major contributor, responsible for about one-quarter of global forest destruction. Buying meat drives the production base that eats away at our tropical forests. Going vegetarian helps save these crucial habitats for future generations.
5. Water Pollution
Not only does meat consumption drain the global supply of water, it also threatens the integrity of water in surrounding and downstream environments. Livestock operations pollute local groundwater as well as the faraway marine ecosystems into which polluted rivers drain.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says animal excrement has contaminated 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and groundwater in 17 states. Why not adopt a vegetarian diet in the name of the health and safety of our living water systems?
The titanic environmental impact of meat production and consumption is startling. Raising animals for meat certainly takes a massive toll on the environment, from land and energy use to humanity’s critical food and water supplies.
These are tough realities—enough to make you want to go look at some good vegetarian recipes! Hey, as Paul McCartney noted, going veggie is the simplest and most effective thing you can do at an individual level to benefit the environment.