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A Vegetarian Diet is Better for the Environment

Whether you choose to be a vegetarian for the environment, for your health, or for the animals, you have the power to reduce your ecological footprint, and save money, simply by changing your eating habits.

Each day, factory farms produce billions of pounds of manure, which ends up in lakes, rivers, and drinking water. The one trillion pounds of waste produced by factory-farmed animals each year are usually used to fertilize crops, and they subsequently end up running off into waterways—along with the drugs and bacteria they contain.

Many tons of waste end up in giant pits in the ground or on crops, polluting the air and groundwater. According to the EPA, agricultural runoff is the number one source of pollution in USA waterways.

Raising animals (including the land used for grazing and growing feed crops) now uses 30% of the Earth’s land mass and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the cars, planes, and other forms of transportation combined.

Of the grain grown, more than half is fed to farmed animals. Think of how many people around the world could be fed with that grain. To produce one pound of animal protein vs. one pound of soy protein, it takes about 12 times as much land, 13 times as much fossil fuel, and 15 times as much water.

According to a report by the California State Senate, “Studies have shown that animal waste lagoons emit toxic airborne chemicals that can cause “inflammatory, immune, and neurochemical problems in humans.”

According to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, seven football fields’ worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals and the crops that feed them.   green-foods

Of all the agricultural land in the U.S., 80 percent is used to raise animals for food and to grow grain to feed them—that’s almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states. In the “finishing” phase alone, in which pigs grow from 100 pounds to 240 pounds, each hog consumes more than 500 pounds of grain, corn, and soybeans; this means that across the U.S., pigs eat tens of millions of tons of feed every year.

Chickens, pigs, cattle, and other animals raised for food are the primary consumers of water in the USA.  A single pig consumes 3-5  gallons of drinking water per day, while a cow on a dairy farm drinks as much as 30 gallons daily. It takes more than 450 gallons of water to produce one  pound of cow flesh, whereas it takes about 180 gallons of water to make one pound of whole wheat flour.

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that at least 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide can be attributed to “livestock and their byproducts.”

If the switch to a vegetarian diet seems too extreme, I suggest cutting back on your consumption of meat and poultry for a few days each week, by experimenting instead, with vegetarian meals.

Being a vegetarian is easier than ever before. I (again) made the switch to a vegetarian diet three years ago, and this time, I haven’t looked back.

Please share your ideas and your questions about vegetarianism and what it means to you.

36 Responses to A Vegetarian Diet is Better for the Environment

  • tuhinmech says:

    Wow, I never thought from this angle. Thank you for writing this.

    Though I am a non-vegetarian, I still prefer to have clean vegetables 4-5 days a week.

    I believe consumption of excessive non-veg items leads to a number of health issues, especially after the age of 50. So at any given day, vegetarian diet is always welcome

  • So true, yet I always forget about the environmental reasons for vegetarianism. I am a semi-vegetarian, and when travelling, I don’t miss meat at all. At home, I do enjoy a burger and bacon, but a meat-free diet can be just as tasty!

  • Great post! I’m not surprised to hear that going vegetarian is good for the planet. I am hoping that one day I will go vegetarian. I love the taste of meat . One day! One day!
    I do eat lots of vegetables though.

    • I also love the taste of meat but I love the planet more. With the vast array of tasty vegetarian recipes and meat substitutes on the market, you may find it easier than you think. Should you decide to make the switch and need a helping hand, as a nutritionist with a degree in nutrition, I can certainly help you. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Safariontheblog!

  • I’ve been reading a lot about diet, real food vs. processed food, environmental impact, etc these past few years. I love food too much to totally omit meat from my diet, but I eat much less meat than I used to.

  • Michele — I wasn’t aware of the extreme detrimental environmental effects of animal waste. It will make me think the next time I eat meat. I do eat meat and like it, but I’m also increasing my intake of vegetables. I love fruit, too, which you didn’t mention. Good source of natural sugar and nutrients.

