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Friday, May 05, 2006

How Our Food Choices can Help Save the Environment

by Steve Boyan, PhD

The Union of Concerned Scientists says there are two things people can do to most help the environment. The first is to drive a fuel-efficient automobile (that means, not an SUV or a truck) and live near where we work. The second is to not eat beef.

I’m going to go one step farther than UCS: I suggest that you refuse to eat any animal or animal product produced on a factory farm. And I’m going to tell you why.

In 1990, when I first read that 10 people could be fed with the grain that you would feed a cow that would be turned into food for one person, I was impressed. But I was not moved. The reason: If 10 people would be fed because I gave up meat, I’d give it up. But, I thought, if I give up meat, it won’t have that impact: it probably won’t have any impact on anything at all, except me.

I was wrong. If I had known that for every pound of beef I did not eat, I would save anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 gallons of water, I would have been moved. It’s a good idea to save water; we are depleting our underground aquifers faster than we are replenishing them. The largest one, the Ogallala, which covers a vast part of the country from the Midwest to the mountain states, is being depleted by 13 trillion gallons a year. It is going to run out. Northwest Texas is already dry. They can’t get any water from their wells.

John Robbins points out that in the 1980s and 1990s, to conserve water, most of us went to low-flow showerheads. If you take a daily seven-minute shower, he says, and you have a 2-gallon-per-minute low-flow showerhead, you use about 100 gallons of water per week, or 5,200 gallons of water per year. If you had used the old-fashioned 3-gallon-per-minute showerhead, I calculate you would have used 7,644 gallons of water per year. So by going low flow, you saved almost 2,500 gallons of water per year. Wonderful. But by giving up one pound of beef that year, you’d save maybe double that. You’d save more water than you would by not showering at all for six months! And that’s just one of the environmental impacts you’d have.

The modern factory farming system is a prolific consumer of fossil fuel and a prolific producer of poisonous wastes. Up to 100,000 animals are herded together on huge feedlots. These animals do not graze on grass, as picture books tell us; they can’t graze at all. Feedlots are crowded, filthy, stinking places with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air. The animals would not survive at all but for the fact that they are fed huge amounts of antibiotics. It is now conceded that the antibiotics fed to cattle are the main cause of antibiotic resistance in people, as the bacteria constantly in these environments evolve to survive them. The cattle are fed prodigious quantities of corn. At a feedlot of a mere 37,000 cows, 25 tons of corn are dumped every hour. It takes 1.2 gallons of oil to make the fertilizer used for each bushel of that corn. Before a cow is slaughtered, she will eat 25 pounds of corn a day; by the time she is slaughtered she will weigh more than 1,200 pounds. In her lifetime she will have consumed, in effect, 284 gallons of oil. Today’s factory-raised cow is not a solar-powered ruminant but another fossil fuel machine.

And she will produce waste. Livestock now produces 130 times the amount of waste that people do. This waste is untreated and unsanitary. It bubbles with chemicals and diseasebearing organisms. It overpowers nature’s ability to clean it up. It’s poisoning rivers, killing fish and getting into human drinking water. 65% of California’s population is threatened by pollution in drinking water just from dairy cow manure. It isn’t just cows that produce this waste. Factory-raised hogs produce four times the waste in North Carolina as the 6.5 million people of that state do. Even the oceans are polluted: 7,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico are a dead zone.

There are more environmental impacts. Cattle don’t spend their entire lives in feedlots. When they are young, they graze. Where do they graze? Well, more than two-thirds of the land area of the mountain states are used for grazing. 70% of the lands in western national forests are grazed; 90% of Bureau of Land Management land is grazed. These are public lands, lands that President Clinton didn’t even try to save. These lands are trampled by the cattle, compacting the soil. When it rains, the land doesn’t absorb the water. Instead, it runs off, taking away topsoil, forming deep gullies and damaging streambeds. The government protects the cattle by killing off any creature that might threaten the livestock. They poison, trap, snare, den, shoot or gun down the wildlife. Denning, by the way, is the practice by federal agents of pouring kerosene into the dens of animals and setting them on fire, burning the young animals alive in their nests. According to Robbins, agents kill badgers, black bear, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossums, raccoons, skunks, beavers, porcupines, prairie dogs, blackbirds, cattle egrets and starlings using these methods. These activities take place on public lands, which were created in large part to protect the environment! Your tax dollars subsidize these activities.

