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There are lots of reasons to eat less meat—it’s healthier, requires fewer resources and less land, prevents potential greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, alleviates cruel living conditions for livestock animals, and protects tropical forests and natural habitats. This issue touches on so many environmental concerns that it makes heaps eco-sense to eat less meat—or no meat at all!

How to eat little or no meat

If you’re new to a meat-less life, start small by eating just one meat-free meal each week, a move that could save close to 10,000 gallons of water every month, protect one acre of trees per year, and cut common water pollutants from entering our waterways by nearly 21 kilograms annually.[1][2] Once you've discovered the health benefits and unique menu options available in the vegetarian spectrum, slowly increase the number of non-meat meals you consume weekly.

  1. Try meat alternatives: Many great meat substitutes are on the market today—anything from tofu dogs and burgers to Tofurky loaves and veggie pepperoni. With lots of great brands to choose from, you’re bound to find something you like.
  2. Substitute beans, lentils, and grains for meat: You’d be surprised by the great meals you can concoct by choosing to use non-meat protein in your food, and it may even take you down different cultural dining paths. These options are readily available in your local grocery store. For ideas on how to cook vegetarian at home, check out Kaboodle’s Vegetarian Cookbook Wish List or MSN’s Vegetarian Cooking book list. Or get inspired by visiting the Meatless Monday website.
  3. Choose vegetarian restaurants: If you're afraid to make a homemade vegetarian meal, why not try a vegetarian restaurant for some inspiration? Check out Happy Cow’s Vegetarian Guide to Restaurants, The Vegetarian Resource Group’s restaurant listing, or VegDining.com’s database of veggie restaurants for locations in your area.

Just remember that when you do eat meat, go for locally raised, grass-fed, and organic meat options. This will reduce the environmental impact of your meals and should mean healthier food for you and happier lives for the animals.

Defining meat-less diets

There are many dietary plans associated with low-meat diets, depending on what you choose to omit and what you continue to consume. For instance, it may help you to know that eating less meat doesn’t necessarily make you a vegetarian. Some diets reduce meat consumption, but continue to include certain types of animal-based protein:

  • Pescetarianism: Individuals who adopt this diet exclude all meat from their diets but will eat fish and seafood.
  • Semi-vegetarianism: Those calling themselves semi-vegetarians exclude meat but include fish and poultry in their diets.
  • Flexitarianism: Flexitarians stick primarily to vegetarian diets but occasionally eat meat, poultry, or fish.
  • Pollotarianism: Adopting this diet means excluding meat and fish from your diet, but including poultry and fowl.
  • Freeganism: In a related movement, some people adopt freeganism, which encourages a diet based only on ‘found’ food—which is food available through foraging, dumpster-diving, and gardening. Many freegans are also vegetarians or vegans.

If you do choose to completely eliminate meat, you also have several diets from which to choose:

  • Veganism: Dietary vegans choose to exclude all animal products from their diet, including eggs, dairy, and honey. Complete vegans refuse to use animal products of any kind in their lives (including gelatin, meat flavorings, and animal fat).
  • Ovo vegetarianism: Individuals espousing this diet exclude dairy, fish, and poultry from their diets, but still eat eggs. They may or may not eat honey.
  • Lacto vegetarianism: A lacto vegetarian continues to eat dairy, but excludes eggs in addition to meat, poultry, and fish.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarianism: People who adopt this diet exclude meat, fish, and poultry, but eat eggs, dairy, and honey.

Find it! Meat alternatives

Get meat substitutes for common meat entrees, including burgers, loaves, sausages, deli slices, and more. Check your local natural food store for even more options.

Before you buy

If you've got any questions about the health benefits of eating less meat, consult a dietician. They can tell you that the American Dietetic Association has approved vegetarian diets as both healthy and helpful in preventing and treating diseases. They'll also help you get the right vitamins, minerals, and protein as you make the transition to a meatless diet. Also, familiarize yourself with the Vegetarian Diet Pyramid published by Mayo Clinic.

Eating little or no meat helps you go green because…

  • It reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emitted to produce your meals.
  • It protects tropical forests from being cleared for animal pasture.
  • It keeps pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and other chemicals, as well as animal excrement, from polluting waterways.
  • It opens up more land to be used for vegetable-based diets, which require less land, water, and fewer resources, thus enabling the production of more food for the world’s hungry.
  • It means fewer animals are required to live in cruel, inhumane conditions.

Global meat consumption has increased rapidly over the last several decades and with it the growing environmental problems related to an omnivore’s diet. Sixty percent of the recent growth in meat consumption has occurred in the developing world, which collectively eats half of all meat.[3] Production of meat is set to double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050.[4] As the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) recently noted: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”[5]

Meat and climate change

A growing group of scientists is making the connection between meat diets and global climate change. Two main bridges are being built between these issues: fossil fuel use related to meat production and the greenhouse gases emitted by animals themselves throughout the course of their lives.

