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Vegetarianism: An Argument for the Environment

Vegetarianism: An Argument for the Environment

A chance encounter with Christie Brinkley at Anderson Live raises a very important point about our global impact as culinarians

Christie Brinkley speaks out against meat-consumption on 'Anderson Live.'

Are you one of those people who grimace when someone tells you they’re a vegetarian because of a cute, innocent baby lamb’s face? So am I, because no matter how many lamb chop dishes I skip out on, I’m pretty sure that baby lamb is still going to become someone else's meal.

The baby face argument may or may not be legitimate, but I recently was reminded of an argument that did make me feel a pang of guilt when I thought of cutting into some juicy lamb chops. This week, I was invited to sit in the audience of Anderson Cooper's daytime TV show Anderson Live as their guest blogger, and I had the chance to watch Anderson Cooper and Christie Brinkley cook with Food Network star Aaron McCargo Jr. They were making bacon-wrapped and crab-stuffed zucchini, and while Cooper worked away on the bacon ones, Brinkley (the in-house vegetarian), worked on carrot-wrapped stuffed zucchini sans the crabmeat.

I had my eye on the bacon-wrapped zucchinis, but Brinkley wasn’t shy about telling the audience how delicious her carrot-wrapped one was. "[It's] good for you, and the environment," she stated with enthusiasm. The comment was quickly brushed over and they moved onto another segment, but later in the show, Brinkley had a chance to mention again how good vegetarianism is for the environment.

Meat consumption and its impact on the environment is an argument that won’t make me grimace, and because I hadn’t heard it in a while, I did some reading on the subject after the show. I’m happy that Brinkley reminded me of this discussion because it made me remember that just because I turn my lights off when I’m not home, I’m still hurting the environment every time I go to sear a steak. To pay the deed forward, here are a few important points on the subject that I can remind you of:

  • The land, food, and energy used to produce and sell meat products accounts for 9 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions with human-related activities.
  • In other words, raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all of the cars and trucks in the world combined.
  • Along with its carbon dioxide emissions, the production of meat is the largest source of another detrimental greenhouse gas, methane.
  • As methane is one of the most important non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases, and animals are the largest source of it, reducing the production and consumption of them is by far the easiest way to improve the status of our environment.
  • Along with its impact on the health of our environment, raising livestock destroys ecosystems around the world.
  • The scientists at the Smithsonian Institution state that every minute, seven football fields’ worth of land is destroyed to create more room for farmed animals, and the crops that feed them.

These points may surprise you, but they should definitely get you thinking. I’m a meat-eater, and boy do I love it, but these environmental arguments have quite an impact on my taste buds. I’m not saying I’ll be giving up meat forever, but because of Brinkley on Anderson Live, I’m going to try to eat a little less (maybe a Lenten promise?).

Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce


Eat to Beat Climate Change

Eating a vegetarian diet is one of the best things you can do to stop climate change – it’s also delicious and loads of fun!

Eating a veggie diet means 2.5 x less carbon emissions than a meat diet.

A chicken breast takes over 542 litres of water to produce, that could fill up your bathtub 6.5 x.

By eating vegetarian food for a year you could save the same amount of emissions as taking a small family car off the road for 6 months.

The population is set to rise to over 9 billion by 2050 1 , we are consuming the planet’s natural resources faster than the Earth can replenish them. By 2050 we’ll need the equivalent of three planets resources 2 to meet our current needs.

Climate change

Our planet is heating up. By replacing meat with vegetarian sources of protein, (nuts, seeds, beans and lentils, for example), we can reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. The whole food production process of farm-to-plate totals 30% of all global greenhouse gas emissions (3).

By eating vegetarian food for a year you could save the same amount of emissions as taking a small family car off the road for 6 months (4). You might not be able to stop using your car in day-to-day life but you can choose to eat veggie food.

More agricultural land is used to raise cattle than all other domesticated animals and crops combined (7). A vegetarian diet requires two-and-a-half times less the amount of land needed to grow food, compared to a meat-based diet (8). Livestock in the UK eat more than half of the 20 million tonnes of cereal grown. That’s over 50% of wheat and 60% of barley (6).

A vegetarian diet uses less water. It takes far less water to produce plant protein than meat. An 8 oz chicken breast takes over 542 litres of water to produce. Enough to fill your bath tub 6.5 times.


Veganism and the Environment

Raising animals for food requires massive amounts of land, food, energy, and water. The byproducts of animal agriculture pollute our air and waterways. By shunning animal products, vegans are de facto environmentalists.

Using Up Resources

As the world’s appetite for meat increases, countries across the globe are bulldozing huge swaths of land to make more room for animals as well as crops to feed them. From tropical rain forests in Brazil to ancient pine forests in China, entire ecosystems are being destroyed to fuel humans’ addiction to meat. 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. 1 Of all the agricultural land in the U.S., 80 percent 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. 2 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. 3

Chickens, pigs, cattle, and other animals raised for food are the primary consumers of water in the U.S.: a single pig consumes 21 gallons of drinking water per day, while a cow on a dairy farm drinks as much as 50 gallons daily. 4,5 It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of cow flesh, whereas it takes about 180 gallons of water to make 1 pound of whole wheat flour. 6

Polluting the Air

Carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide together cause the vast majority of global warming. Producing a little more than 2 pounds of beef causes more greenhouse-gas emissions than driving a car for three hours and uses up more energy than leaving your house lights on for the same period of time. 7 According to the United Nations, a global shift toward a vegan diet is one of the steps necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change. 8

Factory farms also produce massive amounts of dust and other contaminates that pollute the air. A study in Texas found that animal feedlots in that state produce more than 7,000 tons of particulate dust every year and that the dust “contains biologically active organisms such as bacteria, mold, and fungi from the feces and the feed.” 9 And when the cesspools holding tons of urine and feces get full, factory farms may circumvent water pollution limits by spraying liquid manure into the air, creating mists that are carried away by the wind and inhaled by nearby residents. 10 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.” 11

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that roughly 80 percent of ammonia emissions in the U.S. come from animal waste. 12 A California study found that a single dairy cow “emits 19.3 pounds of volatile organic compounds per year, making dairies the largest source of the smog-making gas, surpassing trucks and passenger cars.” 13

Polluting the Water

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 that they contain. 14 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 our waterways. 15

It doesn’t stop there. Streams and rivers carry excrement from factory farms to the Mississippi River, which then deposits the waste in the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen from animal feces—and from fertilizer, which is primarily used to grow crops for farmed animals—causes algae populations to skyrocket, leaving little oxygen for other life forms. A 2006 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone”—an area in which virtually all the sea animals and plants have died—is now half the size of Maryland. 16 In 2006, a separate study by Princeton University found that a shift away from meat production—as well as Americans’ adoption of vegetarian diets—would dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen in the Gulf to levels that would make the dead zone “small or non-existent.” 17

Cruelty to Animals

In addition to polluting the environment, factory farming strives to produce the most meat, milk, and eggs as quickly and cheaply as possible and in the smallest amount of space possible, resulting in abusive conditions for animals. Cows, calves, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, rabbits, and other animals are kept in small cages or stalls, where they are often unable to turn around. They are deprived of exercise so that all their energy goes toward producing flesh, eggs, or milk for human consumption. They are fed drugs that fatten them more quickly, and they are genetically manipulated to grow faster or produce much more milk or eggs than they would naturally. For more industry-specific information, please see our factsheets about pigs, cows, veal, chickens, turkeys, and foie gras.

