td;dr Watch Earthlings here – one of the best documentary about this topic
Why become vegetarian? Because of the impact of eating animals on animals themselves, on the environment and on humanity.
By becoming vegetarian, you stop most of the suffering you bring to animals (indirectly, for most of you). These horrible practices include:
- Putting them in minuscule cages for their wholes lives, without them being able to move freely or even turn around (veal crates)
- Making them live in their own shit, because of irregular cleaning and poor hygiene practices
- Cutting the beak of chicks and chickens, which farmers do avoid “cannibalistic” pecking and feather pulling in overcrowded (normal) farms
- Separating mothers and children, creating great anxiety and pain for both
- Inhumane killing, which is still happens in cheap slaughterhouses. Thankfully, stunning is becoming more common, but it’s still not foolproof, because it doesn’t work every time and some animals get killed alive and suffering.
Here are a couple of examples from Animal Cruelty is the Price of Cheap Meat, a good Rolling Stone article:
You are a typical egg-laying chicken in America, and this is your life: You’re trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in. The cages rise five high and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights.
You see and smell nothing from the moment of your birth but the shit coming down through the open slats of the battery cages above you. It coats your feathers and becomes a second skin; by the time you’re plucked from your cage for slaughter, your bones and wings breaking in the grasp of harried workers, you look less like a hen than an oil-spill duck, blackened by years of droppings.
Your eyes tear constantly from the fumes of your own urine, you wheeze and gasp like a retired miner, and you’re beset every second of the waking day by mice and plaguelike clouds of flies.
If you’re a broiler chicken (raised specifically for meat), thanks to “meat science” and its chemical levers – growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically engineered feed – you weigh at least double what you would in the wild, but lack the muscle even to waddle, let alone fly. Like egg-laying hens – your comrades in suffering – you get sick young with late-life woes: heart disease, osteoporosis. It’s frankly a mercy you’ll be dead and processed in 45 days, yanked from your floor pen and slaughtered. The egg-layers you leave behind will grind on for another two years or so (or until they’re “spent” and can’t produce any more eggs), then they’re killed too.
You’re a typical milk cow in America, and this is your life. You are raised, like pigs, on a concrete slab in a stall barely bigger than your body. There, you never touch grass or see sun till the day you’re herded to slaughter. A cocktail of drugs, combined with breeding decisions, has grossly distended the size of your udder such that you’d trip over it if allowed to graze, which of course you’re not.
Your hooves have rotted black from standing in your own shit, your teats are scarred, swollen and leaking pus – infected by mastitis – and you’re sick to the verge of total collapse from giving nearly 22,000 pounds of milk a year. (That’s more than double what your forebears produced just 40 years ago.) By the time they’ve used you up (typically at four years of age), your bones are so brittle that they often snap beneath you and leave you unable to get off the ground on your own power.
The planet’s life
The Stockholm Resilience Center says it best:
Intensive factory farming has grown to become the biggest threat to the global environment through the loss of ecosystem services and global warming.
The best page I’ve found describing the impact of animal farming is this one: Facts on Animal Farming and the Environment. Here’s the main content:
- More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the United States are used in animal production (“Ecological Cooking” by Joanne Stepaniak and Kathy Hecker)
- The production of one calorie of animal protein requires more than ten times the fossil fuel input as a calorie of plant protein. (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)
- Producing a single hamburger uses enough fuel to drive 20 miles and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil. (“The Food Revolution” by John Robbins)
- Nearly half of all the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for food (“The Food Revolution” by John Robbins). It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat and only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat (“Water Inputs in California Food Production” by Marcia Kreith)
- To produce a day’s food for one meat-eater takes over 4,000 gallons; for a lacto-ovo vegetarian, only 1200 gallons; for a vegan, only 300 gallons (The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook)
- Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population and animal farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Run-offs of animal waste, pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics are contributing to dead zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reef and health problems. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).
- Raising animals for food (including land used for grazing and land used to grow feed crops) now uses a staggering 30% of the Earth’s land mass. (Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, a 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)
- Seven football fields’ worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals and the crops that feed them. (The Smithsonian Institution)
- Of all the agricultural land in the U.S., 80% is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them—that’s almost half the total land mass of the lower 48 states (“Major Uses of Land in the United States” by Marlow Vesterby and Kenneth S. Krupa)
- The massive amounts of excrement produced by livestock farms emit toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia into the air. Roughly 80% of ammonia emissions in the U.S. come from animal waste (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).