Conventional farming techniques require fossil fuels for the production of fertilizers and pesticides, fueling machinery (to produce animal feed), and transporting animals and meat, as well as packaging, processing, and storing food. Yet more problematic than direct fossil fuel usage are the greenhouse gases (methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) in particular) produced both during normal digestion in cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels, as well as during the anaerobic decomposition of livestock manure, especially when handled as liquid manure.

A good portion of human-related greenhouse gas emissions comes from the digestive process of these animals, including 9 percent of all carbon dioxide, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide.[6] Methane and nitrous oxide are far more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane is 20 times more potent, while nitrous oxide is 310 times more effective than CO2.[7][8]

The relative potency of methane and nitrous oxide is so much greater than carbon dioxide that, according to a recent FAO report, livestock generate greater quantities of greenhouse gases than do all the cars on the road across the globe.[6] While buying all local food is like driving 1,000 fewer miles in your car annually, cutting dairy and meat one day a week results in equivalent reductions. Switching to an all-vegetable menu is equivalent to keeping your car off the road for 8,000 miles every year.[9] Additionally, a Carnegie Mellon University study strongly suggests that eating less meat will reduce carbon emissions even more than purchasing locally-grown food.[10]

Stats like these have led to questions like: "Can going vegan do more to slow global climate change than shopping my local farmer's market or buying a hybrid car?"[11] The answer is an astounding "Yes!"[12] In fact in a contest, a vegan driving a 4x4 can do more to combat climate change than a hybrid-driving omnivore.[13]

Forests and land on meat diets

The FAO estimates that the grazing of livestock is the largest human-related consumer of ice-free terrestrial land on the planet, currently occupying 33 percent of the earth’s arable land.[14] Indeed, livestock production has been implicated as the major driving force behind deforestation, which in turn causes a significant reduction in wildlife biodiversity worldwide, a problem that is further complicated by climate change, pollution, overfishing, and sedimentation of coastal areas. In his book The Food Revolution, John Robbins estimates that it requires 55 square feet of rainforest to produce a single meat-based meal.[15] Meat production has also been implicated in serious topsoil loss—producing one hamburger causes the loss of topsoil equal to five times the weight of the beefy meal.[1]

But land-use isn't the only terrestrial problem related to meat eating.[16] Seventy percent of the grains and cereals grown in the US are used as feed for farmed animals. In other words, more cropland is used to feed animals than is used to feed humans. In fact, with the combined agriculture and grazing land needed to raise livestock, about half of total land in the US is used to produce meat, and over 260 million forest acres have been cleared to create cropland for animal feed.[17]

What's more, meat production is far less efficient in terms of land use than growing crops. For instance, 1 acre of land used to raise cattle for meat yields only 20 pounds of meat, whereas 1 acre of land used to produce soybeans for human consumption yields 356 pounds of protein.[18] Soybean protein is comparable to meat on many levels—it provides all the essential amino acids and macro-nutrients and is considered a complete protein with the added benefit of calcium, folic acid, and iron. According to an position paper published by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), soy protein can replace animal-based protein “without requiring major adjustments elsewhere in the diet.”

Citizens of developing countries may be most affected by the growing demand for animal-protein. Farmers raising livestock in developing countries (commonly for export to developed countries) are often forced off their land, which once provided them with income and food. The land is then clearcut to make room for animal pastures. Residents in these countries are left with polluted water, infertile land, and limited options for food production. Reducing global meat consumption by just 10 percent, on the other hand, would likely free up enough land and grain to feed 60 million people.[1]

Water usage in meat consumption

Though there have been many news-catching oil spills around the world in recent decades, livestock waste spills have garnered little attention. The 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina dumped 25 million gallons of excrement and urine into fresh water sources, resulting in the immediate deaths of over 10 million fish and the spread of a virulent microbe which has since killed another billion.[19] Spills like this are not that uncommon and pose an increasing threat to fish stocks around the globe.

Raising animals for food is also a significant drain on water resources, since grain crops grown for livestock require huge infusions of water and pesticides, which also pollute remaining water supplies. Eight percent of water used by humans globally goes to irrigating feedcrops for livestock.[20] While it takes only 300 gallons of water per day to grow food for a vegan, more than 4,000 gallons of water is required (for feedcrops and animals combined) to produce enough food for a meat-eater every day.[18]

Further exacerbating water problems, factory farms in the US are responsible for approximately 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and 55 percent of soil erosion and sediment buildup.[20] In fact, livestock production has been targeted as the main source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination (due to fertilizer and pesticide use) in the South China Sea, which has resulted in serious marine biodiversity losses.