Don’t be fooled by products labeled as “organic” or “free-range.” Because definitions and enforcement of regulations are inconsistent, it’s difficult to determine which products actually come from animals who are treated decently. Since none of the labels applies to transport or slaughter and none prohibits bodily mutilations such as debeaking, tail-docking, ear-notching, or dehorning, the worst cruelty continues to be completely unregulated. For more information, please see our factsheet about these misleading labels.

What You Can Do

Switching to a vegan diet reduces your “ecological footprint,” allowing you to tread lightly on the planet and be compassionate to its inhabitants. With so many great vegan options, eating green has never been more delicious. Whether you go vegetarian for the environment, for your health, or for animals, you have the power to change the world, simply by changing what’s on your plate.


How To Argue For Vegetarianism, And Win

So you’re at a party, and someone says something ignorant. And while you know they’re in the wrong, your words escape you. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we’ve compiled a series of handy reference guides with the most common arguments — and your counter-arguments — for all of the hot-button issues of the day. This week’s topic: How to argue for vegetarianism.

Common Argument #1: It's Unhealthy To Cut All The Meat Out Of Your Diet

No, cutting meat out of your diet isn't an unhealthy choice. In fact, bad health outcomes from eating fat-laden red meats are well-known. Red meat has been compellingly linked to shorter lifespans, and startling increases in risk of death. For each additional serving of certain meat products per day, researchers in a major 2012 study found a staggering 20 percent increase in the likelihood of death for middle-aged people.

Of course, like any diet, being vegetarian is not inherently healthy either. It's what you make of it.

Common Argument 2: But If You Were Starving, Wouldn't You Eat Meat?

I've never met a vegetarian — or even a vegan for that matter — who's claimed positively that they'd starve to death rather than eat a piece of chicken. They might not want to, obviously, and it might feel like they'd violated a core principle, but that doesn't make that this a convincing moral question.

But for so many of us in modern society, the stakes of giving up meat are not life and death starvation or sustenance. For a vast swath of Americans — admittedly those privileged with time, money, and access — eating meat is not a survival necessity it's a choice. And people do bear moral responsibility for their choices, especially those they could easily avoid.

Common Argument #3: What If I Use The Energy I Get From Meat To Support Other Causes?

This relies on the assumption that you can't get that energy from other foods, which as I already said, just isn't true. It also implies that we only have a finite of energy to devote to causes outside of ourselves. I'd argue that the more you engage morally with the world around you, the more you'll foster your capacity to care about other causes as well.

Common Argument #4: OK, But Aren't Humans Meant To Eat Meat?

Early humans eating meat, and the carnivorous diet playing a role in human development, are not reasons to keep eating meat in the 21st century. There are plenty of ways that people in ancient history took care of themselves which we wouldn't want to follow nowadays. After all, the average American today outlives their ancient counterparts by wide, wide margins.

This line of thinking (hello, Paleo diet) seems to say that, against all odds, we stumbled onto the ideal diet back in the day when we only lived until 35. But that seems, in all honesty, pretty delusional. We have a better understanding of science and nutrition now — hopefully.

Common Argument #5: But The Animals Are Being Killed Whether I Eat Them or Not

You may escape causal blame for any particular animal's death — the factory farms and slaughterhouses are going to keep churning, one extra consumer or not — but that says precious little about the moral admirability of eating animals.

Not unlike voter apathy, when people decline to participate, feeling that their vote makes no difference, there's an obvious reply to this attitude, even if it's unsatisfying: however hopeless it seems, it's that much more so if you throw in the towel altogether. If you're not willing to stand and and say "no," nobody around you will ever have to think twice about saying "yes."

And most of all, when many individuals ban together to take a stand, there is strength in numbers.

Common Argument #6: Isn't There An Obvious Difference Between Human And Animal Life?

That's the foundational tenet of speciesism — that by virtue of species, some creatures are rightly subject to wildly different standards of treatment than others. For many of us, that's a deeply flawed and cynical conclusion, one which ignores a self-evident responsibility we humans have to animals, with all our power and intellect.

Other species may not be just like us, but they can also feel pain.

Common Argument #7: So You Think You're Better Than Me For Not Eating Meat?

No, not necessarily. Surely, there are some people who love to grill burgers from factory farmed cows who'd nonetheless risk their lives to save a beloved pet. In a way, that's the big distinction — whether you let the warm, fuzzy feelings you have towards a cute dog bleed over into your feelings for all animals, even the ones you'll never meet.

But that doesn't mean vegetarians are necessarily better people. So don't worry! We're not judging you.


Vegetarianism saves the trees meat eating leads to deforestation

When people think about moderating meat consumption, they typically think of the health benefits and costs. Eating less meat is said to be a healthy practice since it reduces the risks of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. But according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, meat consumption has played a big role in deforestation and thus, can be deemed “ecologically inefficient.” Essentially, raising animals for meat requires using large stretches of land whether it be land to graze or land used to raise crops to feed the livestock, specifically beef. And finding large stretches of empty land requires cutting down trees.

The inefficiency is particularly high for beef, which uses about three-fifths of the world’s agricultural land yet produces less than 5 percent of its protein and less than 2 percent of its calories. Beef production causes global warming through its effects on deforestation, both directly through pasture and indirectly through its use of feed and forage, and also because of the methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas, that comes from the stomachs and manure of cattle.

It has been estimated that 15 percent of the world’s global warming emissions are caused by tropical deforestation. What’s more, the increase in meat production has been responsible for 35 percent of the heat-trapping gases produced by deforestation. As stated by the report:

Clearing forest for pastures makes money, but it also causes global warming pollution. The effects of tropical deforestation, including the decomposition of peat in deforested tropical swamps, are responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s heat-trapping emissions, not to mention the loss of biodiversity and other kinds of environmental and social damage (Boucher et al. 2011). Tropical forests are enormous storehouses of car- bon, and when they are cut down and burned, large quantities of carbon dioxide—the main cause of global warming—are emitted into the atmosphere (Saatchi et al. 2010).

But it’s not just global warming: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) deforestation results in a decline in biodiversity. Data provided by NASA shows that tropical forests only cover 7 percent of the Earth’s dry land but harbor close to half of all the species on Earth. Many of these species are so specialized to their microhabitats that they can only be found (and can only survive) in small specific habitats. Their uniqueness is what makes these species prone to extinction: When their habitat is wiped away, they become vulnerable to extinction since they can only live in a specific environment.

Wondering what can you do to help? The paper suggests that consumers make a commitment to buy deforestation-free meats and opt for chicken instead of beef to decrease the impact of deforestation. In addition, consumers can also encourage their government officials to take a stand on the issue and raise awareness.

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The Vegetarian Diet: A Rogerian Argument

In this paper, the argument that a vegetarian diet is not nutritionally sound is explored through research as well as through the personal narrative of a discussion from which the arguments made reflect the arguments are supported and challenged, namely, the omnivorous diet as an evolutionary adaptation (claiming that eating meat is natural), the necessity of nutrients including Iron and B12 that are often overlooked in a vegetarian diet (claiming that neglecting essential vitamins is dangerous), and the high cost of maintaining a healthy diet that conforms to vegetarian/vegan ethics (claiming that a vegetarian diet is not realistic). Research done regarding the evolution and adaptation of an omnivorous diet looks primarily at studies done by Lund University and by archaeologist Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo, each focusing on the early consequence of Iron and B12 related deficiency in developing infants’ bone samples as well as the benefits for humanity in adopting an early omnivorous diet. Research done regarding nutrient deficiencies examines studies done in India by the University of Western Australia and the University of New South Wales, which reveals the positive correlation between vegetarian diets and anemia. These two main points defend the argument that the vegetarian diet is linked to damage to human health, however the final point and brief commentary throughout the paper introduce the counterargument that being mindful towards diet, whether one eats meat or is vegetarian, is better facilitated with a vegetarian-geared, nutritionally aware dietary practice.

Last year I decided to cut beef, pork, lamb, and other large meats out of my diet altogether. Then, my reasons were completely ethical, having just seen films including Meet Your Meat(2002), Food Inc(2008)., and GMO OMG(2013). These films showcase facts regarding the actual resources necessary for and environmental consequences of having tasty stake at the dinner table, the terrible reality behind much of the mass-farming industry and associated corporations’ animal-handling practices, and the general level of my own ignorance regarding my own awareness of what I’ve been eating all my life respectively. After watching these admittedly biased films, I felt that it was morally wrong to partake by any means in the unacceptable treatment of farm animals, especially cows, pigs, and chicken. Today I still wrestle with the moral legitimacy behind consuming eggs from hens whom will never see the sun or set foot on the ground (cage-free egg brand for the win!) Ethics, however, did not originally keep me from eating red meat at family meals and gorging on bacon during the Epic Meal Time craze. Although I struggled at first with really committing to the diet, I was finally able to validate my pursuit after an experience I had last Thanksgiving. In September of 2013, I decided to go a month without any meat aside from eggs and fish. Towards the end of the month, I felt a new sort of clarity throughout my body I felt as if my stomach was lighter, my head more focused, and I really started to vibe with the veggies. Then the Thanksgiving turkey, ham, bacon, and beef-gravy hit, and I experienced a stomach flip of shmorgishborg proportion. From that point, I became a Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian, or a vegetarian who includes eggs and dairy products into their diet, the most common form of vegetarianism, though I live with an aspiring chef, my roommate Taseen, and I won’t deny him the occasional outside perspective on a sizzling teriyaki steak-bite.

The Vegetarian Diet: Mindful Pursuit or Nutritional Crisis

Earlier this year, my roommate Sam, having just reorganized our kitchen and food-stuff purchases, made an investment in over $150 of quality frozen meats. Together in the kitchen, my Sam, our friend Steve (whom is a professional chef from Detroit), and I were talking about the recipes we could finally start really working with into our freshly stocked kitchen. The conversation screeched to a halt, however, when I took a step out of the culinary closet and told Sam and Steve that I am gearing my diet towards being a vegetarian. Sam promptly questioned the diet, arguing that humans are designed by nature to be omnivorous, and that our historic diet is what made us intelligent. In agreement, Steve began thoroughly listing the essential proteins and nutrients (i.e. B12, Vitamin D, Iron and Calcium) that the vegetarian diet neglects and why they are important. Additionally, both concerned friends agreed that being a vegetarian in college is not cost-effective, and in the end is ‘not even worth it’.

In an age pre-dating the Paleolithic Era in the ancient human history, the bio-behavioral shift from a tree-dwelling, vegetarian diet, to the plains-running omnivorous diet is among the largest changes ever in early human anatomy and behavior. One major factor of this change is the addition of nutritiously rich meat into the diets of young children. Research done by Lund University makes clear the fact that infants around the age of 2 could be weaned off of their mothers, whereas the regular weaning age extended to as far as 5-6 years of age (Rivero, 2012). The main body of evidence regarding a meat-eating diet speeding the process of breast-feeding/weaning (and thus increasing birthing rates) is a series of comparisons made with other omnivorous mammalian species in infant neurological developmental periods as compared by Elia Psouni, a developmental psychologist at Lund, with assistance from an evolutionary geneticist (Axel Janke) and a neurophysiologist (Martin Garwicz). Their model looked at more than 60 omnivorous (with diet of at least 20% meat) mammalian species in early development (including humans), with the null hypothesis that there is no correlation between the time of early brain development and the weaning phase of infant mammals introduced to meat. In the case of humans, the time (in years of age) it took infants to reach critical brain developmental points decreased in proportion to the time at which infants are weaned, thus leading to the conclusion that eating meat has increased human intelligence on an evolutionary standpoint (Rivero, 2012). Thus, the research shows that, in fact, with statistical significance, there is a positive correlation between critical stages in brain development and the time of weaning in all animals tested. These results clearly show that eating meat was a key development towards both increasing brain functioning in early humans and decreasing the breast-feeding commitment (in years spent breastfeeding a single child) necessary of mothers toward their young, which in turn increased social complexity and increased population growth, a huge step in the late proliferation and advancement of the human race.

Further research regarding the omnivorous past of all human ancestors done by archaeologist Manuel Dominguez-Rodrigo explains that a 1.5 million-year-old skull sample of a young child revealed that human brain development depended on the high-energy high-nutritional value of meat (Choi, 2012). In this instance, Dominguez-Rodrigo examined the oldest known sample of tissue (the child’s skull) affected by anemia. In short, anemia is a consequence of numerous nutritional deficiencies that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) defines generally as a “condition in which your blood has a lower than normal number of red blood cells… [or when] red blood cells don’t contain enough hemoglobin [an iron-rich protein that carries oxygen through bloodstream].” Anemia is relevant here because it is among the most prevalent nutritional conditions afflicting vegetarians worldwide and throughout time. This prehistoric case of anemia, specifically linked to a lack of B12, relaying that 1.5 million years ago, humans had come to depend on a regular consumption of meat, and that the child (or its mother) was B12 deficient. Concluding his research, Dominguez-Rodrigo stated reflectively that it might “sound awful to vegetarians, but meat made us human” (Dominguez-Rodrigo as cited by Choi, 2012). Today humans depend on most of the same nutrients we adapted to in our historically omnivorous diet, thus a vegetarian diet does not make sense evolutionarily or nutritionally, and is in fact a dietary risk in its own right.

