The Argument for a Vegetarian Diet
By Gary Null, PhD, and Martin Feldman, MD
In Part 1 of this three-part series, we examined some of the misconceptions about
protein that may dissuade people from eating a vegetarian diet. We also discussed the
functions of protein, the bodys protein requirements, the assessment of protein
quality, and the negative aspects of meat consumption. In Part 2, we will discuss the
ecological benefits of vegetarian eating that make a strong argument for adopting this
From an ecological point of view, a vegetarian lifestyle makes good sense. Our finite
natural resourcesincluding land, water, and energycan be used much more
efficiently to grow vegetables and grains for people to eat directly than to raise
livestock. When we finally eat the animal produced with these resources, we get no more
nutrients than the plant itself could have supplied. By eliminating the middle process of
feeding, raising, slaughtering, and marketing animals for food, we can create a more
peaceful coexistence between man and animal and reduce the drain on natural resources.
The livestock sectors effect on the environment is so significant that it
needs to be addressed with urgency, according to a 2007 report by the Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The report, entitled Livestocks
Long Shadow, states, 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. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major
policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air
pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.
The FAO notes that global demand for livestock products is growing rapidly as populations
and incomes increase and food preferences change. According to projections, the production
of meat worldwide will grow to 465 million tonnes in 2050, more than double the 229
million tonnes of 1999-01. The production of milk will increase from 580 million tonnes to
1,043 million. The environmental impact per unit of livestock production must be cut
by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level,
states the FAO report.
IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
Here, we take a closer look at the ecological effects of meat and dairy production:
Inefficient use of land. In a world where malnutrition and
starvation are prevalent, we should be doing everything possible to eliminate any
inefficient and outmoded use of land. Animal agriculture has co-opted land resources on a
large scale for grazing and the production of feed.
According to the FAO, the livestock sector is by far the single largest
anthropogenic user of land. Grazing occupies a total area equivalent to 26% of the
earths ice-free terrestrial surface. Feedcrop production accounts for 33% of total
arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land
and 30% of the land surface of the planet, says the report. And the sector is a
major contributor to deforestation. The FAO offers the example of the Amazon, where
pastures now occupy 70% of previously forested land and feedcrops occupy a large share of
In the United States, 26% of the land is used for animal grazing on
pasture and range, and another 20% is cropland. Large shares of the grain, corn, and soy crops grown in the U.S are
used to produce livestock rather than to feed people directly. In 2005, the Worldwatch
Institute noted that a calorie of beef, pork, or poultry requires 11 to 17 calories of
feed. Ecologist David Pimentel of
Cornell University reported in 1997 that all of the grain fed to livestock in the U.S.
could feed nearly 800 million people if it were consumed directly. According to Pimentel,
livestock consume nearly 6 kilograms (kg) of plant protein for every 1 kg of high-quality
animal protein produced.
In terms of land use, a single acre of farmland can yield 800,000 calories growing
vegetable food. If we feed the same vegetables to animals, however, the meat and dairy
products produced yield only 200,000 calories. Thats a 75% loss of healthy calories.
Whats more, there is not enough fertile land to sustain the worlds population
on meat. There is approximately one acre of fertile land per person in the world. Although
research has shown that only one-third of an acre is needed to supply enough protein for
one person for one year, that estimate holds true only if the protein is derived from
vegetable sources. Once we begin using animals as our source of protein, 3.5 acres are
Because Americans are willing to pay more for animal foods, agribusiness can see nothing
but increased profits from increased production. However, in the 1980s the founder
of the Worldwatch Institute concluded that the whole system is creating an
illusion of progress and a false sense of security. The cost of agribusinesss immediate profits is
the gross wasting of natural resources and compromised integrity of arable land for future
use. When we buy steak or cheese, we reward these industries with profits that encourage
them to continue their pursuit of illusory progress. Without our money, they would be
forced either to find more efficient ways to use the land or to convert to vegetable and
grain production for people.
