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The environmental benefits of vegetarianism

Jiang Jingsong

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Meat production is not only cruel, but it also brings with it a host of threats to China’s – and the world’s – fragile ecology. If you want to go green, go veggie, writes Jiang Jingsong.

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There is no need to recount the litany of China’s environmental disasters; catastrophes such as the blue-green algae that choked Taihu Lake appear daily on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Protecting our environment may today be the biggest challenge that faces humanity.

Many will turn to science for a solution. But reality demonstrates that relying on science alone will not lead to success. Unless we change our lifestyles, scientific advances will only accelerate damage to the environment.

It would take a day to fell a large tree in the past, and it would be months or even years before that tree was turned into processed wood and used to construct buildings in a far-off city. But now the lumber industry can flatten entire forests in very little time, and have the wood converted into floors and furniture in a matter of days. We do not have the respect and awe for nature that, in other times, held what little industrial capacity there was in check. The loss of this “superstition”, combined with the driving force of capitalism, has meant nothing now restrains us from using our technology to squeeze every last drop of profit from nature.


In certain respects, vegetarianism is a higher moral choice. It avoids the killing and enslavement of animals, and it helps protect the environment. The converting of fodder to meat involves massive waste – any given area of land can support 20 times as many vegetarians as meat-eaters. South America’s tropical rainforests are being felled to provide pasture for livestock – and even these pastures are not used in a sustainable manner and are quickly abandoned. Every hamburger results in the loss of around 6.25 cubic metres of forest.


But industrialised farming doesn’t only cause suffering to animals – it also creates massive amounts of pollution. Figures show that every kilogram of beef requires 10,000 litres of water and produces 40 kilograms of excrement. More dung is produced than the environment can cope with, and since it cannot all be used as fertiliser it ends up in the natural world.


Industrial farming is a burden for an already fragile ecology; it has increased the numbers of cattle and the methane they produce, which is a significant contributor to global warming. It has led to the accumulation of harmful chemicals in ever-longer food chains; the appearance of pharmaceutical additives in animal fodder; and the loss of topsoil due to over-grazing.


History shows that our current lifestyles and values are not conducive to solving these environmental issues. Yet if we adjusted our ways, this could be done. Vegetarians, simply by resisting the temptations of meat, can avoid contributing to these problems.


Giving up meat may seem like a grim prospect to many, but really it is not so bad. Vegetarians are more healthy and vigorous than their meat-eating counterparts. Ten-time Olympic medal winner Carl Lewis is a vegetarian, along with many successful athletes in fields where endurance is key, such as cycling, long-distance running and swimming. In many western countries, vegetarianism is common among those who take care of their health, and it is a fashionable choice for the young.


Many people in China today misunderstand vegetarianism; they confuse the conscious decision to refuse meat – for the sake of the environment and animal welfare – with the enforced vegetarianism of poverty. The latter diet is, of course, unhealthy. However, this is due the inadequate, monotonous and unbalanced diet that poverty brings, rather than the lack of meat in itself. Vegetarianism as a choice, with an adequate and balanced nutritional intake, is a perfectly healthy option.


However, many people still find it an unpalatable option, and feel the diet cannot satisfy their taste for meat. Generations of Chinese cuisine have made meat-eating a strong part of our culture, and a vegetarian diet seems like an inferior choice. But pay a bit more attention to the culinary arts, and the flavour of vegetarian cooking is in no way second-rate. First-time diners at vegetarian restaurants are often surprised at how good a meat-free meal can taste. Vegetarian restaurants in China have a long history of producing meals designed to mimic the taste and texture of meat – a godsend for those recent converts who still lust for that meaty taste. And there is no need to be strictly vegetarian all the time; you can choose the degree and duration of your commitment as it suits your lifestyle.


China’s tradition of Buddhism means vegetarianism once had a strong following. But today we have a lower percentage of vegetarians than western countries. There are many reasons for this, one being the low-level of education about the environmental benefits of meat-free living, another being the general lack of ecological awareness. However, Peking University founded its Vegetarian Society in 2000, and a number of leading universities now have groups advocating the rejection of meat. Vegetarianism is an up-and-coming youth movement in China, promoted by those with a sense of social and environmental responsibility. It has a bright future, and people who care about the environment should pay attention – and maybe even join us.

Homepage photo by mac_vegetarian


Jiang Jingsong, Doctor of Philosophy, Tsinghua University Institute of Science, Technology and Society.