I’m not done yet. We in the United States do not get all of our beef from the West. We import more than 200 million pounds of beef from Central America alone. Every second of every day, one football field of tropical rainforest is destroyed in order to produce 257 hamburgers. Every time you destroy rainforest land, you destroy rich plant and animal life, varieties of life we don’t even understand, and forms of which may provide the medicines we need to cure disease. Rainforests supply us with oxygen. They moderate our climates. When rainforests are destroyed, it’s only a matter of time before the land becomes desertified. Rainforests absorb some of the carbon dioxide we are spewing into the atmosphere.

We humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25% compared with any other period when humans were on this planet. Most of that has taken place in the last 50 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of some of the best scientists in the world, says global warming is a fact. If uncontrolled, we will have ecosystem collapses, crop failures, weather disasters, coastal flooding, the spreading of previously controlled diseases, the death of coral reefs and new insect pests. Some of these things are starting to happen already. Coral reefs are dying. Insect pests are spreading out of their range and killing off new kinds of trees. Weather patterns are changing. Some places have had extreme weather events, with billions of dollars of losses. Some island people have had to abandon their islands because rising seas have salinated their underground aquifers.

Carbon dioxide is largely produced by the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal, and especially our use of inefficient vehicles for transportation. But not often mentioned is the fossil fuel used to raise farm animals. As I said earlier, a factory cow is a fossil fuel machine, not a solar-powered ruminant whose wastes fertilize the fields to produce more grass for the cow to eat. When you eat beans, for example, you use 1/27 the amount of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of energy as you do when you eat beef. You get the same food energy producing only 4% of the carbon dioxide that a person eating beef does. Another fact we don’t talk about: cattle produce almost one fifth of global methane emissions. Cattle fart. Big time. Their gas is methane. Methane is actually 24 times as potent as carbon dioxide in causing climate chaos.

There’s another major environmental consequence of our factory system of animal raising: that’s the matter of species extinctions. It is true that species die off all the time. Normally, the Earth has lost 10 to 25 species per year. But in the billions of years of life on this Earth, we have had five periods of major extinctions; the last one was 67 million years ago, when, possibly because of a meteor colliding with the Earth, we lost the dinosaurs. But now there’s a sixth extinction, and it is not caused by a meteor, but by human beings. And this is a big one; we are losing several thousand species per year, and maybe tens of thousands. We think of mammals that are endangered, and 25% of mammalian species are endangered. But what’s much more endangered, or wiped out already, are the plants, including varieties of plankton, fungi, bacteria and insects, that are fundamental to all so-called higher forms of life. All life will unravel if these creatures are wiped out.

The driving force behind all these extinctions is the destruction of wildlife habitat, especially the rainforests. The driving force behind the destruction of the rainforests is livestock grazing. The leading cause of species in the United States being threatened or eliminated is livestock grazing. A 1997 study of endangered species in the southwestern United States by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that half the species studied were threatened by cattle ranching.

You and I cannot change all this. We are not going to be able to get a bill through Congress outlawing factory farming. Yet EarthSave as an organization believes we can still have a dramatic effect: We believe that you can protect your health and protect the environment one bite at a time.

Let’s review what I’ve said here: By not eating beef– and other farm animals as well–you:

-- save massive amounts of water – 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of water for every pound of beef you avoid,
-- avoid polluting our streams and rivers better than any other single recycling effort you do,
-- avoid the destruction of topsoil,
-- avoid the destruction of tropical forest,
-- avoid the production of carbon dioxide. (Your average car produces 3 kg/day of CO2. To clear rainforest to produce beef for one hamburger produces 75 kg of CO2. Eating one pound of hamburger does the same damage as driving your car for more than three weeks);
-- reduce the amount of methane gas produced. (I imagine the next bumper sticker: stop farts, don’t eat beef);
-- reduce the destruction of wildlife habitat, and
-- help to save endangered species.

That’s a pretty good day’s work, for just what you don’t put in your mouth.

Steve Boyan PhD recently retired from his post as a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has published two books on environmental issues


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