Cruelty to animals

Although not the only animal rights advocate, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been one of the strongest voices in the campaign to draw attention to animal cruelties common in the meat industry. Overly confined living conditions, overuse of antibiotics and growth hormones, painful management techniques, and inhumane slaughter procedures are just some of the concerns leveled at meat producers.

Meat and human working conditions

Keeping costs low is important to the meat industry, and workers often suffer as a result. Poor ventilation, fast-moving equipment, and frightened, angry animals makes for dangerous and unhealthy working conditions for many meat-producing employees. What results are injury rates three times higher than in private industry, and according to CorpWatch, these conditions combined with unfair labor practices make meat packing the most dangerous factory job in America.[21]

Related health issues

Dietary considerations

Many studies indicate diets low in animal protein are healthier for humans. For instance, according to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarian diets can lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, and some cancers.[22] Eating less animal protein may benefit vegetarians by lowering their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, while increasing quantities of whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables which have their own disease-busting capabilities. In particular, these foods have been shown to decrease the risk of some cancers. One study estimates colo-rectal cancer drops by about 30 percent for every 100 grams of red meat cut out of a person's diet per day—a near 50 percent reduction. However, whether or not vegetarians benefit more from a diet free from meat or higher quantities of plant-based foods remains an open question.

A common misconception is that vegetarians are unable to consume enough nutrients and protein without meat, but both the American Dietetic Association and the FDA maintain that vegetarian diets, when done right, can be as healthy, if not healthier than diets containing meat. By the numbers, vegetarians are nine times less likely to be obese, 40 percent less likely to develop cancer, and have 50 percent fewer instances of heart disease than meat-eaters.[23] Diets containing soy protein, for instance, help to lower LDL cholesterol partly because of soy’s high isoflavone content.

But vegetarian diets, like any diet, require balance and a well-rounded approach. For instance, a diet that completely excludes animal foods (meat, eggs, and dairy) can result in deficiencies of vitamin B12, so many vegans take vitamin supplements, especially during pregnancy, breast-feeding, and growth periods. Other nutrients vegetarians should be mindful of include calcium, iron, and zinc.

Virulent disease control

Epidemic diseases are another looming meat-related health threat. Industrialized factory-style farming methods, which often require animals to be raised in close confinement, promotes the spread of deadly diseases like mad cow, avian flu, and those caused by E. coli. In a widely criticized move, 15 nations have recently banned free-range and backyard bird farms because of fears that they promote the spread of avian flu. Unfortunately, bird diseases tend to spread more rapidly in densely populated factory farms that are in close proximity to urban centers (42 of the 45 2004 avian flu outbreaks in Laos occurred in factory farms), making the banning of free-range poultry farms unwarranted and potentially more harmful.

Controversies

Approximately 85 percent of all soy grown in the US is genetically modified.[24] Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are fraught with environmental drawbacks, including pest resistance to GMO-produced pesticides, unintentional spread of transgenes through cross-pollination, and loss of crop biodiversity.

External links

Footnotes

  1. emagazine - The Case Against Meat: Evidence Shows that Our Meat-Based Diet is Bad for the Environment, Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises Our Health
  2. David Suzuki - Nature Challenge Newsletter
  3. Worldwatch Institute - New Meat Byproducts: Avian Flu and Global Climate Change
  4. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Livestock a major threat to environment: Remedies urgently needed
  5. Food and Agriculture Organization report - Livestock’s long shadow: Executive summary
  6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations - Livestock a major threat to environment: Long shadow
  7. US Environmental Protection Agency - Climate Change: Methane
  8. US Environmental Protection Agency - Climate Change: Nitrous oxide
  9. Carnegie Mellon - Headlines: Researchers Report Dietary Choice Has Greater Impact on Climate Change Than Food Miles
  10. Discover News - Eating Green: Food Type Trumps Distance
  11. About.com - What does eating meat have to do with fossil fuels?
  12. The Green Guide - The Lowdown: Cows or Cars?
  13. BBC - Cutting down on meat and dairy: Avoid foods from animals that burp
  14. Food and Agriculture Organization report - Livestock’s long shadow: Land degradation
  15. Robbins, John (2001) The Food Revolution. Boston, Massachusetts: Conari Press: 256
  16. GoVeg.com - Meat and the Environment
  17. GoVeg.com - Wasted Resources: Land
  18. GoVeg.com - Why Animal Agriculture Doesn't Add Up
  19. emagazine.com - The Case Against Meat: Evidence Shows that Our Meat-Based Diet is Bad for the Environment, Aggravates Global Hunger, Brutalizes Animals and Compromises Our Health
  20. Food and Agriculture Organization report - Livestock’s long shadow: Water
  21. CorpWatch - US: Meat Packing Industry Criticized on Human Rights Grounds
  22. American Dietetic Association - Vegetarian Eating Plans Contain Health Benefits
  23. GoVeg.com - Eating for Life
  24. Grist - Soy Story: On the environmental impacts of soy