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Environment and Vegetarian Diet

Connecting the dots between what we eat and the world we've created

By Gretchen Primack

Gretchen Primack

Global warming, we say, shaking our heads, and bite into a hamburger.

World hunger, we sigh, grabbing another slice of pizza. What's wrong with this picture?

The fact is that there's nothing so pervasively damaging to our environment - and to world hunger - than eating animals. And until we connect the dots and change our habits, the problems will continue and worsen on many levels. It's up to all of us to start making a difference right from our own refrigerators.

The U.N.'s recent report on livestock and current environmental issues could hardly be more sobering: 'The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,' it declares. From pollution to water and land degradation, the predator is clear.

Global Warming Facts: We're used to blaming automobiles and factories for the greenhouse gases that are causes of climate change, and well we should. But the fact is, as the U.N. report notes, almost a fifth of those deadly emissions come from livestock - which, as Kathy Freston points out in a recent article, Vegetarian Is The New Prius, is more emissions 'than all the world's transportation combined'!

Current Environmental Issues

The amount of land used to grow crops to feed livestock is 10 times we need to grow crops for human consumption. As a result, land is in great demand, leading to the decimation of enormous swaths of rainforest and other wilderness. In fact, 70% of former Amazon rainforest is now used for pastureland. This is not only heartbreaking for the endangerment and extinction of countless species, it also means that the world's necessary oxygen filter is being destroyed, further jeopardizing our air quality. And the burning of these forests means the expulsion of all the toxins and carbon dioxide they'd filtered, a terrible blow to our atmosphere.

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At the same time, the runoff from factory farms has meant the degradation of water sources. Considering that scientists are alarmed at our water use and what it portends for future generations, the fact that factory farms account for the bulk of the water used in this country and then degrade remaining sources is certainly food for thought - no pun intended.

The energy used to keep us in cutlets is appalling. If you consider the feeding, housing, transporting, and slaughtering of animals, and then the packing and transporting of the flesh and products themselves, you're looking at a tremendous expense and degradation of natural resources. Hence Freston's note that 'Producing a calorie of meat protein means burning more than ten times as much fossil fuels - and spewing more than ten times as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as does a calorie of plant protein.'

Solving World Hunger Right Now

Issues of 'low food security' abound all over the world, including the U.S. But we have the power to make sure that every person on the planet is fed right now, as long as we trade in our hot dogs for veggie dogs. We need to bring our fields back to plant sources meant for humans, not livestock. These days, it's absurdly easy.

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From fake chicken nuggets, hamburgers, cold cuts, sausages, even bratwurst, to Earth Balance buttery spread, to delicious soy, rice, oat, and almond milks, eating an animal-free diet is a pleasure. Cookbooks, websites, and organizations abound.

Your local mainstream supermarkets have healthy food sections that will make your next 'meatball' sub more delicious than your last - without the health, environmental, and moral implications involved. And health food stores and websites can give you even more variety and ideas on how to eat a tasty, satisfying diet that is kind to you and your planet.

Next time you pat yourself on the back for buying energy-efficient light bulbs or recycled paper products, don't stop there. Make that next pot of chili vegetarian, and order the pasta marinara or primavera at your favorite Italian restaurant. You'll do more for the environment than you would driving a Prius to the restaurant.

For more information and heavenly recipes, check out "Well Fed World GoVeg, Veg Cooking, Farm USA, and, for us epicureans, Vegan Chef. And, of course, while you're here, check out everything on Savvy Vegetarian!

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About The Author: Gretchen Primack has been vegetarian since age 13. Her house is full of energy-efficient light bulbs, recycled paper products, and delicious vegetarian food! She teaches at Bard College (on campus and through the Bard Prison Initiative) and SUNY-Ulster, and serves on the board of Catskill Animal Sanctuary.

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