Does the Vegetarian Know Best?
June 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
I won’t deny it–consuming animal products is not the most eco-friendly decision. And it’s probably hypocritical and selfish of me to claim I care about the environment while enjoying a hamburger or snacking on cheese. I have no way to justify the fact that I don’t change my diet according to my own ethical beliefs and this really does disappoint me. I wish I could just automatically become a vegan, and I know it sounds weak to say that I just know it’s impossible. But sadly (and hopefully not permanently), I just know it. I accept the accompanying shame.
What I don’t accept, however, is when vegetarians act high-and-mighty by telling me they are environmental heroes for not eating meat. Because, let me tell you, being a vegetarian doesn’t leave you guilt-free in the least. The most admirable food-choice to make would be to go vegan. But that’s a huge commitment, and certainly not always a viable one, particularly when you can’t choose the food that’s offered to you (ahem–college dining halls). I guess what I’m trying to get at is that vegetarians have no right to flaunt their meat-free diet in front of me when they still regularly consume other animal products, like milk, cheese, eggs and the like. Doesn’t that consumption contribute as well to the “negative livestock impact” on climate? How much does not eating meat contribute to reducing your carbon footprint if you still consume plenty (and perhaps more than average amounts) of animal-based produce?
Well, I looked into it, and the important thing to remember is that while innumerable amounts of livestock are fed into the meat industry, many of them often come first from dairy farms. We can’t forget that millions of cows are raised and bred, often in unethical manners, to supply our country with dairy, a commodity in high demand. Just like a beef cow, a dairy cow requires large amounts of land and water. They both release the same gases to the air, and they both contribute to the water pollution that people complain about. So why does everyone give the meat industry such a harder time than the dairy? The reason is simply a matter of numbers: meat farms kill notorious amounts of livestock a day, while the dairy industry is significantly smaller. If dairy cows and meat cows existed in the same quantities, there probably wouldn’t be a huge difference in switching from a meat diet to a vegetarian one (then again, I’m just saying that–my intuition could be completely wrong).
However the dairy industry has taken considerable steps that the meat industry hasn’t. Many cows, for example, have been genetically specialized to create the most productive and long-lasting cow possible. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to do the same with beef cattle. One cow will equal roughly the same amount of beef no matter what you do to it. Dairy cows can be bred so they last longer and provide more milk in greater and more frequent quantities. You can’t keep using a cow for its meat–you use it once, and it’s gone. Dairy cows are more efficient in that sense.
Despite this, a cow is still a cow, no matter whether it is being raised for meat, dairy or some other reason. And it’s true that they do contribute, in a sense, to the global warming trend we’ve been seeing. Perhaps the biggest way in which cattle “cause” climate change is that letting them graze requires deforestation in many parts of the world, particularly in Brazil, which has the second largest number of cattle in the world and deforests the Amazon rainforest at astonishing rates. Between 65 and 70% of the deforestation in the Amazon is done by ranchers seeking a place to put their cows. In this way, it’s true that cows (although indirectly) do cause changes that affect our climate negatively. However, I would like to point out that quite frequently in Brazil the cows are put on deforested territory not for their produce, but rather as a symbol of power and ownership of that land. Therefore a large part of the problem in Brazil is the inefficiency and disorganization of their agricultural and economic practices.
Another way that cows contribute to the “global warming” phenomenon is that they emit generous amounts of methane, a gas that is, in essence, a greenhouse gas. However, I would like to point out that rice cultivation in Asia supposedly also emits a lot of methane to the atmosphere, so eating rice instead of meat doesn’t completely cover one’s sins.
Overall, it seems that while cows are cows and they all do the same to affect the environment, it still holds true that the dairy industry is less disastrous than the meat industry. Vegetarians might have a lighter load on their shoulders, but it’s still not perfect.
In the end, it’s the vegan diet that is obviously the most eco-friendly. So if anyone is already a vegan, I highly commend them and I give them the right to claim superiority to my standards (although, watch out–I don’t believe children should be raised on vegan diets. I’ve actually heard that parents have gotten charged with malnutrition of their children for not allowing them to eat any animal products, which you have to admit are extremely important for building a strong, healthy body at a young age). I hope that one day I can get myself to that level of persistence and dedication, although I don’t know at this point how possible it is considering I’ve been raised on my French mother’s diet of cheese, yogurt, and of course, plenty of meat. Vegetarians do help the environment in the sense that they lessen the demand for meat, but they shouldn’t act completely innocent or superior. And for those who are going to tell me “meat is murder,” I will respond with the saying I saw on an awesome t-shirt once, “…tasty, tasty murder.” 😉