Every time I travel by bike (and every holiday season, when meat and egg-y things and cheesy appetizers suddenly become even more supremely important to people), I’m reminded of how thankful my little vegan self is to have nothing to do with the livestock industry.
Deep breath: I try really hard not to be one of those smug windbags who just can’t wait to talk to you about why her food choices are so gosh-darn wholesome, and I know that different people with different values and different information will make different choices. My choices aren’t necessarily the best for everyone, though without being too full of myself I do think that many people who think deeply about it will come to conclusions similar to mine. Like I said, every time I take a bike trip and am intimately reminded of the ecological, biological, and public health implications of raising livestock, I’m thankful all over again for my colorful and delicious plant-based diet.
Take my last excursion through rural Oregon and Idaho (or even the trip before that through southern Utah). Much of what I biked through was BLM land — that is, land that’s regulated by the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that’s supposed to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
The emphasis there is mine. Miles and miles and miles of public land I biked through, every single inch of it fenced off and unavailable. Why? Because it’s leased out to ranchers, who pay a pittance to use public land to fatten their cows, cows that run rampant, cows that trample and pollute the streams, cows that chow down the native vegetation, more cows than the land can healthily support, cows for days pooping all over the streams that you and I can’t get to even if we wanted to anymore, because it’s more important to subsidize cattle.
If you’ve ever traveled between grazed land and protected land, you know what I’m talking about. The contrast is stark: one minute there are trees, a plethora of different and differently-sized shrubs, a variety of animal life, riverbanks covered in erosion-withholding plants — in short, biodiversity, a healthy ecosystem — and the next minute, there’s nothing. Riverbanks are bare and trampled, more quicksand than bank; the water is full of algae; the ground is flattened, empty but for cow pies. In Utah, this manifested as miles and miles of dust and tumbleweeds which, though an icon of the American West, are actually an invasive plant that replace the native grasses and forbs that hold the land and topsoil together. (And ironically, the livestock that graze down the plants, inviting the takeover of tumbleweed, mostly can’t eat the tumbleweeds that move in.)
I know, grazing doesn’t always have to result in this, but when you can get more money for having more cows, health of the land — public land — takes a backseat to bottom line. It seems.
It’s not just beef, of course. If you’ve ever biked past a dairy you know they have their own breed of disgusting: that sour, rancid smell, a smell wrought mostly of the giant cesspools of manure that that many cows in one confined space create. One article I read recently mentioned that the manure from 200 milking cows produces as much nitrogen as sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people. And that doesn’t even begin to get into the sheer amount of methane produced, or the number of antibiotics, hormones, and other pollutants that inevitably find their way into our groundwater from dairy overflow.
When you live in a city, away from where all this land use goes down, it’s easy to just buy your package of wrapped-up, looks-nothing-like-an-animal meat, or your quart of milk, or your baby loaf of cheese. You can even feel good about yourself: it’s organic! It comes from a small farm! It’s free-range! And sure, some options are certainly better than others. But you know what? After so many bike trips through this stuff, after miles and miles of seeing the aftermath of livestock on the land, I’m happy to entirely opt out. There is so much delicious food to eat that doesn’t require this sort of ecological devastation.
But stasia, don’t other crops, even crops that have nothing to do with animal production, also have impact on the world? Certainly. We could certainly get into all sorts of discussions about destroying the Amazon to grow soybeans or coffee (although 91% of the land in the Amazon that was deforested since 1970 is now pasture land), or the ecological implications of our dependence on wheat. Deciding to not eat meat or dairy certainly isn’t the only decision to make. If you live in this world, you have to be prepared to have a certain amount of impact on it, but I’m all about reducing that impact. And the most resource-efficient way to do that in terms of diet is to eat vegan.
There are stats all over the internet as to how much more ecologically friendly a plant-based diet is. Even the meat eater’s guide concedes that if everyone in the US ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles, or taking 7.6 million cars off the road. That’s not even asking you to stop eating meat or dairy altogether, just not eat it one day a week.
Plus, it might be worth putting in perspective: one pound of beef takes 2000 or more gallons of water to produce (as opposed to, say, 34 gallons for a pound of potatoes). And while 40% of all arable land on this planet is used to produce food for the 7 billion of us who live here, 30% — fully 3/4 of the land that’s used to produce food — goes into the production of meat. That’s not even the production of eggs, milk, or other byproducts, but full-on meat. And most of that meat feeds not the hungry of the world but Americans, the average of whom eat a whopping 271 pounds of it a year. (An average Bangladeshi eats just 4 pounds, to add some more perspective.)
Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could take a step back from all that and say, hey, we’re Americans, but we don’t actually have to cram our faces full of all this meat — all this food that’s linked to obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, chronic disease? That we don’t actually have to use all this land to grow meat when creating a calorie of meat takes 10-15 times as much fossil fuel energy as creating one calorie of plant protein? Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to say hey, I’m an American, and as a global citizen, I’m concerned about the way our planet’s resources are being used, and I want to be able to feed everyone, not just myself and my family? Wouldn’t that be nice?
Anyway, I could go on and on, and teasing out all the various nuances and implications of every study ever conducted could start a conversation that goes on for days. For anyone who wants a cliff-notes version, I’d suggest this compilation of numbers about meat-based, vegetarian, and vegan diets. I think it’s worth thinking about. For realz. It’s a cop-out to just eat the way you’re used to, unthinkingly, just as it’s a cop-out to go through the world and make any decisions unthinkingly. Come on. Give it some thought. And push my thoughts. Figure out what the right thing to do is, and do it.