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Being Green, Eating Green: Are you what you eat? PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Friday, 11 February 2005 04:20
Being Green, Eating Green: Are you what you eat?
by Heather Steel
Vancouver Island Vegetarian Association Being Green, Eating Green: Are you what you eat?
by Heather Steel
Vancouver Island Vegetarian Association

There are many reasons for choosing to eat a plant-based diet and people will adopt a veg*n diet to varying degrees depending on their motivating reason or reasons. The previous edition of the Veggie Platter looked at the link between vegetarianism and peace. This edition focuses on how our food choices affect the environment.

Does being an environmentalist require giving up an omnivorous lifestyle? There are many meat-eating environmentalists who do wonderful work to help protect the environment ? David Suzuki (who eats fish and dairy) jumps to mind here. Should they be condemned for not doing their part in eating a plant-based diet? At a recent public forum in Victoria on the moratorium on off-shore oil drilling, several leading environmentalist speakers drove to the hearings. Should they be condemned for not doing their part in reducing fossil fuel consumption? At that same forum, a vegan friend of mine and avid cyclist, who had spoken out against lifting the moratorium, was asked by a representative of a natural gas company how he managed to get his kayak to the west coast of the island for his kayak trip. Should he be condemned for not having biked his kayak over to the west coast?

The fact is, we all contribute to environmental destruction in some way, big or small. UBC professor Bill Rees coined the term ecological footprint as a useful tool in measuring our impact on the environment. It is not a question of whether or not we leave a footprint, but rather how large our footprint is. Rees estimates that if everyone in the world lived like we do in North America, we would need the resources of four or five more planets. While it is not possible to erase our footprint entirely, we can work towards making it as small and light as possible. There are many changes we can make in our lifestyles to achieve this goal ? some have a small impact and others large. Cutting meat and other animal products out of our diet is one giant step we can take towards minimizing that footprint. Many environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, the National Audubon Society and Earthsave, have recognized that raising animals for food is one of the most devastating acts humans are inflicting on our planet. Yet many environmentally- conscious people continue to eat high up on the food chain. While they are doing many wonderful things to bring about a healthy environment, they are missing out on one of the strongest environmental impacts they may ever make as an individual.

Once upon a time, it was possible for hunter-gatherer humans to eat a diet high in meat and have no harmful effect on the overall environment. But that was well before we, as a species, reached a world population of over 6 billion! Now we rely on huge factory farms to provide mass quantities of meat to so many meat-addicted societies. Factory farms take an enormous toll on the environment through excessive water use and contamination, excessive soil use and erosion, excessive resource use, and increased air pollution. North America's meat addiction is steadily poisoning and depleting our water, land, and air.

The meat and dairy industries produce massive amounts of waste, mostly in the form of gases and slurry. Ammonia, methane and nitrous oxide produced by animals and their waste make up a significant amount of the world's total output. Ammonia plays a role in forming acid rain whilst the latter two gases contribute to the greenhouse effect, causing atmospheric temperatures to rise gradually, with disastrous future ecological consequences. The slurry generated by factory farms ends up in our natural water sources, poisoning fish, contaminating drinking water and altering ecosystems. The nitrogen and phosphorus which come from the waste over-fertilize the algae in the water, causing rapid growth and depleting the oxygen supplies, thereby suffocating aquatic ecosystems. A typical pig factory farm generates raw waste equal to that of a city of 12,000 people. Waste production of that proportion means accidents of equally devastating proportions. The relatively unknown 1995 New River hog waste spill in North Carolina poured 25 million gallons of excrement and urine into the water, killing an estimated 10 to 14 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal shell-fishing beds. Compare this to the well known 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska which dumped 12 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound and made headlines around the world.

Not only does factory farming pollute our waters, it also rapidly consumes our finite supplies of it. Of course it takes water to grow crops as well, but nowhere near the same levels as to raise animals. Paul and Anne Ehrlich?s book The Population Explosion explains that a pound of wheat can be grown with 60 pounds of water, whereas a pound of meat requires 2,500 to 6,000 pounds. Stats from PETA show that it requires about 300 gallons of water to feed a vegan for a day. It requires about four times as much to feed a vegetarian, and 14 times as much to feed a meat-eater. In his book The Food Revolution, author John Robbins estimates that, "you'd save more water by not eating a pound of California beef than you would by not showering for an entire year."

