Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Environmental Effects of Meat and Dairy

After receiving many questions from friends and family, I've decided to start a series on why I eat what I eat-- particularly why I chose to go vegetarian and limit my animal product consumption. I hope to outline the logic behind my decision, including health, ethics, social justice and environmental factors.

Of course, what I say here is what works for me and why I do what I do. It is in no way intended to be a judgement for others but rather to encourage discussion and critical thinking of our food sources and diet. My eating habits change daily and depending upon the news I hear that day-- I believe we should all strive to be aware of where our food comes and how it gets to us.

All of that being said, let's get to today's topic: The Environmental Effects of Meat and Dairy production. (hyperlinked text are sources)

When I first went to New Zealand, I was amazed to see how the small island country gets its food. It's no secret that there are many sheep, cow and dairy farms in New Zealand but I was shocked to hear about the massive amount of energy and resource consumption that these (and all) farms consume.

Two of the most precious resources we rely on for life, sustenance and modern industry are water and oil. Essential for biological and civilized life, respectively, these resources are crucial to the survival of our food economy. Sadly, it's also no secret that we are over-consuming and are quickly running out of clean water and we've tapped the Earth for all its petroleum stores. Not to mention the negative greenhouse gasses emitted by oil-consuming transportation.

Until going to New Zealand, I hadn't given much thought to where our food comes from or how much energy it takes to get there. The first statistic I heard was given to us by a tour guide as we walked in a park near a dairy farm. The guide said that it takes over 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of cow's milk. I stopped dead in my tracks. My brain couldn't justify how that was possible, let alone why there wasn't a more efficient mechanism for production.

The tour guide explained it as such: the food industry is a cycle. From the monocultured crops of soybeans and corn, farmers dump tons of water on them each year in the form of pesticides and sprinkler systems. These crops sustain (if incompletely) the dairy and beef cattle we then harvest for food. Combined with drinking and washing water, some sources estimate that nearly a quarter of the world's water goes to livestock production. Furthermore, toxic run-off from these farms can contaminate public waterways and natural ecosystems, resulting in buildup of harmful environmental estrogens, antibiotics and poison for fish, frogs and other animals.

Thinking over these statistics and facts, I was appalled and disgusted. In effect, drinking one gallon of cow's milk is equivalent to wasting 1,999 gallons of water. This consideration alone was enough to make me stop drinking cow's milk. I've since found great alternatives that are cheaper and tastier, such as rice, soy and almond milk. Rice milk is my favorite.

Unfortunately, the world has an oil habit. A non-renewable resource found in petroleum extracted from the Earth, oil has taken over as the principal source of energy for American electricity, transportation and daily life. Oil goes into the production and transportation of food, plastics, trash, electronics, cars, planes, boats and more. As we find out we're nearing closer to running out of oil, gas prices are climbing and the world is looking for alternative energy sources.

The food we eat has a drastic impact on oil consumption. Bananas found in Michigan in the winter were likely flown in from Mexico or South America, using gas-guzzling airplanes and releasing countless harmful chemicals into the environment. Aside from imported produce, American-produced meat and dairy use countless barrels of oil every day.

Oil is used in farm equipment to tend to and harvest the feed crops, electricity to house and produce cattle, trucks to transport the cattle and countless other uses during the slaughter, packaging and shipping processes that go into creating a modern steak.

Looking at the massive consumption and waste of oil that goes into the production of meat, I have to wonder if my environmental impact is more effective if I choose to eat less meat, compared to choosing to not own a car. A major reason for limiting meat consumption is to reduce the amount of costly and polluting oil used and being pumped into the environment.

Air Quality
Finally, overconsumption of both oil and water combined with the effects of raising over 17 billion livestock in the world (yep, triple the number of people on our planet!) has significant effects on the atmosphere.
A manure digester at a NZ dairy farm
Livestock by nature produce greenhouse gasses such as methane (4 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide) and potent chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia in their 1.4 billion tons of waste produced each year. Additionally, the UN estimates that livestock account for over 1/5 of greenhouse gas emissions each year, more than American automobiles and farm equipment combined.

Examining all of these statistics and thinking about how to live a life that serves and appreciates the Earth and environment that nourishes me, I cannot see how meat and dairy eating fit into the picture. The sheer amount of resource consumption and waste production is not sustainable for the future of the human species and our modern society. In this way, I choose not to contribute to the harmful effects these processes create.

For more resources (that I hope to cover later in this series) check out Food Inc, the Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation.

Do you think of the environment when you make food choices? How do these issues affect what you eat?


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