To Graze or Not to Graze? Agriculture, Protein, and Respect for the Land
The footprint of some 6.6 billion human beings is taking a clear toll on the Earth’s ecology. One of the main reasons is our propensity to surround ourselves with purpose-bred animals, including more than a billion pigs and well over a billion cows, 1.8 billion sheep and goats, and over 15 billion chickens. We, and they, all need space, water, food -- and outlets for our waste.
Land needed for cattle grazing is the primary reason for deforestation in the United States -- as it is over much of the rest of the world. The great majority of acreage cleared for agriculture is used in some way by animal agribusiness.
In their natural state, grasslands are healthy ecosystems supporting a diverse range of plants, birds, rodents, and free-living, grazing animals as well as some large carnivores. When grasslands are converted into pastures, the use will, over time, take its toll. The large carnivores are killed off, which means the native biocommunities begin to unravel.
With so much forested land already cleared, the trend now is intensive farming on the already modified land. While this may preserve natural areas from further destruction, intensive animal agribusiness changes fertile land into barren wastelands.
Animal agribusiness, according to the Worldwatch Institute, is directly responsible for 85 percent of all soil erosion in the United States because so much grain is needed to feed purpose-bred animals. More than 80 percent of the corn and 95 percent of the oats grown by U.S. farmers will be used as feed, not food.
The enormous amounts of land needed for meat production (for grazing and feed crops) also damage the world’s rainforests. From tropical rain forests in Brazil to ancient pine forests in China, entire biocommunites are being destroyed to satisfy our addiction to flesh, eggs, and dairy products.
Every acre of rainforest land that is destroyed means the loss of rich and vibrant plant and animal life. Rainforests supply us with oxygen, moderate our climates and absorb some of the CO 2 we send into our atmosphere.
The search for increased food yields is causing environmental problems, such as dammed rivers for irrigation; the use of toxic pesticides and herbicides; water pollution; and extensive energy use for ploughing, harvesting, pumping water, transportation, refrigeration, and fertilizer production.
Feeding the World
One acre of land will yield the following pounds of protein:
|Meat (all types)||45|
As the global human population increases, it is imperative that we find a better way to sustain ourselves than getting our protein from the flesh of animals. That way is quite obvious: grow crops to feed ourselves. And yet, as environmental author and journalist George Monbiot points out, there are five times as many farm animals on the planet now as there were in 1950.
Around the world, land animals we breed to eat outnumber us by about three to one. In Canada and the United States, it’s higher: about four to one. And, according to United Nations figures, the United States imports more than 200 million pounds of beef from Central America each year.
Colin Tudge, zoologist and author of ‘So Shall We Reap’ (Penguin, 2003) observes that if present trends continue, “by 2050 the world’s livestock will be consuming as much as 4 billion people do: an increase equivalent to the total world population of around 1970, when many were doubting whether such human numbers could be fed at all.”
By changing our eating customs, humans can address this urgent situation. In the life-changing book Diet for a New America, John Robbins observed that the average vegan uses about 1/6 of an acre of land to eat for a year; the average person who consumes dairy products and eggs requires about three times that, and the average meat-eater requires about 20 times that much land.
So, as Robbins says, “If people ate grains directly instead of cycling them through livestock, the benefits to the ecosystem would be staggering. There is not a single aspect of the ecological crisis that would not be immediately and profoundly improved by such a transformation.”
This article was researched and reported by Lee Hall and Heather Steel for Vegan Means.
Mark Gold offers the protein chart, based on figures from the USDA and FAO/WHO/UNICEF Protein Advisory Group, in a report researched for the Compassion in World Farming Trust, issued in 2004. The title of Gold’s report is “The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat” although the position of Vegan Means is that opting out of all animal product use is the moral and logical imperative if we are serious about cultivating a respectful, sustainable society.
- More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared just to grow grain to feed the animals we breed to slaughter and eat. Earth Talk, “The Environmental Beef With Meat” - The Bay Weekly (6 Jan. 2005).
- Durning and Brough, “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment” - Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC (1991).
- George Monbiot, “Why Vegans Were Right All Along” - The Guardian (24 Dec. 2002).