cows free-range veganism A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © Gina Sanders \ Fotolia.com

I remember the day I decided to start eliminating animal products from my diet. I was 13 years old, sitting in Pizza Hut with my family. I stared down at my personal pizza and thought, “What part of the animal is the mini sausage?”

Just kidding.

But seriously, those tiny sausages looked weird.

I turned to my family and said, “I don’t think I want to eat meat anymore.” Of course, that was not enough for my mother to allow me to completely change my diet. After I spent hours researching animal rights and factory farms, I finally got my way. Anyway, my mom was sure it was just a phase.

Although I’m not sure what had originally caused me to see eating meat as strange, within five minutes of research, I knew I wouldn’t look back. Images of de-beaked chickens and screaming pigs flooded my thoughts for months, and continue to haunt me to this day.

A few weeks ago I decided that cutting out meat was simply not enough, and I would cut out all animal by-products. After all, factory farming doesn’t stop at meat. Dairy cows and laying hens receive the same troubling treatment as the animals that become barbeque ribs and honey mustard chicken wings. And after looking at the enormous environmental impact of animal farming, I knew I had to go vegan.

Land Use

It is unrealistic to think that all meat-eaters on Earth, or even in North America, could sustain their current meat-eating habits on free range, non-industrialized meat.

In the United States alone, there are about 100 million head of cattle. Each cow requires about 2 to 20 acres of grazing space. That would mean at least 200 million acres would have to be devoted to cows alone. Once you factor in pigs and chickens, there wouldn’t even be space for people.

The argument is that if we all cut down no one has to cut out meat entirely. But too many of us are not cutting down at all. In fact, according to Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, world-wide meat consumption per capita has more than doubled since 1961, when global meat supply was at 71 million tons. By 2007, it was around 284 million tons, and it is expected to double again by 2050.

Climate

Farmed animals are methane machines. Proportionally, the impact of methane (CH4) is over 20 times greater than carbon dioxide (CO2) on climate change. In other words, one pound of methane has 20 times the effect of one pound of carbon dioxide.

One pig produces 1.5 kilograms of methane per year, one sheep produces about 8 kilograms and one cow produces 120 kilograms of methane. To put this into perspective, a human only produces 0.12 kilos of methane per year. That means cows produce 1000 times more methane than humans. A victory in the current battle against climate change might be to eliminate what I consider to be “methane factories.”

Water

Like all animals, farmed animals poop. Although a bit of fertilizer for agricultural purposes can be useful, there is too much to go around.  There are farms where thousands of cattle or pigs are kept and all that manure has to go somewhere. One dairy cow can produce 120 pounds of manure per day, which is the same amount produced by 20 to 40 people.

Manure is collected into “lagoons” or massive tanks that can hold millions of gallons of excrement. Lagoons are prone to leaking, overflowing or even rupturing during storms. Leaking farm sewage can seep into waterways, creating algal blooms which produce dead zones, aquatic areas where there is not enough oxygen to support life.

In 1995, a hog farm in North Carolina spilled 25 million gallons of excrement into the New River. This came from an eight-acre lagoon. In 2011, an Illinois hog farm killed over 110,000 fish by spilling 200,000 gallons of manure into a creek.

Manure and urine can also be collected in drinking water. Not only will it become runoff in streams and rivers, but it can also seep into groundwater, an important source of potable water.

If you still want to eat meat, make it a treat. Allow yourself to eat steak once a month, turkey on Thanksgiving or eggs once a week. But make the effort to understand where your animal products come from. Eliminating or reducing our consumption of animal products and by-products is a straightforward yet significant way we can curb the negative impact of our diets on the planet. 

In part one of To Meat or Not to Meat? Dana Decent chose to eat organic free-range beef to support her local economy. Learn more about reducing your food footprint in Nine Simple Ways to Save the Planet, Can Vegetarians Slow Climate Change?, 10 Ways to Waste Less Food and Eating Insects.

Emilie is an A\J web editorial intern and a student at the University of Waterloo in Environment and Resource Studies, and Legal Studies.

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