Considering this evidence, the only means by which I could retort Sam’s argument was by relaying the ethical matter at hand although modern humans arose from an original culture that regularly consumed animal flesh, people today have the free-will and information-tools to lead perfectly healthy lives without the regular consumption of meat (i.e. supplements, access to any food item worldwide, or easily accessible nutritional alternatives). On the matter of ethics, however, vegetarianism points to one of humanity’s longest enduring challenges: Malnutrition.

Ultimately, malnutrition is among the most prevalent issues in today and throughout history, and vegetarians are very much at risk for key deficiencies in associated with malnutrition. India, for instance, is the most prevalently vegetarian country in the world, where 31%-42% (considering standard deviation of samples) of the population is vegetarian (The Hindu, Aug. 2006). Research done in 2012 published in the International Scholarly Research Network (ISRN) Public Health suggests that there is a correlation between vegetarianism in Indian women and the increased likelihood to suffer from bone-density loss (calcium-deficiency), pre-natal developmental disorders and abnormalities (protein and Vitamin D deficiency), and anemia (Iron and B12 Deficiency). The research looked primarily at iron-deficiency anemia (via hemoglobin levels) as reported by the Indian National Family and Health Survey 2005/06 of 81,301 Indian women of all states and social classes ages 15-49. In analyzing the varied data, researchers Anu Rammohan and Niyi Awofeso (University of Western Australia) and Marie-Claire Robitaille (University of New South Wales) looked at sample categories including personal education, husband’s education, number of children, BMI, Caste, wealth levels, and water supply. This data was then cross-referenced with data of the same samples categorized instead by diet-related variables (e.g., never eating meat vs. eating meat daily). The data analysis revealed that, in addition to higher education status, social status, and socioeconomic status, the “daily consumption of meat, fish, and eggs was associated with lower odds of being moderately or severely aneamicsic” (Awofeso et al., 2012). This conclusion, having taken specific social differences India into consideration, heralds a serious caution to vegetarians in any country to carefully monitor their nutrition.

The focus of this research on anemia in India is critical in analyzing the prevalent nutritional short-comings of the vegetarian diet because Iron-deficiency anemia is the largest nutritional condition in the vegan and vegetarian community. In the 5 th edition of Simply Vegan, Reed Mangels, PhD, and Debra Wasserman, PhD, extrapolate on Iron as it relates to human digestion. Mangels and Wasserman write that the nutrient Iron is observed and absorbed under two classifications: Heme Iron, which is 40% of the iron found in most types of animal flesh and is easy to absorb during digestion, and Non-heme Iron, which makes up the other 60% of Iron in meat and 100% of the Iron in vegetables and is not easily absorbed during digestion (rvg.org, Iron in the Vegan Diet). Furthermore, Calcium, Protein, and Vitamin D are more easily acquired in a vegetarian diet than are Iron and B12. In our lengthy kitchen conversation, Sam contemplated the realistic approach of implementing regular supplements into his diet to replace his own missed-out essentials, but his counterpart was not entirely convinced. Steve, a professional chef by industry standards, primarily emphasized the vegetarian diet’s distinct lack of the vitamin B12, stating that B12 is something I should take seriously, as it is often disregarded in the vegetarian diet. Indeed, without supplements, animal products are the only natural source of the vitamin B12.

In a 2004 Annual Review of Nutrition journal article titled “Vitamin B12 Deficiency as a Worldwide Problem” researchers A. Robert and S. Stabler present the numerous dangers associated deficiency of the vitamin B12. Robert and Stabler begin by defining biological B12, or Cobalamin, as a nutrient that is “bound to enzymes in food and must be released by the action of gastric enzymes and acid prior to being bound by a protein synthesized by gastric parietal cells (Robert, Stabler, par.4). From digestion and initial absorption into the bloodstream, B12 is carried to bone marrow, where it, along with Iron, aids in the synthesis of hemoglobin, the main bio-chemical device in getting air into and carbon dioxide out of every each cell throughout the body. Regarding vegetarians specifically, Robert and Stabler observed the worldwide rise in a condition called hyperhomocysteinemia to positively correlate with Pernicious anemia, the main form of anemia in most instances of B12 deficiency due to lack of consuming animal products.

Without a doubt, Steve’s assertions were backed by recent scientific research, and thus warrant a serious topic that vegetarians and vegans cannot ignore safely. The follow-up argument that Sam made, unfortunately, did not deliver the same proof. Financially aware, Sam explained his belief that keeping up with nutrition in my situation specifically could prove especially difficult. As a full-time college student, watching my spending is a critical matter of staying afloat, especially living off campus and away from my parents. To satisfy my nutritional requirements as prescribed by the Brown University Sports Nutrition webpage, I would have to eat 9-15 servings of breads/grains, 3+ servings from vegetables, 3-5 servings from fruit, 3+ servings from dairy (while ensuring that I reach a daily intake of at least 1000mg of calcium), 6oz+ of protein/meat, and mind that 20-35% of all calories consumed come from fats and lipids. This is indeed a costly optimal diet, adding up to a rough minimum of $30 daily including the alternatives that must be made for vegetarians without considering quality, organic ingredients. However, these nutritional requirements are also intended for those who eat meat, and hold very similar consumer prices in comparison to a vegetarian’s optimal grocery purchases. Nonetheless, Sam’s argument does hold true for many vegans, who often purchase products made specifically for vegan consumers. Prices are generally higher for vegan products to meet these same nutritional demands. Vegans, unlike Lacto-ovo-vegetarians, must also take supplements to have any B12 in their diet. Ultimately, an individual who is more focused on satisfying the requirements of a completely balanced diet will end up paying more for his/her food, pointing to the fact that the more attention one places on healthy nutrition, the more healthy one will be.

In the end, nutritionally aware people, whether meat-eating or otherwise, make very similar choices regarding how to best balance their diets. Ingredient awareness and the ability to supplement key nutrients provide individuals with the opportunity to fine-tune their diets, though in the modern day, this is an often unpracticed and unavailable option for many people. In relation to vegetarians, people whom eat meat are proportionately more nutrient-deficient in Vitamin C and in fiber. Without the resources or time to develop and practice a healthy diet, countless men, women, and children face malnutrition every day, even in 1 st -world countries.

