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Debate: should we stop eating meat to help the planet?

The environmental impact of the livestock industry is huge. Now, people, animals and cars are competing for scarcer and costlier grain supplies. Maryann Bird asks if it’s time for the planet to “go veggie”.

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The global food crisis has put a new focus on the debate over the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Apart from the usual arguments about animal rights, healthy eating, chemical residues, food-borne illnesses, pollution and waste, dwindling fish populations and more, there is the question of feeding the livestock raised for slaughter.

Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals destined for our dinner tables need to be fed – indeed, fattened up – before they are killed. As more countries around the world develop their economies and their people become wealthier -- especially in Asia and Latin America -- the demand for meat is booming. At a time when a steadily climbing global human population needs food, more grain is being used as animal feed.

Additionally, more and more forested land (even in unique places such as the Amazon rainforest) is being cleared for pasture and plantation. And while humans and animals both now require more grain – wheat, corn and rice -- and soybeans for food and food products, there is now a further hungry mouth demanding grain supplies: the biofuels industry. All of this has driven grain prices up in places where hungry people can least afford it, and provoked protests – some violent -- in countries across the global south.

The World Food Programme (WFP) recently announced that high food prices are creating the biggest challenge that the United Nations agency has faced in its 45-year history, a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger. "This is the new face of hunger – the millions of people who were not in the urgent hunger category six months ago but now are,” the agency’s executive director, Josette Sheeran, said in April 2008.

The prices of grain and dairy products -- including bread, pasta, tortillas, flour, milk and eggs -- are on the rise everywhere, in addition to the direct cost of meat itself.

As Lester R Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington has written: “The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s 2 billion poorest people. The risk is that millions of those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level.”

As well as the grain-price and grain-competition aspects of the meat-producing industry, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported in 2006 that: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

In a report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, researchers concluded that the impact of the sector – while socially and politically very significant – was so environmentally massive that its impact needed to be urgently reduced. According to the report, livestock – while providing a third of humanity’s protein intake and creating livelihoods for one billion of the world’s poor -- also:

-- has degraded about 20% of the world’s pastures and rangeland (and 73% of rangelands in dry areas);

-- is responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent – more than transport’s share;

-- accounts for more than 8% of the world’s human water use;

-- contributes to eutophication, “dead” zones in coastal areas and degradation of coral reefs;

-- adds to health-harming pollution in water, through animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilisers and pesticides;

-- affects the replenishment of freshwater by compacting soil, reducing infiltration, degrading the banks of watercourses, drying up floodplains and lowering water tables;

-- pre-empts land that once was habitat for wildlife, thereby reducing biodiversity.

Chiefly among wealthy nations, “high intakes of animal-source foods, in particular, animal fats and red meat”, are linked to cardio-vascular disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.

In addition, vast amounts of energy are expended in transporting animals to slaughterhouses, killing them, refrigerating their carcasses and distributing their flesh. Producing one calorie of meat protein, according to research at the University of Chicago, means burning far more fossil fuel and outputting far more CO2 than does a calorie of plant protein.

Musician Paul McCartney, a longtime vegetarian, recently urged the world to turn vegetarian in the fight against global warming. “The biggest change anyone could make in their own lifestyle would be to become vegetarian,” the former Beatle said in April. “I would urge everyone to think about taking this simple step to help our precious environment and save it for the children of the future.”

Heard enough argument? Should we all be reducing, or entirely eliminating, animal flesh from our diets? Is it time to become vegetarian? Or would you find it too difficult to reduce or give up some foods you enjoy (and other animal products)?

Let us know on the forum what you think.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



No to vegetarianism

give me a break! I like eating meat and I plan to go on doing it. I think there are far more damaging things that people do to the planet (driving big cars, flying around, buying useless consumer goods that they throw away a few weeks later). I am happy for others to give up meat if they want to but I am sticking to it, thank you.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Cows now need humans to survive and heifers must be milked regularly or die. We were created to eat meat, and none of these extremes should be done to stop global warming or its other natural partner, global cooling. It is coming!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Becoming vegetarians will help save the Earth?

It is unrealistic and impossible for all people to become vegetarians.

Many approaches that intend to totally change the current situation and others that are against human nature cannot be the final solutions.

To exercise moderation is the only way. As such, the world needs to develop at a moderate speed, the population needs to grow at a moderate rate, we need to moderate our consumption and control our desires. Otherwise, all other options will only serve as temporary cures to superficial problems, rather than remedies that will eradicate the deeper and real problems from the root.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



re: Fail

Without sounding rude or lowering the tone of debate, can I note that the person who posted comment number 2 has obviously never actually been to a farm of any description. The implication that cows evolved only with human assistance - 'heifers need to be milked regularly or die' - is clearly nonsensical.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




perhaps meat rationing is the answer. every meat-eater gets a small allowance each week; vegetarians get tax breaks

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




It is not that simple!