Reduction of biodiversity. The growth of the meat industry has
pushed out and even driven into extinction much of our wildlife. Vast tracts of forest
lands and grasslands have been appropriated for use as livestock grazing grounds, leaving
large numbers of wildlife homeless. As they scatter in search of new shelter and hunting
grounds, a high percentage are trapped or poisoned.
The FAO reports that livestock now account for about 20% of the total terrestrial
animal biomass. Whats more, 30% of the land surface now occupied by livestock
was previously home to wildlife. Livestock were deemed a threat by 306 of the 825
terrestrial ecoregions identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature. The FAO states,
Indeed, the livestock sector may well be the leading player in the reduction of
biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as one of the leading
drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of
coastal areas, and facilitation of invasions by alien species.
Soil erosion. Our desire for meat permits agribusiness to use
technological methods that may yield unprecedented profits but also are causing
unprecedented erosion of the topsoil. Feed cropsprimarily corn, soybeans, and
alfalfaare among the villains in the soil erosion story.
David Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington, told the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer in 2008 that we are losing an estimated 1% of the topsoil to
erosion each year, and that agriculture accounts for most of the loss. David Pimentel noted in 1997 that the
production of grain-fed livestock contributes to soil erosion. He said that about 90% of
U.S. cropland was losing soil, and that Iowa had lost one-half of its topsoilwhich
took thousands of years to developin only 150 years of farming.
Statistics on soil erosion from Cornell University are cause for concern , :
In the United States, soil is being lost 10 times faster than the rate of
replenishment (the rate is 30 to 40 times faster in China and India).
Soil erosion costs the U.S. about $37.6 billion a year in productivity losses.
Annual damage from soil erosion is estimated at $400 billion worldwide.
Over the past four decades, 30% of arable land in the world has become unproductive
due to erosion.
Most of us do not experience the effects of soil erosion directly, as we do when the cost
of a resource such as oil or gas increases. In that case, we recognize the problem, demand
to know why, and do what we can to reduce our own usage. But when was the last time you
heard someone complain about the rapid rate of soil erosion? This process constitutes
a quiet crisis that could lead to famines in some parts of the world?
Depletion of the water supply. Water is an essential natural
resource that has long been taken for granted. Although consumers may recognize the
importance of water conservation, they may not know that agribusiness uses such a large
share of water resources. Worldwide, the agricultural sector was responsible for 70% of
water use and 93% of water depletion in 2000, according to the FAO report.
In the coming decades, an increasing demand for water may lead to conflicts among usages
and users of this natural resource, says the FAO. Researchers have estimated that 64% of
the global population will live in water-stressed basins by 2025, compared with 38% today,
due to the projected growth in the demand for water.
Increasing water scarcity is likely to compromise food production, as water will
have to be diverted from agricultural use to environmental, industrial and domestic
purposes, states the FAO. The organization notes that one of the major
challenges in agricultural development today is to maintain food security and alleviate
poverty without further depleting water resources and damaging ecosystems.
In the United States, agriculture accounts for the largest share of freshwater
withdrawals, according to a 2006 report by the USDAs Economic Research
Service. Agriculture was responsible for 41% of freshwater withdrawals in 2000, a decline
of 5 percentage points from 1960. But the sector accounted for more than 80% of the
consumptive use of waterthat which is not returned to the immediate
water environmentdue to the evapotranspiration of a large portion of irrigation
water. The U.S. had approximately 55 million acres of irrigated farmland in 2002, and the
amount of irrigated farmland has grown about a half million acres a year, on average, in
the past three decades.
The use of water for livestock production, and the sectors contribution to water
depletion trends, are high and growing, says the FAO. An increasing
amount of water is needed to meet growing water requirements in the livestock production
process, from feed production to product supply. On a global scale, the livestock
sector accounts for 8% of water use. Most of this (7%) is used in the production of
People who want to help conserve water can begin by eating more vegetarian foods and less
meat. It takes 15 times more water to produce a 16-ounce T-bone than a vegetarian
alternative with the same protein content. According to Pimentel, every kilogram of grain-fed beef produced
requires 100,000 liters of water, and every kilogram of broiler chicken meat requires
3,500 liters. Those figures compare with 2,000 liters for a kilogram of soybeans produced;
1,912 for rice; 900 for wheat; and 500 for potatoes. If we passively allow the meat industry to use our limited water
supply for livestock, we may not be able to find a glass of pure water in the near future.