    • Of course fruit is super nutritious, Jeannette! 3-5 servings per day are recommended whether you are vegetarian or not. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  • A very informative blog about being a vegetarian. I will admit myself, I eat a lot of meat, however, I am starting to include many vegetables in my diet.

  • I’m not surprised to hear that going vegetarian is good for the planet. Just thinking of what those processing plants can do to the environment is chilling. I’ve tried to go vegetarian a couple of times, but found it made me tire easily! There’s tons of fish in my diet – and I try to keep meat at a minimum. Some day, I’ll go to a nutritionist and make another, more informed attempt.

    • As a nutritionist, I am available to help you adjust to a vegetarian diet in the future. Your comment makes me wonder whether you have been tested for iron deficiency anemia? Thank you stopping by, Krystyna!

  • Meredith says:

    Interesting! I never thought about environmentalism as a reason to go vegetarian. I’ve been trying to increase my veggie intake lately, so now I feel extra good about that!

  • Sabrina Q. says:

    Great point about eating vegetarian helps the environment. I eat red meat maybe once every 3 months or so. I personally cut back on my meat consumptions in the last year. I eat more plant based protein these days. But when I buy meat like turkey, chicken and fish, I purchase them from Whole Foods because they give more information on the packaging. Also, I look for more locally produced products when available. Thanks for sharing.

  • Once again proves my theory that we have enough to feed the entire world. It is shameful that we continue to feed the greed of a few wealthy nations while the innocent starve to death in others!
    Thank you Michele!

    • Because of the resources needed to farm cattle for food, a lot of land, grain, and water is used that could be used instead to grow more food to feed more people. Good point, Angela. Thank you for your comment!

  • Edward Reid says:

    I have really cut back on red meat and will do the same soon with chicken. Even though our personal efforts will help the environment and our individual health, major change will not occur unless there are changes in the process of farming worldwide. Very Informative article.

    • It’s great that you have cut back on red meat and will be doing the same with poultry. It’s true that we need to change our farming practices. Thank you for commenting, Edward.

  • Tim says:

    I love meat and find it hard to even think about denying myself the taste of a good rare steak every now and then. You make some good points in your post Michele however I would think that man’s baseline, his primal self, has always been that of an omnivore. I recently watched the movie on the life of Temple Grandin and fully condone a humanitarian approach to the industry. If we kill a beast to eat we should have respect enough for it and treat it as good as we can beforehand. Over the years I have drastically cut down on meat consumption, especially red. I guess I am a semi-vegetarian in the making…maybe.

    • I used to love the taste of meat too, Tim. I agree with you that cutting down on red meat consumption is a great step to take. As far as humanitarian practices are concerned, they don’t help the environment much, which is my main point, with regard to vegetarianism. Thank you for your comment.

  • You are speaking to the converted. Have been semi-vegetarian since I was nineteen. Only have meat when I’m invited to a dinner party. It gets too complicated to invite me if I can’t eat what everybody else is eating. Not only is being vegetarian much better for the environment but for your health as well.

  • Hi Michele, interesting post. I agree there are many many health and environmental benefits to going vegetarian. You make lots of great points. Did you mean one pig drinks 21_gallons of water a day? That seems super high. I thought it was like 2-4 depending on size of pig, if it had babies it was feeding etc .

  • Ken Dowell says:

    Some of this is really surprising. I never would have thought agricultural runoff was a greater source of pollution than industrial waste. I guess we’re saving the environment by having everything made in China. I’m also astounded by the volume of water than pigs and cows consume.

  • Erica says:

    I have been a vegetarian for half of my life. I simply hate the taste and texture of meat, and even as a 5 year old, it didn’t sit well with me that I was eating another being.

