Earth’s environment is in trouble. Because of irresponsible, unsustainable consumption of natural resources, water and air are becoming increasingly polluted, soil is eroding due to deforestation and improper farming practices, the ozone layer is being depleted, and global warming is a major concern.
Although it may seem daunting to a person faced with all of these scary facts and wondering how he or she can help save the planet, those concerned are nevertheless working to lessen the negative effects of modern living and provide environmentally sustainable solutions to the most pressing problems.
It is not too late. Katherine Sprigg’s article “On Buying Local” in Everyone’s an Author provides one such argument. She recommends buying local as a way to reduce global warming and shows that eating local may reduce the impact that monoculture and industrial-scale farming have had on the environment (150-153).
Buying and eating local is a positive step towards ameliorating the situation, and there is something else which can be done locally: Since meat production is a huge factor in the environmental destruction caused by the modern drive towards overconsumption and unsustainable growth, world citizens must take specific steps to reduce or even eliminate meat consumption in order to address water depletion and pollution, support land conservation, and fight global warming.
Eating meat seems like a natural and innocuous activity to most people, and in the majority of households, meat forms the centerpiece of family meals. The world’s population is growing rapidly, and incomes are rising in many developing countries; as a result, consumption of meat is actually growing throughout the world (Godfray et al).
Damian Carrington, Environmental Editor of The Guardian, notes that “appetite for meat is rocketing as the global population swells and becomes more able to afford meat. Meat consumption is on track to rise 75% by 2050, and dairy 65%, compared with 40% for cereals” (Carrington).
Consequently, meat production has changed to meet the rising demand. The traditional pastoral setup of pigs, cows, and chickens grazing and roaming freely on the land of independent farmers has been replaced by factory farms. Factory farms are highly efficient industrial farming operations wherein animals are penned in tightly together and fed grain in feedlots instead of being able to graze naturally (Anomaly 246).
The animals’ excrement builds up in pools nearby. Grain, mostly corn, is grown to feed the animals, and water is used for the grain crops and for the animals. (Godfray et al). This practice allows industrial farms to churn out meat and dairy products at an incredibly efficient rate and keep prices down (Anomaly 246).
Unfortunately, besides being cruel to the animals involved, factory farming is environmentally unsustainable, exhausting finite natural resources. This system is wearing out the earth to provide food, and there is no other choice at this point but to make some changes.
One area where industrial-scale farms show an alarming degree of damage to the environment is water pollution and aquifer depletion. Science magazine reports in July 2018 that “Agriculture uses more freshwater than any other human activity, with nearly a third required for livestock” (Godfray et al.).
Additionally, almost all of the water involved in producing meat is used to cultivate the grain needed for animal feed (Godfray et al). The amount of water currently being used to produce higher and higher quantities of low-cost meat is causing aquifers, which are precious resources of underground water, to become depleted in some areas, such as the High Plains (Godfray et al).
Furthermore, “manure lagoons,” literally lakes of feces, a by-product of so many animals confined in close quarters on the factory farm, leech phosphorus and nitrogen into groundwater and surface water, contaminating it, and resulting in harm to both aquatic ecosystems and humans (Godfray et al).
Since water is a finite resource, this is not a model which can feasibly continue to work long-term. If meat consumption is reduced, then water now used to grow feed grain for the factory farms can be reallocated to other areas. Fewer animals on farms will result in less waste, less water pollution, and a return to balance in natural ecosystems.
In order to feed the large number of cows, pigs, and chickens needed to then feed the insatiable appetite of modern people, monoculture feed crops have replaced former grazing land and forests, resulting in soil erosion and soil exhaustion (Godfray et al.).
This is another instance where converting the factory farming model back to one where animals are allowed to graze the land could help. Grass-fed beef, for example, will not require so much grain to be planted.
Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, concludes that “there is an overwhelmingly important case why we should continue to produce and eat meat from animals predominantly reared on grass, especially when it is species-rich and not fertilized with nitrogen out of a bag” (Young).
If less meat is eaten overall, factory farming methods can be dismantled, and a smaller number of animals overall can graze on polyculture farms. Farmers will be able to use the healthy land to produce healthy meat and non-meat sources of nutrition for humans.
One of the biggest and most well-known environmental threats today is global warming, and it is common knowledge that fossil fuels are contributing to this problem. This is one reason why eating local, as recommended by Spriggs, will contribute to healing our planet, since food will not need to be transported as far, and fewer fossil fuels will be expended in order to feed people.
Spriggs explains, “Global warming is attributed to the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, most commonly emitted in the burning of fossil fuels” (150). Unfortunately, raising meat at an industrial scale involves producing an unhealthy amount of greenhouse gas emissions, especially, methane, carbon dioxide, phosphorus and nitrogen (Godfray et al.).
Meat production “is the single most important source of methane” (Godfray et al). In fact, producing all this meat is causing more damage as far as global warming than is transportation. Carrington explains that “[t]he global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined” (Carrington).
Of course, eliminating meat completely would make the largest positive impact. Mike Berners-Lee, a professor at Lancaster University states: “Our studies of the footprint of UK dietary choice have shown that going vegetarian might cut the greenhouse gas footprint by 25%” (Berners-Lee).
