I try really hard NOT to be one of those vegans* who annoys anyone and everyone with constant evangelizing about how I eat and why they should eat that way, too. First, nobody likes a lecture. And second, it seems pointless. Going fully vegetarian or vegan – and then sticking with it – is challenging unless you’re deeply invested in doing so, be that for environmental reasons, ethical reasons, health reasons, or some combination. Until you have a strong “why” for ditching animal products, it’s going to be tough to stay committed.
That said, the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly, and we’re starting to see the effects: melting ice at the poles, wildfires in the mountains of the southeastern U.S. in December, record high temperatures worldwide. It would be nice if we could simply rely on the government to do all the heavy lifting in tackling the enormous issue of climate change, but considering that certain president elects (ahem) are now toying with the idea of backing out of the Paris climate agreements, that seems like wishful thinking.
It’s up to us, too. Our individual choices on a daily basis DO make a difference. And eating a plant-based diet – even on a part-time basis, as Treehugger.com founder Graham Hill suggests – can make a significant, positive impact completely independent of what’s happening (or not happening) in the political arena.
So in the next few posts, I want to offer some environmental reasons to become a sometimes-vegetarian. These reasons include water use, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water pollution. (There are also abundant health and ethical reasons for adopting a more plant-heavy diet, but I want to write a few blog entries, not a book.)
First up: water. In 2005, nearly 40% of all freshwater (which, keep in mind, makes up only ~2.5% of all water on Earth!) was used for agriculture. Moreover, many of those crops (for instance, ~47% of soybeans and ~60% of corn) are used to feed not humans, but cattle, chickens, and other animals. In other words, consuming fewer animal products helps conserve water, a precious resource that we can’t afford to waste.
National Geographic has a great interactive infographic called The Hidden Water We Use that can help you make dietary choices with water usage in mind. A quick look reveals that whereas the production of one pound of beef requires 1,800 gallons of water, a pound of chicken requires 468 gallons, a pound of goat requires only 127 gallons (!), and a pound of wheat requires 132 gallons. So… If you replace your hamburger or steak with almost any other protein option a few times a week, you’re already making a real difference with respect to water use.
The infographic also reveals that beverage-loving vegetarians and vegans aren’t in the clear: a gallon of wine requires over 1,000 gallons of water to produce, a gallon of beer requires 689 gallons of water, and a gallon of coffee requires 880 gallons of water. In other words, there are always opportunities to make a better choice.
Also in other words, if you’re trying to be the “perfect consumer,” you’re probably going to fail. Make some changes you can stick with, do your best, and give yourself credit for what you can do.
*Also, I can’t call myself a strict vegan. I still consume honey. I still wear wool. These are changes I would consider making, but I’m not there yet. Work in progress.