By now, the ecological harm from consuming electricity, failing to properly recycle, and other common activities is well-known to most people. However, one obvious but overlooked area of our modern lives that also greatly affects the environment is our diet. The use of meat and meat-based products often has serious negative consequences for our natural surroundings, but many of us remain unaware of them.
There are more resources wasted than just land when we use animals for our own consumption. There's also the food and water that they consume, which puts pressure on arable land and water sources. This will become a growing problem as worldwide populations continue to increase, particularly in light of the fact that economic development in formerly poor countries, like China and India, will drive demand for more meat. Another problem is the fact that certain species are hunted to near-extinction as producers attempt to satisfy the hunger for rare or especially desired animals.
The meat and dairy sectors also contribute heavily to global warming. While it's difficult to arrive at exact figures because of the challenges involved in neatly demarcating which activities are related to the raising of livestock, Just Energy has pegged the global warming contributions of the industry at 14.5 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This is around the same amount as the transportation sector emits, so anyone who promotes battery-powered cars and green mass transit for environmental reasons should logically also embrace efforts to transition away from the consumption of meat towards a vegan diet.
Surprisingly, animals grown for human consumption consume more crops than actual people do. At the same time, the meat that appears on store shelves weighs a fraction of the foodstuffs needed to produce it. This means that a switch to a meat-free diet would free up food supplies to feed many people who currently suffer from food insecurity.
Another resource that could be redirected toward human use is potable water. This is a serious problem in drought-afflicted areas and those with large populations of captive animals. Along with these benefits would come a reduction in CO2 emissions, a decrease in the use of growth hormones and other toxic chemicals, and a lessening of the problem of obesity around the world.
Simply going vegetarian won’t be as beneficial as going vegan: The preparation of milk, leather, wool and other animal byproducts creates the same environmental concerns as raising animals for meat does. We also must not neglect the suffering caused by housing chickens, cows, pigs and other creatures in unhealthy conditions and then killing them whenever it pleases us. Some argue for the use of “ethical meat,” which supposedly is created in such a way as to minimize the suffering of the animals involved. However, this is just sugar-coating what is essentially an inhumane system.
According to a poll conducted by Harris Interactive, around 2.5 percent of the population in the United States is vegan. While this may seem like a tiny amount, there were also substantial numbers of respondents who stated that they sometimes eat vegetarian meals though they haven't completely weaned themselves off meat products.
Luckily, it’s easier to get started than many believe. Anyone who's interested in a life-changing and possibly earth-changing commitment to the vegan philosophy can order a free vegan starter kit from PETA. In addition, the Veganuary campaign is trying to get people to try out the vegan lifestyle during the month of January. Its website contains recipes, lists of vegan products, news about veganism and other resources for anyone who wants to participate.
Going vegan offers many advantages, including combating global warming, easing the burden on the world's poor, promoting biodiversity, and enhancing human health. It can be difficult for people to break the habits of a lifetime, but the reasons for doing so are compelling. As we move into the future, acting sustainably will be increasingly important, so veganism will become more and more mainstream until it hopefully spreads to a majority of the world's population.
Photo: "BirkenwaldFinnland" by I, Plenz. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons