The Food Chain... and You
Anyone remember biology class? Perhaps it was exceptionally boring – filled with a monotonous voice droning on and on over something about cells? Chromosomes? Something like that. Anyway, as you drifted off to sleep, your head nodding but still kept perfectly perched so it didn't look like you were asleep, there was a chapter in that obnoxiously heavy hard cover book... a chapter about ecology and animals. In it was a pyramid – not unlike our food pyramid.
At the bottom, grass, at the top, a lion. It showed the relationship between energy and food – how the more animals there were, the more resources were needed. The bottom represented the largest, simplest form of energy: plants. Followed by, in the case of the lion pyramid, a few zebra, and lastly capped by a single, predatory cat.
Lions, Zebras, and entropy! Oh my!
While this may seem a silly thing to remind you of (I mean, what could it possibly have to do with being a vegetarian?) but this single image is one of the main reasons I became a vegetarian. This image of the field of grain it took to support a few mice inspired me.
See, it works like this... the producers on the bottom are the most energy efficient. The animals following it are less and less energy efficient in their eating habits because as energy is burned it radiates off and is lost as heat. So, as I stared at those images showing these mice, mice, as the most efficient creatures, I marveled over my current meat-laden diet that consumed so much just to provide me with so little.
I decided to eat lower on the food chain.
Best idea I've ever had. The life of a vegetarian within a carnivore culture is an interesting one. My family wasn't all that accepting of my diet and it took me until college and moving out of my parents' house to actually become one. As soon as I was cooking my own meals I was thrilled, tickled pink, at the idea that I no longer had to eat meat. While it is true I had never much cared for the taste of steak and I had always hated bacon, eating meat wasn't really about the animals to me. I had grown up with a passionate love for nature that made me reach out to a little discussed side of vegetarianism: environmental.
You see, that small chart of food energy that I saw when I was young stuck with me. I wanted to eat the grass – it made sense to me; eating lower was more efficient. Cutting out the middle man. At the same time eating meat seemed logical. It still does. As humans, we evolved to eat almost anything – including meat. I was not, am not, one to force my ideals on my friends and family. Instead, I take the persuasive approach. I educate.
The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to green-house gases.
The amount of water it takes to produce a single pound, just one pound of beef, nears 2,500 gallons! A pound of wheat? Only 25 gallons. If only 13% of our water consumption goes to things like showering and laundry, then what is depleting our wells and drying our aquifers? Livestock production. It uses up to 40% of our fresh water... all to put that steak on your plate. So, taking long showers actually has less of an impact on the environment than a trip to Outback Steakhouse.
The current practice of factory farming also presents serious health risks for animal to human diseases like the infamous Swine flu – which, despite its short lived name of “Mexican flu,” actually originated here in the U.S.. Strands of the virus were discovered as far back as 1998 in North Carolina when the pig population topped 10 million. There were only 7 million people living in North Carolina in 1998. Not to mention as the amount of pigs grew, the amount of farms raising them plummeted. Meaning more pigs in smaller pens.
Even oil is a pivotal element in the raising of livestock. Fossil fuels are burned at a massive rate to keep the meat on our plates. Between driving grain to the animals, driving the animals to the slaughterhouse, then transporting the meat to our grocery store, and finally from the store to our plates, it eats up gallons upon gallons of oil. It's estimated that 1kg of meat takes 13kg of grain (and for those of us still not used to thinking in metric, that's roughly 2 pounds of meat for 30 pounds of grain)!
On a more basic level the waste produced by keeping so many animals presents a threat to the environment. What was once a boon, manure from cows is now a worrisome poison to the world around it. Farmers once used manure to fertilize their fields – now the same thing that gave life, destroys it. The 2.7 trillion tons of manure each year must be put somewhere. Some is still used to provide nutrients to crops, however this can be unsafe and transmit diseases.
So the creation of Manure lagoons. That's right. Giant pools of waste that are called lagoons. They are filled each year with animal waste. While this might, at first, seem a simple way to keep the waste from entering the ecosystem they can easily spill. The effects are much like an oil spill – wiping out life for miles, leaving in their wake a desolate, toxic landscape that remains for decades.
But there is still hope!
These facts linger in the mind, I know. It's rather shocking to think about not just the cute, furry animal, but also of the system we have in place that brings that muscle and bone to our plates. When we think vegetarians or vegans, we often think of the crazies over at PETA and how they scream that animals are people too. While animal rights are important, there is more going on in our food industry than we care to think about. Abuse is just one horrible atrocity among many. The total destruction of our environment for cheap steak? It seems a bit drastic and unnecessary. And it is. There are so many alternatives in today's world and studies have shown that the environmental impact of vegetarians and vegans is 30% lower than meat eaters.
The hope fueled by meatless, or even meat-reduced diets is undeniable. The implications of cutting the impact that it creates in our world is shocking. One of the dreams I have with ending the needless waste of our diets is the ability to end world hunger – just imagine, instead of feeding cows, feeding people! It's possible. We started to notice the impact our waste was having and so recycling skyrocketed. It's time for us to start noticing what happens with our food. Too long have we sat by contently staring at our plates and the white-washed walls of our grocery store. We need to wake up and smell the manure – before we find it sitting outside our front door.