Another environmental side-effect of factory farming is the burning of fossil fuels. Oil is required in growing feed for the animals, transporting that feed to the farms, trucking the animals to automated slaughter facilities, then moving the dead animals in refrigerated meat trucks to processing centers, running the processing and packaging machines, and then finally shipping the packaged meat to grocery stores. According to PETA, producing just one hamburger uses enough fossil fuel to drive a small car 20 miles.

Those who claim that fish is an environmentally-friendly alternative to meat may be missing some important facts. The devastating effects of aquaculture, the fastest growing sector of the world food economy, are becoming more widely known as the industry expands at an alarming rate. The antibiotics put into the fish-farm waters contaminate the oceans and the genetically modified ?Frankenfish? often escape the confines of the farm and breed with wild fish, contaminating the natural gene pool. Research from the University of Stockholm has demonstrated that the horrible environmental influence of fish farms can extend to an area 50,000 times larger than the farm itself.

So what about just eating wild fish and sealife? While it is true that commercial fishing does not use chemicals or mutate fish species, sensitive aquatic ecosystems are being destroyed by the industry as it rips up sea and ocean bottoms. Trawlers scrape up the ocean bottom and destroy coral reefs and anything else they encounter. Hydraulic dredges, used to harvest shellfish, dig up huge pieces of the ocean floor in the process. The idyllic picture of a man sitting peacefully in his boat, earning his livelihood does not represent the reality of the fishing industry. The demand for fish could not be met without the use of this destructive farming equipment. According to PETA, one super-trawler is the length of a football field and takes in 800,000 pounds of fish in a single netting. Already ocean fish stocks are being fished beyond their capacity in many places. So yes, eating a salmon steak has less of an impact on the environment than eating a beef steak; but it is far from being environmentally friendly when you factor in the mass fishing required to supply the population with salmon.

Eating a plant-based diet keeps the earth green. Each vegetarian saves one acre of trees a year simply by his or her food consumption choices. It is these trees which keep the planet alive by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. In addition, they provide a habitat for millions of species, many of whom are rapidly going extinct as their natural homes get eaten up by human greed. In the U.S. to date, more than 260 million acres of land have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat In other parts of the world, huge areas of tropical rainforest are being deliberately destroyed by humans to make space for cattle grazing. Once the land has been cleared, it is often overgrazed and the nutrient-rich top soil is depleted. According to John Robbins, the average vegan uses about 1/6 of an acre of land to satisfy his or her food requirements for a year; the average vegetarian who consumes dairy products and eggs requires about three times that, and the average meat-eater requires about 20 times that much land.

David Suzuki?s Nature Challenge suggests making one day a week meat-free. And yes, that small change will make a difference. Just as opting not to drive one day a week will make a difference. And as that one day grows into more days a week, we will start to see bigger differences. An analogy sometimes used to illustrate the relative effects of incremental dietary changes on the environment says that eating meat is like driving a huge SUV, eating a vegetarian diet is like driving a compact car, and eating a vegan diet is like riding a bicycle or walking.

The choice to green one?s diet for environmental reasons needs to come from a conscious decision based on an understanding of the environmental consequences of eating meat. As vegetarians we need to be spreading the word to those who may not put so much thought into the impact their diet has on the world around them. However, acting as the veggie police and trying to intimidate or humiliate or guilt others into changing their diet will not bring sustainable results. There is a fine balance between informing and annoying.

With the severity of our present environmental crisis, it is easy to get excited and want to see change - and to have that change happen yesterday. However, to expect a complete one-eighty lifestyle change from someone is not realistic. We need to acknowledge the positive choices each person is making, no matter how small, while at the same time projecting the vision of the big goal as a beacon towards which we all are in the process of moving.

Ehrlich, Paul and Anne. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Robbins, John. The Food Revolution. Boston: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2001.
PETA website
Vegan Outreach
Last Updated on Friday, 11 February 2005 04:20

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