Saturday, April 7, 2012

Environmental Implications of the Meat Industry

Sure, being a vegan/vegetarian has loads of personal health benefits. Vegetarians and vegans are generally at a lower risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. I've even read studies swearing that people who avoid animal products have slimmer waistlines and an overall lower BMI than meat eaters. I could go on about the other health and beauty plusses of eliminating meat and such, but I'm thinking on a more global level. 

Have you ever thought about how environmentally taxing your dinner is? Global climate change, deforestation, pollution and water waste can all be attributed to the meat industry. More than a quarter of Earth's land is used for raising livestock. To keep up with demand, countless acres of land have been deforested worldwide to make room for animals headed for slaughter. Even more land has been cleared to grow feed for the animals. Oh the pesticides and fertilizers! These chemicals end up in places you don't even want to think about, like your drinking water. 

In addition to all the land cleared, think of all the water needed to raise the animals that end up on your plate. Half of the water used in the U.S. supplies the livestock and the feed crops. Half! That 16 oz. steak you're gorging on? It took hundreds of gallons of water to end up in your stomach. That's 15 times more water than required for an equal amount of plant protein. Consider where all that water ends up. I'm reminded of a documentary I saw years ago on the poultry industry. Poultry on the Potomac alleged that the Potomac River was on the list of the 10 most endangered rivers in North America due to pollution from the poultry industry. It claimed runoff from the numerous poultry farms into the river was responsible for outbreaks of toxic microbes that make the river intolerable for some aquatic life.   

Plenty of people eliminate animal products to avoid antibiotics and hormones that are administered to the animals from entering their bodies, but even with a plant based diet they may still be exposed. Antibiotics have been found in crops such as potatoes, lettuce, spinach and corn that have been grown in manure. Ninety percent of drugs given to livestock end up in their manure, polluting not only the crops that may grow in it, but also the surrounding environment when absorbed by the soil or washed into surrounding aquatic ecosystems. 

Raising livestock contributes more greenhouse gasses than even transportation. Transportation is a necessary part of most lives, but eating meat? It doesn't have to be. By making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you help yourself, the environment, and countless animals. I know this is easier said than done, but any reduction in animal product will have significance. There's a plethora of animal friendly recipes on the internet, like Resolution Kitchen (yes, that's a shameless plug), to help you get started, or to continue your veggie lifestyle. To those of you who think it can't be done, I challenge you to start by eliminating animal product from your meals just once a week. Now imagine doing that for every meal. Not so hard, is it?



  1. Elyssa,

    I agree with your position entirely. I think that it's self-evidently true that the health of human beings and the planet itself would be greatly enhanced if people switched from a meat-based to plant-based diet.

    Here's my problem with promoting veganism as a lifestyle: Americans in particular seem resistant to giving up animal products completely. For example, you'd think that people suffering from heart disease would be willing to adopt a vegan lifestyle in order to save their lives, but I can tell you from story after story that I've heard that many heart disease patients are unwilling to do this. They're just too damned addicted to the flesh of the beast!

    That's why I think a more effective campaign might be to promote an 80% vegan diet. It's a mostly plant-based diet with animal products eaten on occasion or used in small quantities to flavor food.

    This essentially is the kind of diet that people in most parts of Asian traditionally eat. In Thailand, where I've spent considerable time, for example, it's almost impossible to get a completely vegan meal, because fish sauce is used in almost everything.

    But I think that might be ok. An 80% vegan diet would give people almost all the same health benefits of a completely vegan diet and it would also minimize animal cruelty and environmental harm. It may not be the optimal solution, but it might be the best practical one for most people.

    Thanks for joining us on Ecoblog!

    1. Mmm, flesh of the beast. I don't get the obsession either.

      I agree that a totally vegan lifestyle is difficult, and it's not an option for everyone. I won't even pretend that I'm 100% vegan. At home, when cooking for myself I've found it easy to eliminate meat and other animal products. I still don't consider myself a vegan though. The challenge for me arises when I go out to eat and there are no appetizing vegan options on the menu. Even more challenging is going to dinner at someone's house, and a non vegan dish is being served. Do you offend your hosts and let the food go to waste? Or keep your mouth shut and eat the food that has already been cooked for you? I'd like to hear opinions on that.

      Any reduction in meat will have an impact on one's health and the environment. I agree that an 80% vegan diet would have significant results and still be a practical goal for most people, even for the Americans who think that a meal isn't complete without a hunk of flesh.

    2. I think that you are playing it too safe, Mike. A vegan diet has health and environmental benefits if it's followed conistently. It's far too easy to slip back into old and unhealthy patterns of behavior if you are eating meat and dairy on a regular basis. Before you know it you'll be back to the standard American diet. The trick to any successful life change is to bite the bullet and make the change completely. Half-way measures won't help in this respect.

