Over the past decades, American dietary patterns have shifted towards eating healthier foods. The Pew Research Center commented on this trend in a report, stating that the majority of Americans are paying more attention to eating nutritious foods today compared with 20 years ago and think that, on most days, they should be eating healthier (6). More specifically, the report claimed that individuals now focus more on plant and grain-based diets—they also eat less processed foods, dairy, and finally, meat. Honing in on the last food group, the adverse health effects of eating meat have become apparent resulting in various campaigns to reduce meat consumption (10). However, another, arguably more pressing, reason has been espoused (and should be proliferated) as an impetus for going “meatless”: the severely debilitating environmental effects that arise from the livestock industry. Through the lens of four environmental categories, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, land use, water use, and nitrogen run off, animal husbandry proves to produce far worse results than vegetable production. With this in mind, measures must be taken on both the production and consumption sides of the industry to combat the harm that this practice does to our planet. When thinking about GHG emissions, there exist multiple instances in the farm to fork process where CO2 or CO2 equivalents (CO2e) get released. Cattle themselves release significant amounts of methane (a potent GHG), but one should also consider equipment that is operated for feed creation, slaughter, refrigeration, transportation, and more to fully understand the impact. Data on the beef industry’s carbon emphasizes the point, with the
Sokoloff 2footprint per kilogram of a ruminant animal (cow) getting as high as 600 kg CO2e. This figure is equivalent to an average car driving non-stop for 24 hours straight and is about 150 times larger than the ‘best case’ scenario of vegetable substitutes. On a macro scale, beef is considered to be responsible for 7% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions demonstrating the cattle industry alone is a significant contributor to global warming (7). Given the current mission by scientists and environmentalists to lower the levels of GHG in our atmosphere, targeting animal husbandry could lead to fruitful results.It may sound reductive, but animals need space to graze and their food also needs space to grow—the two are a necessity for the stability of the livestock industry. A report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization stated that one-third of the planet’s arable land is occupied by livestock feed crop cultivation (3). Land occupation is thus a zero sum game—one acre for the cultivation of animals is one less acre for the cultivation of vegetables or for the flourishing of biodiversity. In parts of the Great Plains, cattle and the fields of grain they eat have replaced pronghorn antelope and bison. Wild predators have been removed from the region, which is now optimized for agriculture output as opposed to biological diversity (3). Though this argument could potentially be used for vegetable cash crops, the differences between plant and animal husbandry are stark. Ruminants can require as much as two hundred times more growing space than vegetables over their lifetime due to grazing room as well as space for their food to grow (7).
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