    Having said that, as someone who works with clients about diet, I discourage my clients to become vegetarian unless they really feel a strong need. I think it is tricky for many to get the required nutrients as a vegetarian. I do encourage clients to choose high quality, organic meat when possible. I also encourage them to introduce more vegetarian meals along with their meat consumption. I think that somewhere along the way, the idea started to prevail that we must eat meat at every meal. That is not healthy and bad for the environment. Balance between vegetarian and meat based options is key.

    • I find what you say interesting, Erica. True, it is challenging to obtain sufficient nutrients as a vegan, but as a vegetarian who avoids all meat and poultry, it isn’t difficult at all, and most people who consume a meat based diet, eat much more protein than is healthy. I agree that I would not encourage someone to become vegetarian before they are ready, or to do anything else before they are ready, for that matter, but I certainly would not discourage anyone from simply avoiding meat and poultry. Having said that, you do have to be very well informed to be a vegan, otherwise you will develop nutrient deficiencies. Thank you for your comment.

  • Beth Niebuhr says:

    Of course you are right. We should not eat any meat. For the reasons that you explained so well. It’s a worthy goal and it can be achieved a bit at a time – or cold turkey!

  • Mahal Hudson says:

    I am not a vegetarian but I have been eating asparagus….as in everyday. Being a vegetarian may be a choice but I like how you pointed it out that it helps our environment. Thank you for that.

  • I know. You are SO right, Michele, and I should eat less (or no) meat. I have very slowly been moving that way, but must admit. I really do enjoy eating chicken, pork, and beef. We probably eat chicken the most, then, pork, and very little beef. but my hubby and I are both protein fans, and so we love grilled meat or fish along with a nice salad. I’ll try to pump up eating alternate forms of protein. Thx for the nudge.

    • I eat a lot of salad and I still eat fish, seafood, eggs, and cheese. For vegetarian protein, I eat peanut butter, tofu, beans, lentils etc. and prepare these in a vegetarian stew or with rice and vegetables. I find my meals still contain a lot of variety. I always loved the taste of meat before I became a vegetarian. The thing that convinced me was the global warming issue, which is something I am deeply concerned about. Thank you for your comment, Doreen.

  • lenie5860 says:

    Michele, I don’t think the problem lies so much with raising animals for meat and dairy as do the factory farms. When animals were raised on family farms where the manure created was spread on the fields and plowed under, there was never a problem. Factory farms are a completely artificial environment and the meat produced there (with all the antibiotics, hormones, and who knows what else) cannot possibly be good for anyone.
    Now having said all that, I do believe very few of us eat enough fruits and vegetables and that is a problem that needs to be corrected..

    • I find your comment very constructive and informative, Lenie. I appreciate what you say about the family vs the factory farms. With seven billion people on the planet and factory farms, I do believe that a plant based diet is the most sustainable for the planet and the best for the environment.

  • patweber says:

    Truth? I tried a vegetarian diet because I believed it would be better for my health. After 6 months, my cholesterol blood panel tests soared. What I switched back to is what you wind up with here Michele, and what we used to do in life – all things in moderation.

  • This seems like sound reasoning…but what do you propose to do with the animals that will continue to reproduce, yet not be killed for food? I think there are probably a ton of studies that refute these statements as well. Personally, I don’t think we will ever live in a world where people do not eat meat of some kind… though I do favor humane conditions and slaughtering of animals that are used for food. My grandfather raised beef cattle and carefully practiced a humane principals.

    • I do believe that most people will eventually switch to a mostly plant based diet. Also, since cattle are bred for consumption, there will be much less reproduction of cattle for this purpose once animals are not being consumed for food. I have not seen any studies at all that refute what I have posted in terms of environmental impact. Thank you for your comment, Jacquie.

  • Arleen says:

    I would not call myself a total vegetarian but I am on the Mediterranean diet for my health. I eat very little chicken and have more vegetable dishes and eat more fish. I never thought about the footprint of eating animal protein so I am glad I have made the diet change on many levels. For breakfast I have a grain called farro cooked with apples, raisins and cinnamon. There are other choices out there.My blood tests are proving it as well.

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