      Really great post, Elyssa. I'm glad that someone is talking about vegan issues on this site.

  2. I must respectfully disagree with the characterization that being vegan is difficult or that you can't encourage a 100% vegan lifestyle. It most certainly isn’t, and you most certainly can.

    Being vegan has never been so easy and it's only getting easier. I'm proof of that, and I am by no means alone. You might have been able to make the "difficult" claim in say... 1989 - the year I became vegan, but I did it even then, and it’s certainly not difficult today. There are alternatives in virtually every grocery store in North America. Web sites, discussion forms, books, magazines, videos and more are all available to help make the transition.

    On whether a vegan should eat a non-vegan meal at someone's house simply because they don’t want to offend their host: Absolutely not! As an ethical vegan, I would no sooner cheat on veganism while away from my own kitchen than I would cheat on my girlfriend if I were away from her. The consistency of one's commitments is what allows you to look yourself in the mirror every morning with self-respect. One would have to ask themself why they decided to become vegan in the first place. If one is moved to veganism because they believe animals are sentient beings worthy of ethical consideration, then they would never knowingly eat even the smallest amount of animal products. If someone is moved toward veganism for health or environmental reasons, however, then I can see the possibility of one cheating. Fact is, while there is a compelling health and environmental argument to eat closer to a vegan diet, there is absolutely no compelling argument to remain 100% vegan for either of those reasons.

    The fact that eating even a small amount animal products is contributing to animal exploitation and death is what keeps anyone serious about the interests of animals from consuming them. Full-fledged veganism is the only rational response that hits at the heart of animal exploitation. And being vegan for ethical reasons is very likely the surest way an individual will remain vegan.

    On advocating a 100% vegan lifestyle: Absolutely possible and absolutely necessary. The health argument fails because it only appeals to a very specific population, and you can be perfectly healthy with a small amount of animal products in your diet. The environmental argument fails because steps to become greener are always framed (and perhaps rightfully so) in terms of reduction - reduce driving, reduce plastic use, reduce animal products in your diet. Reduce any of those things and your environmental rep is still in tact.

    (Continued below)

  3. I disagree with the notion that people are not ready to hear about veganism. This is a tendency I see far too often among animal advocates who believe that the public is not able to understand the arguments in favor of veganism and that we must “go easy” and instead talk about vegetarianism, “Meat Free Mondays,” “happy” meat, etc. I wholeheartedly disagree with that approach. I think it’s an elitist way of thinking about other people. There is no mystery here; there is nothing complicated. People can understand if we teach effectively.

    I believe people are good at heart and that advocates for veganism should appeal to a belief most people already hold: that animals should not be harmed unnecessarily. Because most people feel this way, they already believe something that compels them to become vegan. Although most people believe that animals should not be harmed unnecessarily, they act in ways that contradict that belief. Becoming vegan is the only way for a person to resolve that contradiction. This should be the basis of vegan education. As I mentioned earlier, there are no compelling reasons to remain 100% vegan if you’re motivated by the environment or health. Ethical vegans on the other hand, understand the inherent sentience of animals and are more likely to remain vegan.

    The sad fact is that the biggest obstacles to vegan education are the large, welfare groups that have become partners with institutional animal exploiters to promote the consumption of animal products by giving various forms of “animal rights approval” to animal exploitation. See my last post for more on that.

    Anyway, the way I see it, as more people become vegan, demand drops and consciousness about the unjustifiable nature of animal use is raised. I regard veganism as the most important way to advocate for non-human animals.

    1. As an on and off again vegan, I can tell you that for most of us--including many people who are sympathetic to animal rights issues--cutting out ALL animal is very difficult. This is especially true for those living on the East Coast, where there is not the kind of vegan culture that exists on the West Coast. Just try to find anything vegan on the menu of most major restaurant chains on LI!

      That's why I think the goal--at first any way--has to be to get people to reduce their consumption of animal products. The benefits of doing so may encourage people to go further, but there would still be great beenfits to human health and animal welfare if American just reduced their consumption of animal products by even 50%.

      Great debate!

  4. I don't have much experience with the vegan culture of the West Coast besides Los Angeles and San Francisco, but in my opinion, it's not better there than NYC. I've heard Portland is a vegan mecca, but I think even they would have a hard time competing with NYC.

    On LI: I'll concede that chain restaurants leave a lot to be desired, but check out some non-chain places if you're not up for venturing into NYC. Here's VegGuide's list of places on LI that offer vegan options:

    Mike, if you haven't already done so, you must try 3 Brothers Pizza in RVC. ( They are 5 minutes from the main campus and they have an entirely vegan menu, which is phenomenal. They even do a vegan brunch on Sundays, which is incredible.

    Not on the list, but two places I know of personally and can vouch for are Curry Club in Stony Brook ( and Live Island Cafe in Huntington (


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