Saturday, April 21, 2012

THE RACE: Why I Became a Vegan, Part 4: To Help Mother Earth

This is a long overdue finale in this 4-part series that I started back in February. Ironically, however, this Earth Day weekend is the opportune time to talk about the final reason why I decided to become a vegan:  to help out our fragile Mother Earth.  By now hopefully you've read the first three parts:  Part 1 (to reduce animal cruelty)Part 2 (improved health and physical performance); and Part 3 (faith-based reasons, with the guest blog post from my friend Lois Godfrey Wye).  Each of these four reasons, to me, is equally important; but, for each of you, one or more of these reasons may hold more weight.  My hope is that at least one of theses reasons has made you, or will make you, examine your food choices more carefully.  Assuming you undertake that examination, the next step is to help you make the transition to a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle...But I'll save that for a later blog post.  

I think that out of all four reasons, this last reason may be the most controversial.  So let me state at the outset:  I do not believe that every human being must become a vegetarian or vegan to save the planet.  I also do not believe that eliminating all worldwide meat, poultry, fish, and dairy production is necessary to save the environment.  Finally, I recognize that there are numerous studies on both sides of the fence, some arguing that moderate meat consumption is necessary to deal with agricultural surplus, and some arguing that the massive agricultural industry is the biggest, if not one of the biggest, threats to our environment.  I'm not a scientist and I'm not about to insert myself into the middle of those debates or try to nitpick the facts/analyses of these various studies.  

Rather, for me, the environmental aspect of my decision to become a vegan is a way for me to avoid being a part of the massive, exploitative factory-farming and overfishing industries that, without a doubt and regardless of which study you read, wreak havoc on our precious environmental resources.  This environmental aspect is the icing on the cake for me - it's not necessarily the foundation of my vegan lifestyle.  

So with that in mind, here's a summary of some of the most widely-cited statistics/studies on the environmental impacts of the livestock, poultry, dairy, and fishing industry.  It's a bit dry, but this is purely for your informational purposes....

Livestock, Poultry, and Dairy Industry

A January 2008 New York Times article reported that in 1961, the world's total meat supply was 71 million tons.  In 2007 it was 284 million tons.  By 2050, world meat consumption is expected to double.  That same article noted that two geophysicists estimated that if all Americans reduced their meat consumption by just 20%, it'd be the equivalent of switching from a standard sedan like a Camry, to a Prius.  Also, a 2007 study by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that production of 2.2 pounds of beef is equal to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt lightbulb for almost 20 days.

A March 2010 Report by an international research team, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization ("FAO"), evaluated the global impact of meat consumption to try to find real world solutions.  The Report, called Livestock in a Changing Landscape, found, in part, that: 
  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than 1/4 of the Earth's land.  
  • Production of food for livestock animals consumes about 1/3 of the total arable land.
  • The livestock sector, including transportation and feed production, accounts for approximately 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, including 9% of carbon dioxide and 37% of methane emissions worldwide.   
  • Much of the world's pastureland has been degraded by grazing or feed production. 
  • Many of the world's forests have been cleared to make way for additional farming. 
  • Feed production requires the intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels.    
(The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment also discusses the March 2010 Report and summarizes some of its findings).    

In 1998, the United States Environmental Protection Agency's National Water Quality Inventory indicated that agricultural operations are a significant source of water pollution in the United States.  Agricultural operations are estimated to contribute, at least in part, to the impairment of 170,750 river miles, 2,417, 801 lake acres, and 1,827 estuary square miles.  Manure runoff contains substances like ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous, and pathogens, as well as antibiotics, pesticides and hormones from food and drugs given to the livestock.  These pollutants impact surface water, groundwater, soil, and air.  In surface waters, ammonia and increased oxygen demand from manure runoff can cause fish kills and reduced biodiversity.  Solids from manure can increase turbidity and smother organisms.  Nitrogen and phosphorous can result in eutrophication and algae blooms.  In groundwater, pathogens and nitrates from manure can impact drinking water. In fact, according to EPA, nearly 2% of the American population is exposed to increased nitrate levels in water from drinking wells.  

