Veg-ing Out for the Planet's Future

As environmentally-conscious citizens of the world, we are already walking and biking to work, driving hybrids, shortening our showers and refusing plastic bags at the check-out counter. Some of us even compost or buy exclusively organic vegetables. Surely this is enough! Not so fast, says Wendee Holtcamp of The Daily Climate. Holtcamp asks the question many "fringe" vegetarians have been asking for years: "Can eating less meat curb climate change?" Holtcamp investigates, proving through the momentum of recent scientific research that the movement to reduce meat consumption is no longer the exclusive domain of latter-day hippies.

With predictions that the world's population will hit 9 billion by 2050 (the optimistic estimate out of the U.N. is 8 billion), scientists looking at food production and consumption are warning that our current system is unsustainable. Opinions differ on how exactly to solve this problem, but one necessary change is becoming abundantly clear: we in the western world have got to stop eating so much meat.

Statistics on the waste associated with mass meat production have been out for awhile, but it's good to be reminded now and again: To produce a little over 2 pounds of factory-farmed meat (that's an ample dinner of two16-oz steaks for you and your companion), 22 pounds of animal feed and over 4,000 gallons of water are used! And what makes up animal feed? Mostly corn, soybeans and other grains that would be equally nutritious and edible to hungry humans.

According to David Tilman, a University of Minnesota ecology professor quoted in Holtcamp's article, "We use about half of our farmland to grow grains for animal feed. Were we to eat less meat or eat more environmentally efficient meat, we would export more grains, and this would decrease the demand for crops that are an underlying driver of tropical deforestation."

Take into account the pesticides, petroleum and biodiversity loss that come from cultivating so much grain -- grain that bypasses the stomachs of malnourished people living in developing countries and goes straight to those of animals destined for western plates -- and it's obvious something needs to change. Whether your main concern is climate change, loss of fresh water and biodiversity, toxic chemicals in our soil, or even just the possibility of a hamburger-free future, the current meat-centric American diet is not sustainable. According to Holtcamp, an average American meat-eater drops an annual carbon footprint one and a half tons greater than a vegan's!

So what do we do? The recent report "Eating the Planet," co-commissioned by Friends of the Earth and Compassion in World Farming, provides multiple scenarios for feeding the coming 2050 global population without the use of intensive agriculture. No one can see the future, and multiple variables will shape what our food production system looks like in forty years. But one thing the report states definitively: less meat equals less loss of biodiversity and less pollution.

Although some environmentalists, including IPCC chair Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, say that going vegetarian is one of the single most significant things a meat-eater can do to combat climate change, "Eating the Planet" allows some wiggle room for those who can't face the prospect of completely veg-ing out. You don't have to completely cut it out, just limit consumption to 90 grams per day, says the report, which translates to a little less than half a pound.

No time to read the full report? A short FAQ page addresses lots of great questions about meat, mass agriculture, climate change and the sustainability of the global food system. Click here.