Although the majority of people find all of their health and wellness requirements satisfied in a meat-eating diet, research suggests that a vegetarian-geared diet is an excellent means to benefit individual health and mindfulness because it involves the nutritional awareness of the food we eat and of the food we need to eat. Thus, I argue that having a diet geared towards mindfulness, diet tracking, and the practice of lacto-ovo-vegetarianism is among the healthiest and overall most beneficial choices in diet a human can make.

I would like to invite meat-eaters to take a 1-2 weeks off of one of the following: pork, beef, or chicken, and see how it impacts their lives. Many of us have no restriction on our diets, and don’t really give food a second thought, but when we set certain rules or standards for ourselves, we begin to grow a larger body of mindfulness regarding the food we eat. Through my experience, I’ve decided that food ought to really taste better when one considers where it came from and how it ended up on the dinner table, and that eating with your mind in the food is half of the joy of eating.


Should People Become Vegetarian?

Americans eat an average of 58 pounds of beef, 96 pounds of chicken, and 52 pounds of pork, per person, per year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Vegetarians, about 5% of the US adult population, do not eat meat (including poultry and seafood). The percentage of Americans who identify as vegetarian has remained steady for two decades. 11% of those who identify as liberal follow a vegetarian diet, compared to 2% of conservatives.

Many proponents of vegetarianism say that eating meat harms health, wastes resources, and creates pollution. They often argue that killing animals for food is cruel and unethical since non-animal food sources are plentiful.

Many opponents of a vegetarian diet say that meat consumption is healthful and humane, and that producing vegetables causes many of the same environmental problems as producing meat. They also argue that humans have been eating and enjoying meat for 2.3 million years. Read more background…

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

It is cruel and unethical to kill animals for food when vegetarian options are available, especially because raising animals in confinement for slaughter is cruel, and many animals in the United States are not slaughtered humanely.

Animals are sentient beings that have emotions and social connections. Scientific studies show that cattle, pigs, chickens, and all warm-blooded animals can experience stress, pain, and fear. [100] In 2017, the United States slaughtered a total of 170.5 million animals for food, including 33.7 million cows, 9.2 million chickens, 124.5 million pigs, and 2.4 million sheep. These animals should not have to die painfully and fearfully to satisfy an unnecessary dietary preference.

About 50% of meat produced in the United States came from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in 2008 where mistreated animals live in filthy, overcrowded spaces with little or no access to pasture, natural light, or clean air. [41] In CAFOs pigs have their tails cut short, chickens have their toenails, spurs, and beaks clipped, and cows have their horns removed and tails docked with no painkillers. [32] Pregnant pigs are kept in metal gestation crates barely bigger than the pigs themselves. [35] Baby cows raised for veal are tied up and confined in tiny stalls their entire short lives (3-18 weeks). [147]

The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) mandates that livestock be stunned unconscious before slaughter to minimize suffering. [65] However, birds such as chickens and turkey are exempted from the HMS, and a 2010 report by the US Government Accountability Organization (GAO) found that the USDA was not “taking consistent actions to enforce the HMSA.” [66] [90]

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Pro 2

A vegetarian diet is more healthful than a carnivorous diet.

According to the American Dietetic Association, a vegetarian diet can meet protein requirements, provide all the essential amino-acids (the building blocks of protein), and improve health. It can also provide all the necessary vitamins, fats, and minerals, and can improve one’s health. [1] [2]

According to the USDA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, meat is not an essential part of a healthy diet. [68] [123] Studies have linked heme iron found in red meat with an increased risk of colorectal, stomach, and esophageal cancers. [4] [150] Vegetarian sources of iron like leafy greens and beans contain non-heme iron. [3]

Meat also has high renal acid levels which the body must neutralize by leaching calcium from the bones, which is then passed into urine and lost. [5] There are many sources of healthy vegetarian calcium including tofu, dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collard greens, as well as fortified cereals. [128]

A vegetarian diet reduces overuse of antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs causes antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop, which may endanger human health. [40]

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Pro 3

A vegetarian diet is better for the environment.

Overgrazing livestock hurts the environment through soil compaction, erosion, and harm to native plants and animals. Significant portions of the 11 western states are grazed by livestock. [29] Grazing has been a factor in the listing of at least 171 species of animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act because the large tracts of flat land interrupt natural habitats. [92] Grazing has also damaged streams and riparian areas in the western United States. [93] Abstaining from meat would help restore land more naturally suited to provide habitat for native plants and animals.

A vegetarian diet conserves water. Producing one pound of beef takes about 1,800 gallons of water, about 576 gallons per pound of pork, about 486 gallons per pound of turkey, and about 468 gallons per pound of chicken. A pound of tofu only takes about 302 gallons. [151] [152] [153]

Meanwhile, raising animals for food contributes to air and water pollution. Manure produces toxic hydrogen sulfide and ammonia which pollute the air and leach poisonous nitrates into nearby waters. [32] Runoff laden with manure is a major cause of “dead zones” in 173,000 miles of US waterways, including the 7,700-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. [32] [115] People living near CAFOs often have respiratory problems from hydrogen sulfide and ammonia air pollution. A peer-reviewed 2006 study of Iowa students near a CAFO found 19.7% had asthma – nearly three times the state average of 6.7%. [166]

A vegetarian diet leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases are created by enteric fermentation (aka animal farts and burps), manure decomposition, and deforestation to make room for grazing animals and growing feed. A June 2014 peer-reviewed study found that diets including meat cause the creation of up to 54% more greenhouse gas emissions than vegetarian diets. [134] According to the United Nations Environment Programme, a “worldwide diet change away from animal products” is necessary to stop the worst effects of global climate change. [104]

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Pro 4

Eating fish is not more ethical, environmentally sound, or healthful than eating other animal protein sources.

The US EPA states that “nearly all fish and shellfish” are contaminated by methylmercury (a potent neurotoxin) from industrial pollution. [39] [125] The omega-3 acid ALA found in vegetarian sources like walnut, flax, and olive oils, is converted by the body into EPA and DHA—the essential omega-3 acids found in fish—and sufficient to meet the dietary needs of humans. [ 54]

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Pro 5

A vegetarian diet lowers risk of diseases.

A vegetarian diet reduces the chances of developing kidney stones and gallstones. Diets high in animal protein cause the body to excrete calcium, oxalate, and uric acid—the main components of kidney stones and gallstones. [6]

A vegetarian diet also lowers the risk of heart disease. [64] Vegetarians had 24% lower mortality from heart disease than meat eaters. [7] A vegetarian diet also helps lower blood pressure, prevent hypertension, and thus reduce the risk of stroke. [8]

Eating meat increases the risk of getting type 2 diabetes in women, and eating processed meat increases the risk in men. [9] [122] A vegetarian diet rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, and soy proteins helps to improve glycemic control in people who already have diabetes. [10]

Studies show that vegetarians are up to 40% less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters. In 2015 the World Health Organization classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” [140] Consuming beef, pork, or lamb five or more times a week significantly increases the risk of colon cancer. [102] Eating processed meats such as bacon or sausage increases this risk even further. [148] Diets high in animal protein were associated with a 4-fold increase in cancer death risk compared to high protein diets based on plant-derived protein sources. [132]

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Pro 6

Vegetarians live longer.

