“You’re saying you never feel like sinking your teeth into a big slab of meat? Don’t your primal instincts ever kick in?”
This was the response I received after trying to explain the dangerous environmental implications of a meat-eating diet to my omnivorous younger sister.
I didn’t bother responding with my opinions on animal-eating instincts because she was missing my point entirely. I wasn’t talking about instinct, desire or human habit. I was presenting a cold, hard case for adopting a vegetarian lifestyle that had nothing to do with personal health, animal rights or other reasons people often associate with vegetarianism.
I was speaking in strictly environmental terms.
“One-third of the United States’ raw materials and fossil fuels are used in animal farming—almost half of our water supply and 80 percent of our agricultural land. The same goes for corn, soy crop and grain—most goes to raising animals for you to eat. These are USDA facts, sis.”
“OK, forget resources. Eating meat is a leading cause of global warming, how about that?”
She told me to quit lecturing her and assured me that she likes meat, “thank you very much,” and that global warming or not, she will eat it anyway.
It was then that I realized that this is what it comes down to for those who never thought twice about becoming vegetarian: Who cares enough about their ecological footprint to make some serious sacrifices?
Environmentally conscious people today are familiar with sacrifice and lifestyle change. Take Santa Cruz for example, where people boast of using biodiesel and fret over which energy-efficient light bulbs to use. But throughout this scramble to out-green each other, many overlook the single most effective change they could make: converting to a plant-based diet.
We can’t blame people for overseeing this as an eco no-brainer. While environmentalists and the media have done a good job painting our conscience green, they have concentrated on carbon dioxide emissions as the main culprit of environmental destruction. Yes, it is progressive and helpful to drive fuel-efficient cars, minimize the use of appliances and to research and invest in alternative energy sources. And let’s be proud of our reusable grocery bags. But it is time to cut the crap—literally.
Factory farm animals produce 130 times the excrement of the entire U.S. population. Their feces are the world’s primary source of airborne methane, which the EPA found to be a much more dangerous greenhouse gas than CO2 (it more effectively traps heat in the atmosphere). Overall, as the UN reported in 2006, the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all forms of transport combined.
Environmental and animal rights activist and attorney Roland Windsor Vincent put it this way: “A meat eater on a bicycle leaves a bigger carbon footprint than a vegan in a hummer!”
I don’t mean to preach here, and if I do, it is admittedly to the choir. Santa Cruz is a haven of food awareness and alternatives. If anyone is likely to stare down at their Chicken Parmesan and wonder, “Hey little guy, where are you from?” or maybe “How much grain, water and energy did it take for you to get to my plate?” it would be one of our own, surely.
Eating local, buying organic, sustainability, being meat- and dairy-free—these are all admirable truths for many Santa Cruzans. It’s rare, and I can say this as a Southern California native, to have so many vegetarian options in one town. And if an individual vegetarian requires 300 gallons of water per day for their diet, compared with 4,000 gallons per day for a person with a mixed-diet, imagine the amount of resources and emissions an entirely vegetarian restaurant might spare.
But the challenge remains: factory farming continues and global warming prevails. If even some of the greenest of the green have yet to embrace vegetarianism as a most powerful way of combating global warming, how do we expect to get the message across to the Big-Mac lovers in less progressive areas of the country? And, more importantly, how do we make them care?
We lead by example.
For those who are truly dedicated to making “green” changes in their lives, a meat- and dairy- free diet would decrease personal annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1.5 tons. according to a 2006 study by the University of Chicago. It's a challenging change, for some more than others, but an unparalleled way to create positive change.
Those who do eat meat and dairy can make environmentally smart decisions and continue a mixed-diet. The key is to know where your food comes from and what it took to get to you—it is very possible to maintain a locally sustained and organic meat-eating diet. Vegetarians aren't home free on this, either, because no matter what you eat the bottom line is that no one should have the luxury of being detached from their food any longer. It is our responsibility to understand the relationship between what is on our plates and the state of the world around us.
As for my sister and her “instinctual” need for slabs of meat, she's a smart kid. Stubborn, but smart. The best I can do is refrain from showering her with facts and hope that she, and like-minded individuals, will make decisions that reflect the best interest of humankind and our habitat.
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