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China's lack of vegetarians

It's a sad - and surprising - thing that there is so little vegetarianism in China, given there is a well-established tradition of Buddhist cuisine. I would recommend the meat-free (yet surprisingly convincing) dishes available near Buddhist temples around China, as a vegetarian living in China they are fantastic. -VC


生产肉类对生态的影响还反映在能量消耗方面,尤其是非再生能源.具 (New Scientist), 每生产一公斤牛肉消耗1.69亿焦耳能量.相当于一个100瓦的灯泡持续亮20年消耗的能量.这还不包括维护农机和运输消耗的能量. ZJ

Energy Consumption

Meat production is responsible for deteriorating biological system in terms of energy consumption, particularly unrenewable energy consumption. According to New Scientist,producing a kilogram’s beef consumes 169 megajoules of energy which is enough to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 DAYS. The calculations did not include the impact of maintaining farm infrastructure and transporting the meat.



Energy Consumption

Correction: it should be "to illuminate a 100w light bulb continuously for 20 days".


北大的这一活动很有意义。我也提倡素食主义。但并不是不吃肉,而是少吃。 这不是一个简单的饮食习惯,更是一个道德的问题。推荐大家到网上看看素食的做法。其实素食也是很有讲究的。不是只有大鱼大肉才好吃哦!


The activities in Peking University are meaningful. I’m personally for Vegetarianism which I don’t think means diet without meat at all but as little as possible. Vegetarianism is more than an eating habit. It’s a moral choice. I recommend people to search online for recipes of vegetables which are probably more delicious than fish and meat.



Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Sussex Energy Group

It’s not as simple as vegetarianism or meat eating

Comparing western recipes and eastern ones, you’ll find Asians whose staple food is rice eat much less meat than western people. It's also likely that in most cases eastern ways of cooking consume less energy than western methods. In China there are fewer vegetarians, but it doesn’t mean Chinese eating habits consume more energy and resource. Animal farming does have a detrimental impact on natural resources. But meat production are also responsible for the consequences; people should not deny meat completely. I agree with the idea that eating habits should not be simply divided into vegetarianism and meat eating. In my opinion, we should advocate people to eat less meat. It’s like driving and travelling by air. Both burn energy and accelerate climate change. But what we can do is to persuade people to drive less and fly less rather than deny both. Obstacles to the acceptance and spread of the concept of vegetarianism partially lie in the term, which is like a label of ‘no meat at all’. People are apt to reject the concept because they think it’s too challenging to carry out. However, if we advocate people to eat more vegetables and less meat, the concept of vegetarianism will become more acceptable.

Wang Tao, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Sussex Energy Group



Little do People Know about Vegetarianism

Environmental protection is not merely vegetarianism while we cannot deny the positive effect vegetarianism has exerted on it. Advocacy of vegetarianism doesn’t require everyone to give up meat diet completely. Instead, vegetarians can keep eating vegetarian diet either consecutively or discontinuously. In ancient China, people have the habit of eating vegetarian diet at fixed dates during a month so as to solve the problem facing by many people that they agree with vegetarianism but cannot stick to vegetarian diets because of various reasons. In addition, in terms of which type of meat people should give up, there are varied scales. The key issue here is that vegetarianism is purely voluntary behaviour, without claiming responsibility to anybody. Therefore, people can cease vegetarian diet at will. Jiang Jinsong




People can certainly cease vegetarian diet at any time.





Vegetarianism is impractical and unreasonable

The article presents substantial analysis on the eating problem in China but fails to catch the foundation of it which is eating and drinking using public funds. Apart from wasting resource and affecting environment, it consumes national wealth. Chinese government spends 300 billion yuan on unnecessary creational activities annually which is equal to the amount of national investment in social security in 2006. Besides, according to State Environmental Protection Administration of China during the Period of the Eleventh Five Year Plan' the investment on environmental protection will reach 1,400 billion yuan which is less than the money wasted by officials. Any effort won’t work if government doesn’t set a good model by stopping burning pubic funds. Here I suggest that professors and college students devote their wisdom and passion to more practical things.



Basically, I disagree

Nowadays, the temples have turned into tourist spots and the monks have won the contract to run them. They wear uniform (Buddhist robe) at work and drive down the hill after work. With wives, children, simmous bed, meat and wine, they lead a comfortable life as the middle classes.



Protecting environment is everyone’s responsibility

It is not the government that promotes vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is harmless and even a healthy way of life for vegetarians themselves. In my article, I didn’t mean it is the ‘root’ of environmental problem in China. We should not only focus on the problem of eating and drinking using public funds while totally ignore other environmentally friendly efforts. Therefore, I suggest everyone think about the issue from a positive perspective rather than endless complaining, which doesn’t help at all. Jiang Jingsong

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