Water pollution. Livestock production is a major source of water
pollution. According to Livestocks Long Shadow, the FAO report, this
pollution comes from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, tannery chemicals, feedcrop
fertilizers and pesticides, and sediments from eroded pastures. Livestock is
probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication,
dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health
problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others, says the FAO. In the
U.S., adds the organization, livestock account for an estimated 55% of soil erosion and
sediment, 50% of antibiotic use, 37% of pesticide use, and 32%-33% of phosphorus and
nitrogen loads in water.
Agriculture is the main source of impairments in U.S. rivers and lakes, according to the
Economic Research Service. Based on an assessment of water quality in 2000 by the EPA,
agriculture is the primary source of pollution in 48% of river miles, 41% of lake acres
(excluding the Great Lakes), and 18% of estuaries that are water-quality impaired.
The Economic Research Service identifies the major agricultural pollutants in our water
as: 1) sediment that results from soil erosion; 2) nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients used
on croplands that can run off or leach into water and promote the growth of algae, leading
to decreased oxygen levels and fish kills; 3) pesticides used on farmlands (with more than
500 million pounds of active ingredient applied per year since the 1980s); 4) dissolved
salts carried by irrigation water into ditches and to surface or groundwater; and 5)
pathogens from animal feeding operations and livestock waste that may potentially be
transmitted to humans through contaminated water.
Dwindling energy supply. The production of animal foods places
greater demands on the nations energy supply than does the production of plant
protein. According to the Worldwatch Institute, a calorie of energy from beef requires 33%
more fossil-fuel energy to produce than does a calorie of potatoes.
Ecologist David Pimentel has explained that the production of animal protein in the U.S.
requires 28 kilocalories (kcal) of fossil-fuel energy, on average, for 1 kcal of protein
produced. For beef and lamb, the ratio of fossil-fuel energy input to protein output is
54:1 and 50:1, respectively. The ratio for turkey is 13:1 and for chicken meat 4:1. The
production of grain requires an average of 3.3 kcal of fossil fuel for every kcal of
protein produced. It requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy to produce
animal protein than plant protein, Pimentel reported, but the resulting animal protein is
only 1.4 times more nutritious than a comparable amount of plant protein.
Why does meat require such a depletion of our energy supply? The greater the number of
stages needed to process a product, the more energy that is required to get the item to
the consumer. Meat requires many more stages of processing than do vegetables and grains,
and therefore much more energy is used in its production. Simple products that can be used
in their natural state help conserve energy.
Climate change. Once again, the livestock sector is a major
player in climate change, which the FAO report calls the most serious challenge
facing the human race. This sector accounts for 18% of total greenhouse gas
emissions (measured in CO2 equivalent) from five major sectors. As the FAO points out,
this share is higher than the contribution of transport. Within the agricultural sector
alone, livestock are responsible for nearly 80% of all emissions.
Livestock production contributes to the emission of three major greenhouse gases that have
a direct impact on global warming: carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The sector
accounts for 9% of global anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, largely due to its
role in deforestation of land for pastures and feedcrop production.
According to the FAO report, the livestock sector plays a major role in the emission of
methane from enteric fermentation and animal manure. Livestock account for 35% to 40% of
all anthropogenic emissions and about 80% of agricultural emissions of methane, which
traps heat in the atmosphere even more effectively than does carbon dioxide. As for
nitrous oxide, the most potent of the three major greenhouse gases, livestock
contribute 65% of global anthropogenic emissions and 75% to 80% of agricultural emissions.