- When the cesspools holding tons of urine and feces get full, factory farms will frequently get around water pollution limits by spraying liquid manure into the air, creating mists that are carried away by the wind. (“Neighbors of Vast Hog Farms Say Foul Air Endangers Their Health,” by Jennifer Lee, The New York Times 11 May 2003)
- Air pollutants generated by animal farms can cause respiratory illness, lung inflammation, and increase vulnerability to respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Emissions of reactive organics and ammonia from animal farming can play a role in the formation of ozone (smog) and air pollution (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
- In the U.S., 70% of the grain grown is fed to animals on feedlots (“Plants, Genes, and Agriculture” by Jones and Bartlet)
- It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat. (The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat by Mark Gold and Jonathon Porritt). Fish on fish farms must be fed 5 pounds of wild-caught fish to produce one pound of farmed fish flesh (“The Food Revolution” by John Robbins)
- The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth (“The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat” by Mark Gold and Jonathon Porritt)
- Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than all the cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined) (Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, a 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)
- Livestock account for an estimated 9% of global CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) emissions, estimated 35-40% of global CH4 (Methane) emissions and 65% of NO2 (Nitrous Oxide) emissions (Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, a 2006 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)
- By replacing your “regular car” with a Toyota Prius the average person can prevent the emission of about 1 tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere, By replacing an omnivorous diet with a vegan diet the average person can prevent the emission of about 1.5 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s 50% more CO2 saved! (“It’s better to green your diet than your car”, The New Scientist, December 17, 2005.)
In addition to all of the above, let’s not forget that the expansion of livestock farming is one of the key factors leading to deforestation in parts of the world such as Latin America and posing a significant threat of the Earth’s biodiversity. Our Oceans are not being spared either and over-fishing is having a devastating impact on our marine ecosystems.
This is not just a problem that impacts our planet, it’s a humanitarian crisis. Our demand for animal based products is diverting precious resources like land, water and fossil fuels to produce farmed animals instead of feeding the estimated billion + people that are malnourished in the world“
Consequences: The forests are shrinking, the soils are getting over-exploited and degraded, many species are disappearing. And this is not a slow process, that only your great-grandchildren will notice.
For example, “Earth’s population of wild vertebrates — all mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish — declined 58 percent from 1970 to 2012.”
Many people in the world don’t have enough quality food or water.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2014-2016. Almost all the hungry people, 780 million, live in developing countries, representing 12.9 percent, or one in eight, of the population of developing counties. (…)
Children are the most visible victims of undernutrition. Black et. al. (2013) estimate that undernutrition in the aggregate—including fetal growth restriction, stunting, wasting, and deficiencies of vitamin A and zinc along with suboptimum breastfeeding—is a cause of 3·1 million child deaths annually or 45% of all child deaths in 2011
We currently produce enough calories to feed 10-11 billion people worldwide, however, the majority of this food goes to feed livestock, not hungry people.
After feed for livestock is produced, additional land, water, and energy resources are required to house and raise the animals and dispose of their waste. Eventually, even more energy is required to transport these animals to slaughter and process their bodies.
To give you can idea of how this all breaks down, it is estimated that people who eat beef use 160 times more land, water and fuel resources to sustain their diets than their plant-based counterparts.
And this is just the beginning. “Worldwide, an estimated 2 billion people live primarily on a meat-based diet, while an estimated 4 billion live primarily on a plant-based diet.” If the trend towards meat continued, all the problems on this article would only accelerate.
Let’s read some opposing views to see whether some good counter arguments exists. The New York Times once challenged their readers to make an ethical case for eating meat. Here are the top responses.
Wikipedia also has a “Criticisms and responses” section on its Ethics of Meat Eating page. Read it here.
Personally, I don’t find them very convincing.
Ok, so what should we eat?
Here are my simple rules of thumb:
- All plants are OK: vegetables, fruits, cereals, beans, nuts, …
- Very simple organisms are OK: oysters, mussels
- Meat replacements: veggie meats, tofu, beans
This is the ideal. Here are the non-ideal thing, from less-worst to worst:
- Shrimp and prawns
- Eggs, dairy and cheese: they look innocent, but they’re often among the worst crimes we do to animals (make sure to buy as ethical as you can. Cheap often means cruel)
I prefer ethically shrimp over meat, because there’s less evidence that they can feel pain. If they can feel pain, they’re grown in less painful environments than meat.
I follow my guidelines, with one exception: I still eat eggs, dairy and cheese. I’m not especially happy about this, so I’ll probably replace them with something else over the next year.
Learn more about this
- Animal Liberation: Peter Singer’s clear and provocative book about animal rights and welfare
- Earthlings: a documentary showing what we do to animals (extremely well made)
- Becoming Vegetarian: a practical book showing how to have a good nutrition on a plant-based diet. It’s quite detailed, but you can read the summaries and skip the details. Nobody obeys everything in there, but it’s a good ideal.
- The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights: Simple Acts of Kindness to Help Animals in Trouble