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Saving the Planet, One Meal at a Time

Posted on Nov 9, 2014

By Chris Hedges

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Numbered footnotes, with hyperlinks, appear at the end of this article.

My attitude toward becoming a vegan was similar to Augustine’s attitude toward becoming celibate—“God grant me abstinence, but not yet.” But with animal agriculture as the leading cause of species extinction, water pollution, ocean dead zones and habitat destruction2, and with the death spiral of the ecosystem ever more pronounced, becoming vegan is the most important and direct change we can immediately make to save the planet and its species. It is one that my wife—who was the engine behind our family’s shift—and I have made.

A person who is vegan will save 1,100 gallons of water, 20 pounds CO2 equivalent, 30 square feet of forested land, 45 pounds of grain and one sentient animal’s life1 every day.

Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all worldwide transportation combined—cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes.3 Livestock and their waste and flatulence account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, or 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.4 Livestock causes 65 percent of all emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more destructive than carbon dioxide.5 Crops grown for livestock feed consume 56 percent of the water used in the United States.6 Eighty percent of the world’s soy crop is fed to animals, and most of this soy is grown on cleared lands that were once rain forests. All this is taking place as an estimated 6 million children across the planet die each year from starvation and as hunger and malnutrition affect an additional 1 billion people.7 In the United States 70 percent of the grain we grow goes to feed livestock raised for consumption.8

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The natural resources used to produce even minimal amounts of animal products are staggering—1,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk.9 Add to this the massive clear cutting and other destruction of forests, especially in the Amazon—where forest destruction has risen to 91 percent10—and we find ourselves lethally despoiling the lungs of the earth largely for the benefit of the animal agriculture industry. Our forests, especially our rain forests, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and exchange it for oxygen: Killing the forests is a death sentence for the planet. Land devoted exclusively to raising livestock now represents 45 percent of the earth’s land mass.11

And this does not include the assault on the oceans, where three-quarters of the world’s primary fisheries have been overexploited and vast parts of the seas are in danger of becoming dead zones.

We can, by becoming vegan, refuse to be complicit in the torture of billions of animals for corporate profit and can have the well-documented health benefits associated with a plant-based diet, especially in the areas of heart disease and cancer. 

Richard A. Oppenlander in his book, “Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet,” draws the terrifying scenarios that lie ahead unless we change what we eat. He notes that we can save more water by refusing to eat a pound of beef—which takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to produce12—than by not showering for a year and that half the water in the United States is used to sustain livestock. He writes:

Your contribution to pollution begins with what you decide to purchase to consume. It’s not just with the occasional purchase; it’s with every food item you eat, every day. With meat and animal products, the pollution associated with your choice is massive. In order to raise that animal for you to eat, there is baggage that silently comes along with it—silent to you, that is, although it speaks loudly elsewhere. In the United States alone, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and cows in factory farms produce over five million pounds of excrement per minute. These are the animals raised each year so that people can continue eating meat, and they produce 130 times more excrement than the entire human population in our country. This manure sewage is responsible for global warming, water and soil pollution, air pollution, and use of our resources. The waste produced by the animals raised for food includes with it all the antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and other chemicals used during the raising and growing process. Accompanying this is methane released by the animals themselves, as well as the carbon, nitrous oxide, and additional methane emissions produced during the whole raising, feeding, and killing process.

On any given acre of land we can grow twelve to twenty times the amount in pounds of edible vegetables, fruit, and grain as in pounds of edible animal products. We are essentially using twenty times the amount of land and crops and hundreds of times the water, as well as polluting our waterways and air and destroying rainforests, to produce animals to kill and eat … which is unhealthier than eating the plant products we could have produced.


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