I am always confused by these kinds of simple questions or answers. If we ask people to change their eating habits to be vegetarian because of its impact on the environment and resources, then considering the human itself is the biggest consumer and destructor of the environment and resources, shouldn't we also strictly control the population in the world just like how China did? Wouldn't this cause debate on human rights issues?

Concerning animal husbandry, comparing fenced-in pastures or cage breeding, free-range farming needs more energy, resources and land use, but would be more preferable for animal rights and even the health of consumers. How to strike the balance and make decisions among different principles and rights? This is not a simple question that can be solved though a simple answer. If were are to ask people to simply give up meat or even abandon the animal husbandry industry just because it causes more impacts to the environment due to the crude exercise and unscientific process of production rather than animal husbandry industry itself, without considering possible improvements to reduce the impacts on environmental and enenrgy, then what if one day, when even vegetarian food is not able to meet the needs of growing population and the expansion of appetites, what should we eat then? This is not an unfounded worry!

Tao Wang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复: 对素食主义说“不”

几百万的素食者比普通人生活得更健康,寿命更长。我认为素食主义并不适合于每一个人,但是了解素食者的日常饮食可以让你对健康饮食有更进一步的了解,这不仅有利于自己也有利于环境。你若想了解更多的相关信息,可以看看John Robbins的书或者《中国研究》("China Study"),两者都介绍了长寿和少吃或不吃肉类之间的关系。也有研究说明严格素食主义者驾驶的休闲越野车如何能比非严格素食主义者驾驶的普通车辆排放出较少的二氧化碳。一夜之间成为素食者并不容易。我建议先一周尝试两次的素食食谱,或者慢慢少吃猪肉及牛肉。Michael

此评论由Chong Huang翻译

Re: No to vegetarianism

There are millions of people who are vegetarians and living healthier and longer lives as a result. I do not believe vegetarianism is for everyone, but with a little dedication, knowledge of vegetarian recipes, you can make a step towards a diet that is better for you and for the environment.

For more information, read a book by John Robbins, or read about the "China Study", which shows the link between longevity and a diet with little or no meat.

There are also studies showing how vegans who drive SUVs (sport utility vehicles) have a smaller carbon footprint than a non-vegan who drives a regular car.

I know it's not easy being a vegetarian overnight. I recommend trying a vegetarian recipe twice a week to begin. Or try to gradually stop eating pork or beef.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






The vegetarian diet is currently the most convenient and feasible way to save the Earth!

Vegetarianism is widespread across the world, except in China; the Chinese people who have recently achieved so much improvement in their standard of life are still ignorant of the concept. As vegetarianism is a relatively specialist topic, any debater must have certain foundations (at the very least an understanding of vegetarian minimal nutrition theory, scientific knowledge relating to the link between vegetarian diets and global economics and the environment, as well as a humanitarian spirit) in order to avoid the suspicions over irrelevant commenting.

In China there are other aspects to the vegetarianism debate, some of which frequently appear to be fairly sensitive! In order to come into contact, make peace with and research vegetarianism in China, one certainly must have both courage and foresight. In taking a broader view of the world as whole, more and more scientists, organisations and important figures in political circles are taking vegetarianism seriously and promoting it as a means of saving the planet.

The main reason behind this is probably the increasing number of authoritative scientific reports being released concerning the link between vegetarian diets and the environment, including: The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's report on research carried out between the breeding of animals, fish and poultry and Carbon Dioxide emissions. This report pointed out that the livestock industry generates 20% of global total Carbon Dioxide emissions, surpassing the total emissions of the transportation and vehicular industries! Pa Zhuoli, the leader of the UN Intergovernmental Climate Change Committee (IPCC) stated: not eating meat, riding bicycles and having fewer expenses can all help suppress global warming.

Vegetarianism is not only an issue concerned with human health and humaneness to animals, but is also, due to the rise of resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, now closely related to the fate of the world! I hope that more and more authority figures will start taking an interest in or researching this topic in a serious and specialised way. You will perhaps obtain an unprecedented level of awareness and shock!

(Comment translated by Chris Humphrey.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Meat-eaters should have a thorough understanding of the interests of vegetarian food and the shortcoming of meat.

I would like to recommend a site, that systematically discourses the interests of vegetarian:
In order to keep fit, in order to save the Earth, in order to remove the suffering of animals, please choose vegetarian!

Comment translated by Yuexia Guo.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



该评论由 Stacy Xu 翻译。

No food subsidies

If we wanted to help the food supply in the world, we should bar countries from sending food subsidies to third world countries. Those subsidies make it impossible for a farmer to make any money producing food in those countries when people can get free food from governments. Getting rid of the United Nations would be the first step to solving the world food shortage issues. Second, the United States needs to quit sending subsidies to third world puppet dictators, keeping those dictators in power. By making those dictators face their own citizens and having to directly tax them to maintain their power, they would overthrow them and set up a new republic government that would function to allow property rights. Then they would have no problem producing the food needed for their own country.