April 19, 2013 by Op-Ed
Last term I tabled with the Sierra Club in the Handschumacher Dining Center and rec center to encourage students to participate in Meatless Mondays. I’d like to explain why Meatless Mondays are an important step in furthering Drexel’s sustainability and how the argument for sustainable meat is not a valid solution.
So why Meatless Mondays? How can the environment benefit from Meatless Mondays? Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future backs the Meatless Monday campaign, which dates back to World War I to reduce consumption for aid in war efforts and has been providing resources to public health centers and students since 2003. Meatless Monday means something different than it did back in 1917. Today, Meatless Mondays is a campaign focused on environmental and health responsibility as well as better welfare for animals.
Meat production uses a great number of resources, including land, water, grains and energy. In 2003 the American Society for Clinical Nutrition wrote in “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment” that “The U.S. food production system uses 50 percent of the total U.S. land area, 80 percent of the fresh water and 17 percent of the fossil energy used in the country.” One might argue that most of the land used for food production is due to grain, wheat, soy and barley production. However, 70 percent of that food is fed directly to 10 billion factory-farmed animals every year.
By reducing your meat consumption once per week and finding meat-free alternatives, you help to decrease the amount of resources used for meat production because you are directly lessening the demand for animal products and eating plants that require many fewer resources. For instance, production for one pound of beef takes between 1,800 and 2,500 gallons of water, based on whether it is home cooked or retail purchased. Meanwhile, for tofu production or even rice production, the amount of water used is between 220 and 250 gallons of water. For every day you avoid meat, you can save up to 2,000 gallons of water.
Livestock operations also account for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which actually exceeds emissions from the transportation sector. Air quality around these factory farms is negatively affected by the release of significant quantities of toxic gases, particulates and bioaerosols that arise from feed, animals, manure and micro-organisms. These noxious vapors are then transported through the air to neighboring communities. In addition, the waste accumulated by animal agriculture adds up to 500 million tons of manure annually, which is three times the Environmental Protection Agency estimate of 150 million tons of human waste produced annually in the U.S. This waste goes back into our environment. Some of it is used as fertilizer, but because the amount of waste produced is more than what is needed, it usually ends up polluting our rivers, streams and drinking water. Agricultural runoff is a major cause of dead zones, accounting for 173,000 miles of dead zones in U.S. waterways. Runoff from animal farming also accounts for 55 percent of soil and sediment erosion and more than 30 percent of excess nitrogen and phosphorus presence in drinking-water resources.
One attempt at a solution is to raise animals in a manner that respects their natural lives. For example, one might feed cattle on a free range with grass rather than on a concentrated animal feeding operation with grain. On the surface, this might seem like a step in the right direction. Certainly for the cow, the quality of life increases because the animal experiences life outside a CAFO, but its alleged sustainability still remains in question. Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist and professor at Bard College, has illustrated that not only do plant-based meals require half as much acreage per person per year and emit a third less greenhouse gas emissions than the average U.S. diet, but “grass-fed meat is more, not less, greenhouse-gas intensive.” Eshel demonstrates that grazing animals emit two to four times more methane than feedlot animals due to diet — essentially, grass-fed animals release more methane due to eating a more cellulose-rich diet than feedlot animals eating mostly simple sugars and not ruminating. From another logical perspective, because both intensive farm animal production and organic animal feeding operations are occurring in the U.S., the methane release from cattle alone is detrimental to biodiversity and the environment. Even with an increase in organic farms and a decrease in factory farms, the amount of methane and carbon dioxide emitted by agriculture would still increase due to the need for more grazing land, resulting in equal agricultural runoff and an increase in energy and water used.
We’ve established why factory farms are bad and can conclude that organic free-range farms aren’t a solution; we know that plant agriculture has a much smaller carbon footprint and is less devastating ecologically than animal agriculture. Therefore we can conclude that plant-based meals are a solution, as emphasized by Meatless Mondays, to many of the environmental challenges we face.
Abstaining from animal products at least one day per week has a significant and measurable impact on the agricultural industry. Although this is a very rough figure based on mean averages and estimates, the following equation provides an idea of how many animals could be saved through Meatless Mondays. If you take the amount of animals a vegetarian spares every year (around 50, including fish) and divide that number by 365, that vegetarian saves about 0.14 animals per day. Students spend 34 Mondays at Drexel during their freshman year. Assuming that a freshman goes to the dining hall every one of those Mondays and participates in Meatless Mondays by choosing plant-based meals, that freshman will save almost five animals in his or her first academic year.
Obviously, there are more than just freshmen eating in the dining hall, and not every freshman will participate in Meatless Mondays or even be guaranteed to be in the dining hall on Mondays. Yet even if you take a fraction of those freshmen, say 500 of 2,700, those freshmen will save 2,500 animals from the beginning of fall 2013 to the end of spring 2014. Considering that it would take one vegetarian 50 years to save 2,500 animals, this is an astronomical amount for a community to save in a single year. The amount of water saved and greenhouse gases not emitted is almost inconceivable, considering that it takes 660 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken meat, and chickens comprise 90 percent of the animal population in the U.S. Beef and pork take even more water to produce, transport and shelve. The environmental sustainability of eating plant-based meals is unmatched by any other attempt at a solution.
Meatless Mondays is a step in the right direction to reducing our impact on the planet. It is good for us and the rock we live on, and Meatless Mondays helps to reduce animal cruelty.
Benjamin Sylvester is a member of the Drexel Sierra Club. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Drexel Sierra Club publishes EnviroWeekly every week.