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You Can't Be a Meat-Eating Environmentalist: Celebrate Earth Day by Going Vegan

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Message Heather Moore

If you plan on celebrating this Earth Day, April 22, by taking a short shower, wearing a “Save Our Oceans” T-shirt, riding a bus or a bike instead of driving a car, collecting recyclable cans, and chowing down on fried chicken or cheeseburgers—such as I used to do—you may be doing more harm than good. If you want to green the planet, start by greening your diet. All the recycling in the world can’t undo the environmental damage done by animal agriculture.

A November 2006 United Nations report revealed that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official Henning Steinfeld said that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.”

Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide together cause the vast majority of global warming. The livestock sector is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide and the single largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide emissions. In fact, according to the U.N., “the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.”

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago determined that switching to a vegan (pure vegetarian) diet is more effective in countering global warming than switching from a standard American car to a Toyota Prius. The researchers, Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, found that American meat-eaters, on average, are responsible for nearly 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide per person per year than vegans simply because of their food choices.

The FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow—Environmental Issues and Options,” indicates that animal agriculture is also a major source of land and water degradation. Livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet. The report states that “expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring—70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder.”


More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland to grow grain to feed farmed animals, which are fed more than 70 percent of the corn, wheat, and other grains grown in the U.S.

The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth. It would be much more efficient to feed this food directly to hungry, malnourished people. Approximately 1.4 billion people could be fed with the grain and soybeans fed to U.S. cattle alone. 

Eating a vegan diet saves water as well. It takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, but only 25 gallons of water are needed to grow 1 pound of wheat. In fact, a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water per day. You save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you do by not showering for an entire year. 

Animal agriculture not only wastes water but also pollutes our waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that factory farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population—87,000 pounds per second. A Scripps Howard synopsis of a Senate Agricultural Committee report on farm pollution issued this warning about animal waste: “[I]t’s untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and diseased. … It goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in and wash their clothes with and drink. It is poisoning rivers and killing fish and making people sick. … Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness, and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated. … Every place where the animal factories have located, neighbors have complained of falling sick.”  

Nothing good comes from animal agriculture. Tasty and nutritious mock meats, nondairy milks, and egg alternatives can be produced without using a single animal. And by going vegan, you’ll not only help the environment but also help protect your health and save animals’ lives. Each vegetarian saves more than 100 animals every year. So respect your fellow earthlings this Earth Day—please see // Meat and the Environment for more information and a free vegetarian starter kit.  

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Heather Moore is a freelance writer and a senior writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Norfolk, Va., where she lives with her rescued dog, Carly. Heather frequently writes on animal rights and health issues as a freelance (more...)
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