A study of 121,342 people found that eating red meat was associated with an increased risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease. [121] Another study found that adherence to vegetarian diets or diets very low in meat for 20 years or more can increase life expectancy by 3.6 years. [86] A study of Seventh-Day Adventists who were vegetarian (or ate very little meat) showed longevity increases of 7.28 years for men and 4.42 years for women. [76] And a study of 73,308 people found that a vegetarian diet is associated with a 12% reduction in all-cause mortality. [130]

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Pro 7

Human anatomy has evolved to support a primarily vegetarian diet.

Carnivores have large mouths with pointed teeth, short intestines (three to six times body length), and their livers can detoxify the excess vitamin A absorbed from meat. Human teeth are short and flat, we have long intestines (10-11 times body length), and our livers cannot detoxify excess vitamin A. [62]

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Con 1

Eating meat is natural, not cruel or unethical.

Vegetarians mistakenly elevate the value of animal life over plant life. Research shows that plants also respond electrochemically to threats. [98] [148] Every organism on earth dies at some point so others organisms can live. There is nothing wrong with this cycle.

Further, there is a growing movement to raise “cruelty-free” organic meat. In the United States, animals raised for certified organic meat must be given access to the outdoors, clean air, and water. They cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics and must be fed organically grown feed free of animal byproducts. [85] According to a 2007 report from the Range Improvement Task Force, organic meat accounted for 3% of total US meat production. [84] By the end of 2012 “natural and organic” beef accounted for 4% of total beef sales in the United States. [129] And, in 2019, 76% of consumers thought that grocery stores should sell meat and poultry raised and slaughtered with good animal welfare standards. [149]

US slaughterhouses must conform to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) that mandates that livestock be stunned unconscious before slaughter. [65] Many of the largest US meat producers also adhere to the handling standards developed by Dr. Temple Grandin that factor in animal psychology to design transportation devices, stockyards, loading ramps, and restraining systems that minimize stress and calm animals as they are led to slaughter. [87] [88] [89]

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Con 2

Vegetarian diets are not necessarily better for the environment.

Raising beef is often the most efficient way to produce food for humans. About 85% of US grazing land is not suitable for raising crops humans can eat. [27] 98% of the original American prairie lands, along with their native plants and animals, are gone. [60] Most of that land is now covered in corn and wheat fields. Natural prairie grasslands can coexist with sustainable herds of cattle or bison, but they cannot coexist with monocrop agriculture.

Almost 100 million acres of farmland in the Corn Belt (about a third of the total farmland in the area) has lost all topsoil due to erosion, reducing corn and soybean yields by 6%, which is an almost $6 billion loss for farmers. The erosion also pollutes nearby waterways. [154]

94% of US soybeans (a vegetarian staple protein) and 92% of corn were genetically modified (GMOs), immune to herbicides. [43] [155] This immunity allows soy farmers to douse their fields with large quantities of weed-killing herbicides which are toxic to other plants and fish. Some scientists worry that increased herbicide use could create “super weeds.” [44]

Processed vegetarian protein options such as tofu can cause more greenhouse gas pollution than farming meat. A 2010 report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that the production of soy-based proteins such as tofu could contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than eating locally produced meat. [16] Giving up all animal products would only give a 7% reduction in green house gas emissions. [106]

Vegetarian diets can cause the death of animals too. According to a 2003 study by Steven Davis at Oregon State University, about six animals per acre, or 52-77% of the animals (such as birds, mice, and rabbits) that live in agricultural crop fields, are killed during harvest. [118]

Further, it is not necessary to become vegetarian to lower our environmental footprint. Some vegetarians eat an unhealthy diet, drive SUVs, and consume eggs and dairy products produced at factory farms (CAFOs). Some meat eaters use solar panels, ride bikes, grow their own vegetables, and eat free-range organic meat. All of a person’s actions make a difference—not just a single act such as eating meat.

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Con 3

Eating meat is part of a healthful diet.

Meat is the most convenient protein source available. In one serving, meat provides all the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), as well as essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins. [61] Most plant foods do not provide adequate levels of all the essential amino acids in a single serving.

Saturated fats contain the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and the cholesterol from saturated animal fat is needed for the proper function of serotonin receptors in the brain. [49] Low cholesterol levels have been linked to depression. According to a study by researchers at the Institute of Social Medicine and Epidemiology, vegetarians “suffer significantly more often from anxiety disorder and/or depression.” [133] Saturated fats are also essential for building and maintaining cell health, and help the body absorb calcium. [101]

Meat is the best source of vitamin B12, a vitamin necessary to nervous and digestive system health. Although it is also found in eggs and dairy, a peer-reviewed July 2003 study showed two in three vegetarians were vitamin B12 deficient compared to one in 20 meat eaters. [46] [47] Eating meat also provides a better source of iron than a vegetarian diet. The body absorbs 15% to 35% of the heme iron in meat, but only absorbs 2% to 20% of the non-heme iron found in vegetarian sources like leafy greens and beans. [3]

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Con 4

A diet that includes meat does not raise risk of disease.

Saturated fats from meat are not to blame for modern diseases like heart disease, cancer, and obesity. Chemically processed and hydrogenated vegetable oils like corn and canola cause these conditions because they contain harmful free radicals and trans fats formed during chemical processing. [46] [49]

Lean red meat, eaten in moderation, can be a healthful part of a balanced diet. According to researchers at the British Nutrition Foundation, “there is no evidence” that moderate consumption of unprocessed lean red meat has any negative health effects. [50]

However, charring meat during cooking can create over 20 chemicals linked to cancer, and the World Cancer Research Fund finds that processed meats like bacon, sausage, and salami, which contain preservatives such as nitrates, are strongly associated with bowel cancer and should be avoided. [50] They emphasize that lean, unprocessed red meat can be a valuable source of nutrients and do not recommend that people remove red meat from their diets entirely, but rather, that they limit consumption to 11 ounces per week or less. [48]

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Con 5

A diet that includes fish provides the body with essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Fish are a powerful source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA which are important for brain function, lowering triglycerides, and reducing the risk of death from heart attacks and strokes. [52]

Although the omega-3 fatty acid ALA can be found in plant oils, the ALA must first be converted by the body into the essential EPA and DHA. The process is inefficient and may not provide the same cardiovascular benefits as eating fish. [53]

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Con 6

Vegetarians do not live longer.

