If asked to name the most significant things people do in their daily lives that have a negative impact on the environment, it is doubtful that many would mention eating lunch. Depending on what this theoretical person eats, however, his or her lunch could do more environmental damage than the drive to work or the energy expended heating their home. Eating meat has far worse environmental implications than most people realize. We need to do more to promote vegetarian eating habits in the United States.
Due to global warming, choosing among food groups is actually a life or death decision for our planet. Animal agriculture produces 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions; 4.5 percent more than the emissions of the entire global transportation system.
This occurs partly because animals produce more damaging forms of greenhouse gas. Livestock-produced nitrous oxide is 300 times as damaging to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Methane is 23 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, and cows and sheep account for 37 percent of total methane produced by human activity. That’s right—the flatulence of domesticated cattle is actually a serious threat to life on earth.
The environmental impact of livestock is twofold. By choosing to devote 70 percent of the world’s farmland to animal agriculture, we pay an opportunity cost of not using that land to grow crops. Plants are constantly conducting photosynthesis, which binds free-floating carbon in the atmosphere into a less environmentally-harmful form. If we were to use that land for plant agriculture instead, not only would we eliminate some of our most harmful greenhouse gas emissions, but we would also be actively reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Apart from the effects on global warming, there are land usage implications of a carnivorous diet as well. The average diet in most developed countries requires the use of 2.5 times as much land as a vegetarian diet and five times as much as a vegan diet. Not all land used to raise livestock is suitable for plant agriculture, but one third of farmable land is used to produce feed for livestock. We should use that land to grow food to eat ourselves.
It is ridiculous to expect everyone in the world to give up meat completely. But eating less meat would go a long way toward addressing the problems of our modern world. It isn’t enough to just ask people to do this themselves. Legislators should reduce subsidies on animal agriculture and increase those on plant agriculture. Restaurants that serve only vegetarian food or only vegetarian food certain days of the week should receive tax credits.
As many who frequent Letchworth Dining Hall can attest, vegetarian food can actually be quite delicious—eating less meat doesn’t have to be a hardship. Meat should be served as infrequently as possible in the cafeterias of schools and corporations.
If we are serious about reducing our impact on the environment as a society, reducing our meat consumption is a crucial step.