Waste of raw materials.One government study has indicated that
that the livestock industry uses one-third of the value of all raw materials consumed in
the U.S. just for feed. Plastic wrap, aluminum foil, styrofoam and cardboard containers,
paper labels, ink, preservatives, artificial flavors and color additivesall used by
the meat-packing industryfurther deplete our raw-material supplies. These raw
materials include aluminum, copper, iron, steel, tin, zinc, rubber, wood, and petroleum
ANIMAL FOODS AND WORLD HUNGER
Even as Americans struggle to stay on diets, a significant portion of the worlds
population has been condemned to a life of hunger and eventual starvation. More than 900
million people worldwidemost of them in developing countrieswere
undernourished in 2007. People
suffering from malnutrition receive such inadequate amounts of nutrients that even their
basic physiological functions are impaired.
A common explanation for such hunger is that overpopulation places an undue strain on the
already tenuous food supply of an underdeveloped nation. A closely related presumption is
that underdeveloped countries are backward, having failed to obtain the
updated machinery and technology needed to keep pace with modern population growth and
food demands. It is also presumed that widespread ignorance in these countries plays a
major role. For one thing, the argument goes, there is little understanding of modern
agricultural techniques that could help farmers increase their product yield.
These observations tend to be somewhat culturally prejudiced, assuming that modern ways of
doing things are superior to traditional ways in many of these societies. But the most
basic problem with this viewpoint is the presumption that world hunger can be overcome
with increased agricultural production and more stringent birth control measures.
Obviously, reduced population growth would ease the strain on limited food supplies. It
may be that if we continue our present rate of population growth, 700 years from now
people would be standing shoulder to shoulder on every foot of the earths land
surface .... Even in the
U.S., there will come a day when we simply cannot feed so large a population. However,
population growth control cannot be the only solution to world hunger. And while increased
agricultural production may be an immediate solution, it could create a lethal drain on
The fact is, the demand for animal protein is the single most significant factor that
condemns millions to a life of hunger and starvation. It means that man must compete with
animals over grain supplies for their very existence. The animal industry is based on
gross misuse of land that would be better used to feed people than cattle. Experience
shows us that population increases and food production decreases (due to drought, for
example) can be dealt with much more fruitfully when we have an efficient food supply that
makes economically sound use of land. Whats more, meat products are highly
inefficient in terms of nutritional return to the consumer.
We must keep in mind that famineneedless though it beis a day-to-day reality
for millions throughout the world. Americans may not actually be facing food shortages,
but their insistence on a meat and dairy diet will create and perpetuate the problem for
othersand eventually for themselves. Every time we eat a meal of animal foods, we
are supporting an industry that is taking food from the mouths of starving people.
RAISING FOOD WITHOUT FEEDING PEOPLE
Increasing agricultural output may sound like a reasonable solution to famine. In recent
years, however, the increase in grain production has gone more and more to animals and
less and less to people.
Livestock consumes our grain supplies in gross amounts and returns very little in terms of
dietary requirements. So while agricultural output may be going up, our ability to feed
people continues to decline. Just how much food do we waste when we eat meat and dairy
products? Cattle must consume 16 pounds of feed to produce a single pound of flesh.
Therefore, we waste 15 pounds of grain for every pound of beef consumed.
Smaller food animals are more efficient in this regardpigs consume about 6 pounds of
feed to produce a pound of flesh and poultry need 3 to 4 poundsbut the figures still
show how wasteful animal products are. If the grains were eaten by people instead of fed to cattle, we
would net greater amounts of calories and protein. As an added benefit, we would consume a
more usable unsaturated type of fat instead of the saturated, difficult-to-digest fat
contained in animal products.
Agribusiness does try to cut down on this tremendous grain drain, but they are unwilling
to take the most obvious and sensible step: to produce less meat and advise consumers to
balance their diets better by eating more vegetables and grains to replace part of this
meat intake. Instead, they work to maintain full weight on cattle while having them eat
less by, for example, severely restricting their physical movement. Instead of grazing
freely, cattle are lined up in crowded and squalid feedlots. Livestock fed in these
mechanized feedlots can attain a target weight and be delivered to the slaughterhouse in
about one-third the normal time. This
has greatly increased profits for the animal factories that insist on maintaining their
hold on the food market, even if it means tolerating gross waste that ultimately leads to
Despite the industrys attempt to reduce feed allocation, cattle still require a high
caloric intake. And since meat production is rising steadily, so is the overall feed
requirement. Use of livestock feed in the U.S. averages about 200 million tons annually,
compared with only 100 million tons on the eve of World War II. Although this figure
accounts only for feed consumption here, it is equivalent to all the grain currently
imported by every nation in the world. The number of poultry and livestock being fed grain
has doubled in recent decades, with 75% of all livestock being grain fed.
