Green Business Bureau Blog
How the American Diet is Impacting Our Environment
America is most definitely a carnivore country. Unfortunately, our diet of red meat and fat is not just killing us through various diet related diseases including obesity and diabetes, it is also having a negative impact on our environment. There are a variety of reasons that this heavy meat eating – which requires extensive meat production – is a problem. In short, it is expensive to produce meat and it requires a much higher output of resources such as water and land than vegetable farming does. Let’s look at some specifics.
The Environmental Cost of Too Much Meat While residents of the United Kingdom eat only about 175 pounds of meat and fowl a year, adults in the United States eat more than 220 pounds of meat and poultry each year. Raising this much cattle, pigs, chickens, turkey and so forth puts a huge strain on natural resources.
In the past 50 years the production of meat products in the world has risen by a factor of three. To accommodate three times more animals to be raised for food requires a lot of resources. Specifically, these animals eat grasses and grains which require a lot of resources to grow. In fact, various sources estimate that it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef; obviously this is an inefficient use of resources as 16 pounds of grain could feed many more people than 1 pound of beef. And this grain requires a lot of land – it is estimated by the United Nations that 30% of the Earth’s land mass is currently being used as either pasture land for cattle or to grow vegetables that are used to feed livestock.
The Lay of the Land So, 30% of our land is being used to breed livestock. As if these numbers are not shocking enough, population growth and the modern “super size” appetite are making it worse. According to researchers at the famed Smithsonian Institute, across the world approximately seven football fields worth of forest and other lands are cleared every minute to make room for more animal farming. This adds to the already staggering 260 million acres in the United States alone that are dedicated to growing meat and food for livestock.
The Water is a Problem as Well Of course cattle, pigs and fowl (oh my) do not live on grain alone – they need water. It requires an estimated 2,400 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef; that includes water to grow the grasses and grains the cow eats as well as water consumed by the cow itself. Think about it; for each pound of beef that we do not consume we could save as much as 16 pounds of grain and 2,400 gallons of water. Astounding.
Fossil Fuels and Methane Round it Out In addition to all of this waste of grain and water we have yet to even mention the vast amounts of fossil fuels that are used to run farm equipment, slaughter houses, processing facilities, meat product transportation, refrigerator cases at the grocery stores and so much more. Finally, we are left to deal with the waste created by all of these farm animals. In fact, the livestock industry is a huge creator of methane, one of the most dangerous greenhouse gasses, making meat production a primary contributor to global warming. Add to this the pesticides and other chemicals that are used in non-organic farming and you have truly created a recipe for environmental disaster.
How to Move Forward In short, a person who lives mostly by eating meat requires ten times more land to create their food than a person who lives mostly on plant materials. Few people expect that the world en mass will turn to vegetarianism in the near future, turning around this serious problem. But we should know that small changes count. Think about it – if the average American eats three quarters of a pound of meat a day then just trying to have two meat free days a week would save 78 pounds of beef a year. Given that a pound of beef has nearly 900 calories, this would potentially save 1,872,000 gallons of water and as much as 1,248 pounds of grain from being used by each person, and prevent the accumulation of up to 20 additional pounds of fat on the person’s frame. With just two vegetarian days per person each week we could make a huge difference in the environment and our collective waste line.