This myth stems from the fact that vegetarians tend to be more health conscious overall, eating a more balanced diet, exercising more, and smoking less than the general population.

When a study from the German Cancer Research Center compared health conscious meat eaters with vegetarians, there was no difference in overall mortality rates. [56]

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Con 7

Humans are omnivores and have evolved to consume even more meat.

Eating meat has been an essential part of human evolution for 2.3 million years. [14] The inclusion of meat in the ancestral diet provided a dense form of nutrients and protein that, when combined with high-calorie low-nutrient carbohydrates such as roots, allowed us to develop our large brains and intelligence. [63]

Evidence shows our taste buds evolved to crave meat’s savory flavor. [57]

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Is a vegetarian diet really better for the environment? Science takes aim at the conventional wisdom.

The idea that being vegetarian is better for the environment has, over the last forty years, become a piece of conventional wisdom.

Its popular rise began in 1971 with the publication of the surprise best-seller Diet for a Small Planet and then spread far and wide: earlier this year it made its way into a key government report for recommendations for the American diet.

As that report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee put it: “Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods . is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average U.S. diet.”

This notion isn’t, however, something that scientists have agreed on, and some new research undermines the longstanding idea.

A paper from Carnegie Mellon University researchers published this week finds that the diets recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include more fruits and vegetables and less meat, exacts a greater environmental toll than the typical American diet. Shifting to the diets recommended by Dietary Guidelines for American would increase energy use by 38 percent, water use by ten percent and greenhouse gas emissions by six percent, according to the paper.

“We were very surprised by our results,” said Paul Fischbeck, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s not what we set out to do - in fact, we expected the exact opposite.”

The findings on the government-recommended diet, which the researchers described as “perhaps counterintuitive,” stem from the fact that the “healthy” diet includes larger amounts of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and fish, which have relatively large environmental impacts when compared to some foods in our current diet such as foods with added sugars.

“You can’t just assume that a vegetarian diet will reduce your carbon footprint, which is what people think,” Fischbeck said.

The Carnegie Mellon paper was funded by the Colcom Foundation and the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research at Carnegie Mellon University.

While the research builds on previous work that likewise undermines the conventional wisdom, the debate over the environmental virtues of vegetarianism are unlikely to subside any time soon.

For one thing, the vegetarians have a point: scientists on both sides have concurred that eating beef - though not other meats - has daunting environmental impacts.

Because of the amount of grain and land used to produce a pound of beef, as well as the volume of methane the animals produce, the nation’s intake of beef has significant environmental ramifications, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the environmental impacts from beef production dwarf those of other animal foods such as dairy products, pork and poultry.

“The key conclusion - that beef production demands about one order of magnitude more resources than alternative livestock categories - is robust,” according to a paper last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, six other studies, all cited by the federal committee providing expert advice to Dietary Guidelines for Americans, indicated that diets including less meat are better for the environment. To take but one example, Cornell University researchers reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2003 that “meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than the lactoovovegetarian diet.”

On the other hand, other papers echo the findings from Carnegie Mellon, suggesting that diets with less meat are no guarantee of environmental benefits. For example, a 2013 paper published by French researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that some diets “containing large amounts of plant-based foods” had the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions.


Arguments for and against vegetarianism

What are the arguments for and against vegetarianism?

Seeing animals running around filled with cuteness can bring a smile to anybody’s face. But knowing the fact that most of them will be taken away and butchered creates a number of arguments because some people would simply put this down as cruelty were as others would call it ‘meat.’

Over the past years more and more campaigns and protestations have been started. Talking to a lot of vegetarians I found that their reason for being a vegetarian was because they found it a way of living with avoiding every form of killing animals.

That or they found it better for their health, as most cancer institutions will approve that vegetarians have a much lower rate of cancer. A lot of people have been found to say ‘what gives us the right to kill innocent lives, animal or non-animal?’ They believe animals have rights too.

Many vegetarians, and especially vegans, also choose to give up the use of all animal products, including leather, fur, and animal products used in common household items and substances.

“ Amazing as always, gave her a week to finish a big assignment and came through way ahead of time. ”

Some say that killing animals for any reason is entirely unnecessary, while others argue that human beings are not meant to be carnivores at all, pointing to a human’s small canines, flat molars, long intestines and less acidic stomachs, all ideal for eating fruits (carnivores have larger teeth, shorter intestines and stronger stomach acids.) Many feel that all animals are creatures with emotions, feelings, and the ability to feel pain too.

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Moving on to the arguments against vegetarianism. First of all, not all vegetarians eat healthy. A great deal simply switch to avoid meat, but still consume large amounts of foods that remain “questionable.” These “lazy vegetarians” usually subsist on a diet of coffee, hard liquor, cigarettes, French fries, potato chips, pizza, ramen noodles and candy, with the occasional vegetable or two. One troubling aspect of vegetarianism, and specifically veganism, is that it can actually be inadequate and can result in nutrient deficiencies. Particularly vulnerable are children, especially infants, who can fail to grow at the proper rate due to deficiencies of energy, calcium, zinc, Vitamins B-12 and D, amino acids and nitrogen in vegan diets.

Animals would eat us if they were hungry, why shouldn’t we eat them? This is a question asked widely by meat eaters. And the fact is. It’s true. Animals would eat us. Moreover meat is a large part of the Westernised world. Some eat meat because they like it, and some do not because they do not like it.

I find being a meat-eater that there is a food chain, that human’s and animal’s follow.

For instance, Human’s eat animals and plants and Animal’s eat plants and other animals.

People call eating meat cruelty and murder, and to back themselves up they come to ethics. Ethics is the philosophical study of right and wrong, good and bad it is a critical evaluation of our actions and their possible or real consequences.

They say we are human beings with unique rational minds capable of raising the question of whether killing is right or wrong and governing our behaviour accordingly we are, in short, the ethical animals.

Once again the question pops up. If we are called ‘ethnic animal’s’ then we should be able to decide between the wrongs and rights of our actions. If a majority of people think that meat eating is not wrong and should be able to take place without the criticising of vegetarians then let it be.

To conclusion it is almost puzzling as to why people choose or choose not to include animal meat in their daily diet. It is also quite a debatable topic because each argument for and against vegetarianism can be disputed. At the end of the day the question revolving around will be, to be or not to be a Vegetarian? It really is a matter of choosing the alternative.


Is a vegan diet better for the environment?

Environmental editor Paul Allen asks if being vegan is best for the planet – and what a sustainable diet might look like in future.

Whether you think it’s a fad or a food revolution, the popularity of veganism has skyrocketed. Today there are over 600,000 vegans in the UK – a dizzying 400% rise in the last 12 years.

When even the Gavin & Stacey TV Christmas special name-checks ‘Veganuary’, you know that avoiding animal produce really has hit the mainstream.