Reducing meat production is clearly the best solution to the problem of world hunger. Yet
industrialized nations tried to circumvent the issue by inventing the so-called Green
Revolution in the 1960s. This program has intended to end world hunger by introducing new
crops bred specifically for rapid growth and high-yield performance. One problem, however,
was that the new strains of crops were very expensive to grow because of the uncommonly
large amounts of fertilizer needed. This allowed the wealthiest farmers to outprice their
competition, putting many small farmers out of business in countries where farming was the
traditional binding socioeconomic force.
An overemphasis on grain production was another weakness of the system. Grains largely
replaced many varieties of legumes, and often ended up as livestock feed anyway. In the
industrialized countries, high-yield crops created a surplus that needed a market, thereby
encouraging even greater animal production, which placed even greater pressure on farmers
to produce yet more feed for the oversupply of livestock. It became a vicious cycle of
overproduction, yet nutrition was seldom considered. Dr. R. S. Harris, professor of
biochemistry and nutrition at M.I.T., found that the indigenous strains of crops being
replaced by the new high-yield varieties were actually superior in nutrition.
THE VEGETARIAN ALTERNATIVE
While some people believe that underdeveloped countries need more technical assistance in
the use of modern farming techniques, it is clear that the most direct and powerful
solution to the problem is to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle.
However, many Americans grew up with the Basic Four Food Groups, which
included the milk group, meat group, vegetable-fruit group, and breads-cereals group. The
USDA proposed the Basic Four in the 1950s supposedly to help simplify the
complexities of nutrition for the public. Along with the American Dietetic Association,
however, the USDA proceeded to grossly oversimplify the guidelines to proper nutrition.
The plan suggested that a person eat from the four basic groups to be sure of receiving a
recommended daily allowance of all nutrients. The four groups were aimed
almost exclusively, of course, at meat and dairy products. (The Basic Four was replaced by
the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992, which included groups for grains, vegetables, fruits,
dairy, meat, and fats and oils. A revised pyramid was introduced in 2005.)
Since Americans were force-fed the propaganda of the Basic Four, the profits of the meat
and dairy industries have increased greatly, and the average consumer has had to dig
deeper and deeper into his pocket to pay the rising costs of their products. He also is
paying more for healthcare services and insurance because of sharp increases in disease
and sickness. National healthcare costs related to meat consumption amount to tens of
billions a year.
A workable alternative to the food pyramid would be a five-group division that could be
used both by the affluent consumer of industrialized society and the average citizen of
the underdeveloped world. This transcultural food grouping would comprise three principal
dietary staplesgrains, legumes, and vegetablesand two smaller groups for raw
foods and foods containing vitamin B12.
The time has come for us to recognize the enormous waste and health dangers related to
meat consumption. Food experts agree that eating much more of a vegetarian diet would
create more nutritional parity in the world. They note that a simple diet would free up
our grain exports and increase global food resources. By decreasing our demand for meat,
we are releasing millions of tons of food to be used to nourish starving and malnourished
people in underdeveloped parts of the world. And we are becoming healthier for it. But if
we refuse to change our wasteful food production amid the starving millions, the
devastation will continue and no onenot even uswill be spared the disease,
hunger, economic chaos, and struggle for dwindling food supplies that ensue.
Coming in Part 3: The health benefits of
Martin Feldman, MD
132 East 76th Street
New York, New York 10024
New York, New York 10021 USA
Gary Null, Ph.D., has authored more than 75 books on health and nutrition and numerous
articles published in research journals. He is Adjunct Professor, Graduate Studies, Public
Health Curriculum, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. Null holds a Ph.D.
in human nutrition and public health science from the Union Graduate School.
Martin Feldman, M.D., practices complementary medicine. He is an Assistant Clinical
Professor of Neurology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
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