Thursday, February 26, 2009

We need to solve the 'meat problem'

The St. Catharines Standard - Thursday February 26, 2009

By Daniel K. Wilson, NIAGARA VOICES

“Other than not driving a car, not eating meat is the second most important positive environmental decision that a consumer can make.” – Union of Concerned Scientists

I’ve been meeting a lot of people who are truly concerned about the environmental crisis we’re facing. They’re also frustrated because they feel powerless to make changes.

Greening your home, installing a backyard windmill or buying a hybrid vehicle is unfeasible for most. It seems like only the wealthy can afford to be energy efficient.

Well, I have some good news. If you want to be eco-friendly without going into debt, then go vegetarian.

It’s true! Switching to a vegetarian diet is the single best thing you can do to slow down climate change and make the world a cleaner, better place in which to live.

In 2006 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report that found animal agriculture to be one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gas emissions and responsible for almost 20% of human-caused climate change. That’s more than the entire world’s transportation combined!

Henning Steinfield, a senior official with the UN says, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems,” adding, “Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”

Every aspect of livestock production: growing and transporting the crops to feed the animals; operating the factory farms, slaughterhouses and meat processing plants; and finally transporting the animals to those slaughterhouses, meat-processing plants and grocery stores as packages of meat requires staggering amounts of fossil fuels.

It’s estimated that for every pound of hamburger produced, 500 pounds of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.

The raising of animals for their flesh, milk and eggs is also responsible for other greenhouse gases including methane, which comes from belching and flatulent livestock.

Methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2 and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists livestock as the largest source of methane emissions in the world, generating more than 500 million tons of it annually.

Nitrous oxide, another byproduct of animal agriculture, is 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat inside our atmosphere, and the meat, egg and dairy industries account for nearly 65% of the planet’s nitrous oxide emissions.

As if that weren’t enough, roughly 80% of the world’s forests have been destroyed for animal agriculture, which release even more CO2 into the atmosphere. In Central and South America, much of the rainforest has been cleared to provide grazing land for beef cattle and we’re losing another 50 million acres every year.

According to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group in Washington, D.C., “the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future,” including deforestation, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution and climate change.

By changing our eating habits from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a vegetarian one, we do more for the environment than if we all drove hybrid vehicles. For example, it takes eight times more fossil fuel energy to produce animal protein than it does to produce plant protein.

Researchers at the University of Chicago agree. When geophysicists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin compared energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions with what people ate, the vegetarian diet turned out to be the most energy efficient.

“However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet,” concluded Eshel.

Fifty years ago, when the world’s population was around 3 billion, the world’s total meat supply was 70 million tons. Now there are over 6 billion of us and the global meat supply is approximately 290 million tons.

With our numbers expected to reach 9 billion by the middle of this century, and with nations like China and India adopting the Standard American Diet as a result of their growing economies, we need to address the 'meat problem' sooner rather than later. Moving away from an animal-based diet does.

And because eating lower on the food chain is cheaper, going vegetarian is good for the planet and your pocketbook. So if you’re serious about helping the environment but don’t know where to start, try going vegetarian. If you’re already vegetarian, then go vegan.