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Meat production is grossly wasteful of our Earth’s limited resources.
And what we get out of it is a multitude of health problems. If we can learn to share Earth’s limited resources with one another, world hunger and many other world and environmental problems will be significantly reduced.
World Hunger as a Reason for a Vegetarian Diet
Environmental Reasons for a Vegetarian Diet
In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists ranked meat eating as one of the most environmentally damaging actions that Americans perform, together with driving cars and trucks.
The meat industry is placing a vast burden upon the environment which is resulting in massive ecological catastrophes in both developed and under-developed countries, alike. Deforestation and soil erosion is a direct outcome of the industry and a major source of concern, for not only is it shrinking the world’s rainforests and destroying acres of fertile land but is in fact contributing to global environmental disturbances such as erratic weather patterns, climatic changes and the disruption of ecosystems.
If it is difficult to envisage how the consumption of a Big Mac or purchase of a frozen steak from the local supermarket is related to rampant destruction of fertile land halfway across the world, consider the following. The millions of animals reared for human consumption require pasture land to graze upon and massive amounts of grain to grow. Thus, vast areas of land have to be appropriated just for livestock grazing. Add to that the large sections of agricultural land required for growing crops such as corn, oats, soy and wheat for animal feed. To support such an endeavour, large areas of forests and rainforests are cleared. To get a perspective on the amount of land devoted to livestock rearing, in the U.S., a huge 87% of all agricultural land is used to raise animals for human consumption. That equates to 45% of the total land mass in the US. Globally, as much as 80% of deforestation is a direct result of converting forests into agriculture and pasture land.
Unfortunately, deforestation has serious repercussions, the most notable being the rampant destruction and degradation of arable land. Heavy grazing of perennial grasses rapidly strips the land of vegetation that binds the soil together. Overgrazing leads to the spread of tough shrubs and weeds, which however, do not anchor the topsoil well. The “loose” soil is then swept away by the wind and rain, and by being trampled on by the hooves of the animal, resulting in the loss of the vital topsoil. Stripped of its nutrients, the land is no longer fertile and is unable to support the growth of new vegetation.
Fertile land used for growing crops also suffers from soil degradation. Heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, and the practise of mono-cropping leach valuable nutrients out of the soil. Also, to meet the high demand for grain, the crop yield per land unit is increased. If the land is unable to recover, the topsoil rapidly degrades, rendering it useless. It only takes a few years of misuse and overuse to turn arable land into barren wasteland. In fact, 85% of all topsoil erosion in the US is the direct result of growing feed for livestock and overgrazing . Thus, the cycle begins anew as more trees are cleared to make way for grazing areas and farmland. More than 260 million acres of US forests have been converted into pasture and agriculture land and another acre of trees disappear every eight seconds for this purpose!
Cattle Ranching and Rainforest Destruction
The meat industry is also responsible for the wide-spread destruction of the pristine tropical rainforests in Central and South America. The expansion of the agricultural frontier to rear cattle for beef production is the primary cause of deforestation of rainforests. The rainforests of Brazil, for example, which comprise a third of the world’s total rainforest, are currently undergoing major deforestation because of cattle ranching. Their lush vegetation and diverse ecosystems are being replaced with sterile mono-cultures .
Cattle ranchers slash and burn rainforests to grow grass pasture for cattle and once the cattle have grazed sufficiently, they are slaughtered and exported to industrialized countries to be made into fast food hamburgers and frozen meat products. What makes this situation deplorable is that the bulk of the productive land in these countries is used to rear cattle for consumption by a handful of wealthy industrialized nations. As just one example, two-thirds of the agriculturally productive land in Central America is devoted to raising farmed animals, almost all of which are exported or eaten by the wealthy few in these countries . Poor peasants are pushed off their land and forced to move into rainforests to create small-scale subsistence farms or grow food on less fertile land which is usually steep and more susceptible to erosion when cultivated .
The destructive process of deforestation due to cattle ranching has also created a serious problem of soil erosion. Tropical rain forests have delicate ecosystems that also serve to protect soils from substantial amounts of erosion. However, when the forests are cleared, considerable amounts of top soil erosion occurs, depleting the land of its nutrients. Since the soil of the rainforest is very low in nutrients to begin with (most rainforest nutrients are found in the biomass above), after a few years of growing grass or other crops, the soil is unable to sustain life anymore. As a result, the land is abandoned and additional rainforest is cleared and converted into cattle pasture or agricultural land. The long-term effects of this depletion have been the overall reduction of the land's productive life.
The level of deforestation within Central and South American nations in the 1980s is illustrated in the following table. For comparison, nations from Africa and Asia are also included. In one decade, Costa Rica lost over 310,000 acres.
Tropical Deforestation in the 1980's
Deforestation in Hectares Percent
Brazil 9,050,000 1.8
1 hectare = 2.5 acres
Impact of Rainforest Deforestation
Tropical rainforests are the Earth's oldest living ecosystems. Three centuries ago, they covered 14% of the Earth’s land mass but deforestation has reduced this number to 6%. In the recent past, the major cause of this deforestation, and subsequent rainforest destruction, has been cattle ranching. Over 50% of tropical rainforest destruction is directly linked to raising livestock just for export to the US. It has been estimated that fifty-five square feet of rainforest is cleared for every quarter pound hamburger made from rainforest cattle,—an area equal to the size of a small kitchen. Each day, 140,000 acres of forest are levelled, or about 8 acres per second and an estimated 1,000 species become extinct each year. At this present rate of destruction, the rainforests will cease to exist in 50 years.
