25 October 2007

Is it better for the environment to be vegan?

Slate.com had an article a couple of days ago about the merits of being vegan versus vegetarian. The question is, when taken from a strictly environmental standpoint - meaning, not taking into account other reasons such as health or love of animals - is it really better to be a vegan, which is above and beyond the vegetarianism of close to 5% of the American population? The answer is, perhaps no. If greenhouse gases are valued above all else, then veganism is surely better than "lacto-ovo" vegetarianism. However, there are probably other factors involved:

....direct carbon dioxide emissions are only part of the story when it comes to food's eco-impact. You also have to look at the issue of land use—specifically how much and what sort of land is required to sustain an agricultural enterprise. In a region with poor-to-mediocre soil, for example, it may be more efficient to operate a well-managed egg farm than to try growing vegetables that can't flourish under such conditions. And animals are handy at consuming low-quality grain that isn't necessarily fit for human consumption. (Rather than going to waste, that grain can help create nutrient-rich dairy products.) In fact, a recent Cornell University study concluded that modest carnivorousness may actually be better for the environment than outright vegetarianism, since cattle can graze on inferior land not suitable for crops. Squeezing more calories out of the land means that less food needs be imported from elsewhere, thereby reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

So, although this is not an excuse to keep consuming meat at our current rate (as meat processing constitutes a huge drain on resources and accounts for massive amounts of greenhouse gases)....it certainly makes me feel better about eating cheese. Mmmmmm, cheese.

1 comment:

gretch0r said...

OK, unbiased opinion here (as I'm not one to jump down people's throats about this subject because I don't want to give veg*ns a bad name), but just to play devil's advocate, what about taking into consideration the fact that if humans didn't need cows for selfish reasons, they'd be loooong extinct. Additionally, what about the claim that "livestock are responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming"?

If they were extinct by now, then... *shrug*

Veg*nism isn't so much about the environment (and it'll be rare that you find someone who's doing just for that purpose), but more about the unnecessary harm that it causes animals. There is a kind of common moral schizophrenia: people value the suffering of their companion animals, but not the suffering of the dead pig on their plate, regardless of the fact that the pig was probably more neurologically complex than the companion animal. (Of course, most omnivores eat what they do by default, because it is the "normal" way to eat--not because they are trying to be assholes, and I realize that.)

But that's not really the point of your post, as you said.