Why are more of us than ever cutting out meat, fish, dairy and eggs? For many, the environment is a big factor. This year, after a record number of people signed up for Veganuary, James Poole, a researcher at the University of Oxford, estimated the environmental impact of the month-long charity campaign, ‘for the 350,000 people expected to take part in 2020,’ he said, ‘this would save as much greenhouse gas emissions as moving 160,000 cars from the road, or about 400,000 to 500,000 single flights from London to Berlin.’

Why is a vegan diet better for the planet?

One answer is the huge environmental cost of industrialised animal farming.

Today, the UN says meat and dairy (farmed livestock) accounts for 14.5% of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions. That’s roughly equivalent to the exhaust emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft on the planet!

If we all went vegan, the world’s food-related emissions would drop 70% by 2050, according to a 2016 report on food and climate in the academic journal, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Sound good? Well, it is. But, as always, the devil’s in the detail.

Just as it’s possible to be vegan and still eat unhealthily – without the right food balance, vegans can miss out on important vitamins, proteins and fatty acids, and eat too many saturated fats – there are some vegan foods which aren’t great for the planet.

If you’re vegan (or thinking about going vegan), and want to keep your environmental footprint as light as possible, here are some things to consider:

Alternative milks

Did you know that it takes 74 litres of water to make a single glass of almond milk? That’s more than a typical shower. Rice milk is also quite ‘thirsty’, needing 54 litres of water per glass. These numbers are still low compared to dairy milk, but they’re far higher than soya or oat milk.

The following table shows how alternative milks compare when it comes to carbon emissions, land use and water use:

Avocados

Smashed on toast or snapped on Instagram, this Millennials’ favourite is another water-hungry crop. According to the Water Footprint Network, 2,000 litres of water are needed to produce just one kilo of avocados. That’s four times the amount needed for the same volume of oranges, and 10 times more than for tomatoes.

What’s more, their rise in popularity has created some unexpected environmental consequences. In Mexico, for instance, demand for avocados has led to forests being illegally destroyed by farmers keen to profit from these increasingly valuable crops.

If you want to buy avocados sustainably, one option is to choose those certified by a scheme like Fairtrade or Equal Exchange. And if you want to get the avocado’s amazing nutritional benefits from other foods, there are lots of alternatives.

As journalist Joanna Blythman explains, ‘if you’re looking for vitamin K, broccoli or cabbages have it. If it’s vitamin E you’re seeking, there’s plenty in wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds or almonds. Folate/vitamin B9 is in kidney beans, lentils or cauliflower. If it’s about monounsaturated oils, extra virgin olive oil and sesame or peanut oil are great alternatives.’

Packed with vitamins, soya beans are also incredibly versatile. You’ll find them in tofu, flour, meat-free burgers, veggie sausages and much more.

So far, so great for vegans. But according to the WWF, soy is the second largest agricultural driver of deforestation worldwide after beef, ‘from the US to the Amazon, forests, grasslands, and wetlands are being plowed up to make room for more soy production.’

The good news is that there has been a ‘soy moratorium’ in place in Brazil since 2006. This is an agreement between major soya companies not to buy any of the beans grown on recently deforested land.

It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of soya is grown for the meat and dairy industry. The WWF says only 6% of the world’s soya is eaten directly by humans.

Palm oil

From soap to sweets, margarine to make-up, palm oil is in around half of all supermarket products – and it’s a common ingredient in vegan alternatives, such as non-dairy ice creams and cheeses.

In theory, there’s no problem with cultivating palm oil. The problem is that it’s often grown irresponsibly – and the rapid rise in palm oil production, in Southeast Asia in particular, has caused huge deforestation and pushed the orangutan towards extinction. Environmental campaign group Greenpeace claims an area of forest the size of a football pitch is being lost in Indonedia every 25 seconds to palm oil farmers.

Though some critics aren’t convinced about its environmental credentials, there is a sustainable palm oil scheme, and a growing number of brands have now pledged to produce more sustainable palm oil, including L’Oreal.

Imported fruit

Studies show that vegan diets tend to have far lower carbon, water and ecological footprints than those of meat- or fish-eaters. But in one 2017 Italian study, two vegan participants had extremely high eco-impacts – this turned out to be because they only ate fruit!

As Helen Breewood, research assistant at the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) explains, fruit that’s been air-freighted into the UK has a very big carbon footprint. (It’s important to remember, though, that ‘food miles’ alone aren’t always the best measure of sustainability – and that some intensively grown local produce can have a bigger footprint than imported food.)

She adds that there are still a lot of knowledge gaps. For example, there is currently little research into fashionable ‘new’ vegan foods – such as jackfruit, often used to create vegan ‘pulled pork’ – so it’s hard to judge their environmental credentials.

Future trends

What does all this mean for our future eating habits? And what will tomorrow’s sustainable diet look like?

Some experts point to technology and the rise of lab-grown, plant-based ‘alternative meats’, such as the ‘bleeding’ vegan burger which arrived in UK supermarkets in late 2018. These have the potential to dramatically slash the environmental footprint of food.

Bill Gates calls them the food of the future. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute goes further – predicting that, by 2050, almost all meat will be plant-based, or cultivated.

Environmental writer George Monbiot agrees. ‘We are on the cusp of the biggest [food] transformation, of any kind, for 200 years’, he wrote in the Guardian earlier this year. ‘While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant.’

Before long, he says, most of our food will come from the lab, ‘after 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ‘ferming’: brewing microbes through precision fermentation’.

Other experts believe that living creatures will continue to feature in our future diet – but they won’t be farm animals. Though not vegan, of course, insects are often rich in vitamins like iron and zinc, as well as essential fatty acids like omega-3. They’re also low in fat and a good source of protein.

‘Insects are nutritionally comparable to meat,’ says Dr Duncan Sivell, a scientist at the Natural History Museum. Whether we’re eating insects or using them as animal feed, he says that cultivating insects requires ‘less space, less feed, and generates less greenhouse gas’.

Bleeding microbe burgers or pan-fried crickets not your thing? Don’t worry.

‘Lab-grown meats are a red herring,’ argues Professor Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen. ‘We don’t need them. We can get most of the protein we need from plant-based foods.’

He also questions the rise of new protein sources such as insects – at least in the West. ‘Wealthy countries are already massively over-consuming protein…we don’t need alternate protein sources – if we cut in half the amount of protein we are already eating, we would be at healthier levels.’

For our prosperity and the planet, this paints a clear picture. In short, tomorrow’s ideal diet could look pretty similar to today’s – at least in the near future. It means choosing more fruit and vegetables and wholegrains, eating less junk food, meat and dairy.

All of which sounds, well, rather like a vegan diet.

Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on Twitter @larkingly

For more on vegan diets, we’ve collaborated with BBC Future – read more below: