Wiederhold: The environmental benefits of being a vegetarian

There are many justifiable motives for adopting the vegetarian lifestyle – whether it be for health, ethical or religious reasons – but what finally got me enlisting in the ranks of the plant-eaters was a knowledge of the environmental impacts of meat production.

Simply put, today's meat-filled American diet is unsustainable. Pollution, overuse of fossil fuel, water and land resources and environmental degradation are just some of the byproducts you may not be able to see when you order that hamburger. Don't get me wrong – I don't want to come off as an eco-tyrant or anything – I simply want to get you to start thinking about where your food comes from.

According to the United Nations, the livestock industry is one of the world's leading sources of environmental degradation. This is due in part to the fact that huge amounts of crops, such as corn and soy, are fed to cattle to make them nice and fat. Intensive agriculture for feed crops contributes to mass-scale deforestation, loss of topsoil and decreasing biodiversity.

Fifty-five square feet of tropical rainforest are consumed along with every quarter pound of rainforest beef, and 85 percent of lost topsoil in the U.S. is directly related to livestock grazing. Not to mention the food industry's heavy dependence on fossil fuel and the enormous amount of water required by meat production: for every one pound of beef, 2,400 gallons of water is used.

Can you guess how many pounds of meat the average American eats each year? The number is quite staggering – 260 pounds – and as you might have guessed, that's the world's highest rate. Seven pounds of grain are needed to produce one pound of beef. Just think of it – 800 million people could be fed with the grain that U.S. livestock eats.

Now, I'm not so naïve to think that becoming a vegetarian is going to solve world hunger, save the world or bring peace and happiness to everyone, but I do think that the response to food issues should start at the personal level.

This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone should drop everything and become vegan, but I do think that it would be beneficial for everyone to eat less meat on a daily basis, if not eliminate it completely.

I'll admit that simply adopting a vegetarian diet alone is not enough to make agriculture completely sustainable, but without a doubt it certainly would be a big help in steering us in a greener direction. So if you're not already a vegetarian or vegan, I encourage you to try being one for a day or two – it might be an easier transition than you think. Heck, it might just be the best thing you'll ever do.