But just choosing to eat less meat, even a little less, can make a huge impact on global warming. Tamar Haspel of The Washington Post explains that “[g]iving up beef once a week in favor of beans, over the course of a year, is the equivalent of not burning 38 gallons of gas, or of trading in 12 incandescent bulbs for LED. That 331 kg is equal to about 5 percent of the average household’s electricity use” (Haspel).
Asking everyone to become a vegetarian to save the earth is no doubt going to be unsuccessful at the current time. But if everyone could be persuaded to at least reduce their meat consumption, the earth would benefit even more than if everyone sold their SUVs or if everyone agreed to buy local.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is on board with the idea of reducing meat consumption. As already noted, eating meat is a cultural norm for many people, and for that reason alone it may be seen as a hardship to ask people to stop eating meat. Another argument against reducing the consumption of meat includes the fact that meat can be an important source of protein for those with low incomes, and factory farming has resulted in the availability of a large amount of affordable meat.
Unfortunately, eating meat, especially processed meats, can also lead to chronic diseases, such as stomach and colorectal cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (Godfray et al). So, while eating meat may be cost-effective in the short term, paying for the resulting diseases which may occur in the long term will be much more expensive.
Another point sometimes used in support of factory farming is that, although small farmers are suffering, it provides employment for hundreds of thousands of people (“Factory Farm”). But to say for this reason that meat consumption must remain high represents a logical “appeal to emotion” fallacy (Bearup).
Saving the planet is an ultimate goal, and job creation will continue in other sectors regardless of the amount of meat eaten worldwide. Wendell Berry, a farmer, writer, and passionate defender of the environment, explains the importance of being patient and never giving up on this goal. In an interview in The New York Times, Berry explains:
What can we do about this? First, those of us who care must keep trying to bring about improvements, which we can do, and are doing, locally where, in any event, the improvements will have to be made. Second, we have got to be patient. That this is a cultural problem means that it can’t be simply or quickly solved.
What you speak of as a “passion for farming” can grow only from an understanding of the intelligence and the learning involved in the right kind of farming, and we should add an understanding of the better cultures of husbandry and of the traditional agrarian values (qtd. in Olmstead).
It may seem like an impossible task for many to give up the enjoyment that comes with eating a juicy steak, bacon for breakfast, or a delicious chicken dinner. There are, however, many easy ways to incorporate meat-free eating that may leave the diner with both satisfied taste buds and the satisfaction of knowing he or she is saving the planet. Success in this area will not happen overnight, and people will need to look inside themselves and overcome the counter arguments.
Fortunately, there are specific steps that people of all income levels may take to address the problems caused by overconsumption of meat. As Professor Keith Richards of the University of Cambridge explains, “This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets” (Carrington).
The most basic strategy is to choose pork or chicken over beef, since they have smaller carbon footprints. If eating beef is an imperative, choose organic grass-fed beef instead of grain-fed beef (Haspel). The goal, however, is reduction or elimination of meat consumption.
Instead of a huge serving, perhaps a more moderate serving size will do, especially complemented with a healthy salad or a plant-based side dish. Perhaps over time, the meat can become the size of a side or disappear, and salad, pasta, beans, and/or grains can become the main dish.
There are many meat substitutes which can help quell meat cravings, even a plant-based burger that bleeds and sizzles when it is cooked called the Impossible Burger (Milman). Rice and beans, quinoa, and tofu are all great protein substitutes for meat. Furthermore, a quick internet search will reveal an amazing array of vegetarian recipes, so delicious in their own right that the absence of meat may not even be noticed.
In addition to individual solutions, there are institutional changes which could be instituted to discourage the consumption of meat on the scale it is currently ingested. For example, restaurants could revamp their menus and buffets by placing plant-based choices before meat-based choices to encourage people to choose meat-free dishes first (Godfray et al.).
There are interventions the government could undertake to reduce demand as well. Taxes could be imposed on red meat (Milman). The government could also artificially raise the price of meat (Olmstead). One of the best institutional interventions would be education.
If more people are aware of the situation, they will choose to participate in its solution. Carrington urges that “national governments should improve food education to encourage healthy eating habits and environmental sustainability as a first step” (Carrington).
Institutional change happens slowly, and there will undoubtedly be significant opposition to major changes at this time. The good news is that the individual is free to start making changes immediately, and if enough people make this important decision, great change can occur for the better.
Factory farming methods, though undeniably efficient, have caused a depressing amount of destruction to the earth in the quest to provide the cheap sources of meat demanded by today’s consumers. Simply reducing meat consumption is a start which will go a long way towards reversing the damage which has been done.
The most effective solution seems to be giving meat up entirely; however, it is not necessary for everyone to become a vegetarian in order to see improvements. It seems inevitable that over time people will be forced to reduce their meat intake, as the destructive industrial-scale farming system begins to show signs of collapsing due to too much strain on Earth’s resources.
For those who are concerned and ready now, Meatless Mondays, Tomato Tuesdays, Watercress Wednesdays, Tofu Thursdays, Fava Bean Fridays, Sweet Potato Saturdays, or even Salad Sundays are a great start. Choose one or more and get down to the delicious work of saving the planet.