Moreover, "animal feeding operations" ("AFO's") present additional issues.  According to EPA, AFO's are "agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations.  AFO's congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on small land area.  Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.  There are approximately 450,000 AFOs in the United States."  Air emissions and odors from AFO's pose a significant problem.  Odor emissions at AFO's come from manure storage facilities, animal housing, and land application of manure.  Animal waste decomposition releases volatile organic compounds, in addition to other gases such as ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide, which have implications for global warming and acid rain.  In fact, EPA estimates that 1/3 of the methane produced each year comes from agriculture (primarily animals and manure storage units).  

Fishing/Seafood Industry

The Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the FAO explains some of the more well-documented fishing activities that can have negative environmental impacts include:  
  • Overfishing can reduce the spawning of a fishery below desired levels. 
  • Overfishing can cause the reduction of large, long-lived, high-value predator species, and the increase of small, short-lived, and lower-value prey species - a process called "fishing down the food chain."  
  • Non-selective fishing gear can result in the entanglement of fish, turtles, and seabirds, resulting in the unintended catch (a.k.a. "bycatch") of juvenile fish and vulnerable or endangered species.  These bycatch usually are discarded dead.  
  • The use of trawls and the use of other mobile gear such as dredges on the bottom of the ocean can change the bottom structure, benthic structure, and microhabitats.  These impacts are particularly troublesome in areas where there are coral reefs, sponges, tube worms, sea grass, and algae beds.   

My Final Word

As I stated at the beginning, there are some benefits to animal agriculture.  As EPA notes, animal manure is a valuable soil fertilizer and conditioner, when used in the proper conditions.  Also, for some areas of land, raising livestock is the only viable option for land usage, e.g., where the land cannot be used to grow crops.  So I appreciate that, from the environmental standpoint, elimination of all animal agriculture is not the answer (and probably the same goes for the elimination of all fishing).  Recognizing this fact, the FAO reports cited above provide suggestions for more sustainable agriculture and fishing.  
But what does that mean for someone like me?  Why not support more sustainable agriculture and fishing?  Well, read the first three Parts of this series....Personally, I'd rather drive the Prius than the Camry...And I'd rather save another living creature than assume that it's only value is to put food in my belly.  

The bottom line is this:  There is no way the entire world's population will ever become vegetarian, let alone vegan.  In fact, I'd go so far to say that a veg lifestyle will never even become the way of life for the majority of the world's, or even the United States', population.  But that's not my goal.  My goal through this 4-part series was to get you to think about your food choices...from animal welfare, health, faith-based, and environmental perspectives.  Something in one of those perspectives should make you want to eat more mindfully - whether you do that by eliminating or reducing your animal consumption or not....

Are you more likely to (a) try a completely veg lifestyle; (b) reduce your consumption of animal products; or (c) not make any changes to the amount of animal products you consume? 

If you were to try a veg lifestyle or try to reduce your consumption of animal products, what would be your biggest reason(s) for doing so?  



Jen said...

I prefer vegetables and fruits to other food. Grains are fairly high on my list of prefers as well, though I try to limit them. From the time I was a child, I selected vegetables and fruits over animal products. I still eat this way. If I was single, there is no question that I would be 100% vegetarian. As it is, I'm about 90% there. I ocassionally fix animal products (chicken or fish) because my family likes to eat it and I feel pressured there. However, the more I learn & educate myself about how to get what we need from a plant-based diet, the less animal products show up in our house.

I have enjoyed this series and read several of your posts multiple times. Thanks.

Life Through Endurance said...

Hey's great to hear from you as always. I certainly understand the weirdness of living with people who like to eat animal products. To each his own. My boyfriend eats animal products and we're both good about respecting each other's choices. I imagine with kids in the mix that makes things even more difficult. I commend you for balancing some difficult choices and you definitely are doing what's important - thinking about your food choices! Thanks for reading the series...I really appreciate it!