The ecological ramification of this is huge. Despite the small land area they cover, rainforests are home to about half of the 5 to 10 million plant and animal species on the globe and support 90,000 of the 250,000 identified plant species, not to mention the vast number of medicinal compounds, foods, nuts and herbs. Rainforests are a rich source of oxygen as trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In fact, the Amazon basin alone generates 20% of the world’s oxygen. They also regulate climatic patterns, and prevent the accumulation of greenhouse gases which are thought to promote global warming. Rainforests play a critical role in the atmosphere as they hold vast reserves of carbon in their vegetation. When trees are cut and left to decay, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This is the second largest factor contributing to the greenhouse effect. Clearing fifty-five square feet of rainforest – the amount needed to produce ONE quarter pound hamburger from rainforest cattle - releases five hundred pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The meat industry is one of the main causes of deforestation
It can be argued that many other human activities such as logging, mining and urban development also contribute to deforestation, and with a growing global population it is justifiable for forests to be cleared for agriculture and food production. So why point fingers at the meat industry? Undoubtedly, with an ever increasing global population and the race towards industrialization, the preservation of ecosystems has been, often times, completely overlooked. And it is true that soil erosion, land degradation and desertification have been the end result of many human activities. However, to truly comprehend the level of devastation caused by the meat industry it is crucial to look beyond localised damage and understand the long term ramifications.
First of all, rearing animals for human consumption is extremely inefficient and exceptionally wasteful. Animals have to be fed huge amounts of grain in order to yield a few pounds of meat.
Furthermore, when 16 pounds of grain is converted to one pound of beef, 16 times more water, 16 times more land and 16 times more herbicides and pesticides are unnecessarily used. This is hardly an efficient process of generating food especially when it comes to feeding the world’s population. In fact, the world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people. With the current global population at around 6 billion, this is more than the entire human population on Earth. Moreover, 37% of the world’s grain and 66% of US grain production is fed to livestock and more than 80% of the corn and 95% of the oats grown in the US are fed to livestock while 1 billion children worldwide will be permanently handicapped over the next 20 years as a result of inadequate caloric intake.
Secondly, the meat industry rarely if at all uses sustainable farming methods. It takes the maximum out of the land without replenishing it despite the dependence of the industry on the availability of arable land. It, therefore, comes as little surprise to learn that the world’s fertile land is gradually declining. In certain cases where overuse of the land is extreme, desertification has occurred. Many areas in the world have been affected by desertification due to poor agricultural practices such as overcultivation and overgrazing, and by deforestation to clear land for cropland or pastures for livestock. Cattle ranching is a major cause of global desertification--the reduction of dryland's ecological productivity. Overgrazing leads to a shift in species composition from perennial vegetation to shrubs and weeds. Without the cover of perennial grasses, fires that naturally control bushes lose their tinder, so the growth of shrubs is unfettered. As the variety of plant species dwindles, wildlife species also vanish. The following graph illustrates the decline of fertile land over the past 30 years.
The meat industry exploits less developed countries
Not satisfied with damaging just their own lands, industrialized nations are willing to exploit poorer nations to satisfy their hunger for meat. Due to the uneven distribution of wealth and land, the indiscriminate exploitation of poorer nations and their people is inevitable. With the world’s population already at over 6 billion, arable land is a precious commodity and using it to rear animals to be consumed by a handful of nations is unproductive, extravagant and a major contributor to the problem of world hunger. While tropical rainforests are chopped down without abandon and lush rainforests tuned into pasture land for rearing of animal, the majority of the local population starves. The World Bank estimates that of the 2.5 billion people now living in the tropics, one billion exist in absolute poverty.
Despite the fact that less than a third of the world’s population obtain the majority of their calories from the consumption of meat, the burden upon the land is already quite severe. As developing countries move towards economic prosperity and development, many more are embracing such a diet. According to a Worldwatch report, world meat production has surged nearly fivefold since 1950, growing from 44 million tons to 211 million tons in 1997. The US, China, the EU and Brazil together consume over 60 percent of the world’s beef, over 70 percent of the world’s poultry and over 80% of the world’s pork! To feed an average meat-eater, 3-1/4 acres of land per year is required. Compare this to a vegetarian diet which requires only 1/6 acre of land per year.
A meatless diet enables land to be employed more productively. Cereal grains produce 2-10 times as much protein for humans as land devoted to beef production. If the land is used to grow legumes, it provides 10-20 times as much protein compared to land used for beef production. It is not difficult to see how a reduction in the consumption of meat, beef in particular, would greatly reduce the rate of deforestation of forests and tropical rainforests, reduce the level of soil erosion, soil degradation and desertification, reduce levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, enable land to be used in a more productive manner, and most importantly of all, free up enormous quantities of grain for human consumption.
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