The Hidden Giant #1: "Food" — Vegetarianism

It is one of the least discussed issues when we discuss solutions to the environmental crisis. It is not whether or not the food is organic or sprayed with synthetic chemicals, or whether or not it is grown locally. The underdiscussed issue is the importance of a vegetarian diet for addressing critical environmental issues.

As Albert Einstein said, “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances of survival for life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

The big issue today is global climate change. It is likely to dwarf any environmental issues we faced in the past. As reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization:

[T]he livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases…. It currently amounts to about 18 percent of the global warming effect — an even larger contribution than the transportation sector worldwide.

This is a critical issue. This is more critical than our power plants, our industries, the energy efficiency of our homes and appliances, or even transportation.

Beyond the greenhouse gas emissions, “meat production” — the raising of animals for humans to prematurely kill and eat and the processing of them after they have been killed — is a great pollutant to our water systems, causes an unsustainable amount of deforestation and soil erosion, is a significant threat to biodiversity, and requires the use of several times more natural resources than vegetables, grains, fruits, and legumes.

The UN FAO states, “(the livestock sector is) one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.”

At a time when environmental degradation and massive environmental problems have become increasingly obvious and harmful to human health (as well as the health and existence of many other species), meat production per person has nearly doubled. Granted, there are many contributors to the environmental crises we face, but this is one of the largest and, at the same time, one of the most hidden and least discussed.

For more information on the relationship between food and the environment, take a look at the UN FAO report or this webpage on the link between food and the environment.

We are the top of creation, as they say, and as we proceed, so does our planet.

We may proceed in destruction, including taking the lives of nature’s more highly evolved species to “satisfy” our tongue and stomach.

Or we may proceed in more highly evolved care for life.

Our actions come back to us.

It is a more important issue than saving the environment that sustains us, physically, but it is a critical issue in this realm as well and should not be ignored just because it is considered to be more important to the realm of morals and spiritual life.

Life is to be cherished, and not only the life of our own, but the lives of our brother and sister animals and organisms.

Without taking care for the lives of other highly evolved creatures, we threaten our own lives and the lives of our future generations.

This is a great forgotten issue in many environmental discussions and societies.

For more discussion of food issues, check out Eat. Drink. Better. and check out the vegetarian archive in particular.

Source 1, 2 and 3.

23 thoughts on “The Hidden Giant #1: "Food" — Vegetarianism”

  1. There’s one thing I didn’t see mentioned here that might help out all the concerns in the article and the comments too, which is Chia Seeds.

    Unlike Soy there’s no estrogens to disrupt men,
    it has no flavor (so all those picky meat eaters can enjoy it in whatever they already like..unlike tofu etc),
    pesticides are not needed to grow it so it’s not going to wreck down the environment,
    and it has complete protein just like animal sources. A lot of carnivores complain that vegetarians are headed for the coffin because they don’t get “complete protein” well this has the highest plant source of it so anyone who includes it, can stop that arguement.

    More freedom is great, and if these seeds can give people the choice to stay healthy, not pollute with pesticides and importantly not kill animals all at the same time, this is a great choice to present the world.

    More great posts like yours are needed to help start the discussion of these important issues and make people THINK about their choices for their own health, and that of the planet too. Just “getting it out there” is a service for all.

  2. Vegetarian diets are not appropriate for babies,
    children, or for that matter many people, especially old people and ill people. Global warming is not a proven
    theory, I believe the UN is trying to take our food now, make us sick and weak, then they will take the rest of our jobs through carbon restrictions, and we will be cold, in the dark and hungry. What is it about these
    people who want to take choice from people and rule the world? Even Mahatma Gandi said that whoever takes the
    milk and eggs from India was no friend of India. He saw how sick people were on purely vegetable diets.
    Sick. Soy is not necessarily a safe food, there are many issues, including not feeding phytoestrogens in large amounts to male populations. They do not have our interests at heart. They want our seas, our lands, our diets, our lifestyles and power over the whole world, and they will do it by FEAR or whatever method they can. Of course they want us to think they are the “experts” and know what is right for the world. They don’t,this is America and we are a free people. They also want to dictate how many children we have. They
    are misguided. What will they do? Seize animals and farms? Are they the new dictators? The animals have
    been farmed since the dawn of mankind, fires have been burned since the dawn of mankind. We can well afford to wait to see if their phoney theories are really played out and not give everything precious to them
    over fear.

  3. About the whole Native Americans eating lots of meat thing–you’re forgetting that there were no meat-processing plants back then. Obviously those Native Americans that did have a meat-based diet would hunt animals when they could–there were no slaughterhouses, salmon farms, etc. And even then, they used up every part of the animal not just for food, but for clothing, building material, etc. I don’t think that’s a great example for why people should eat meat, because you’re talking about a completely different time period where the earth was without industrialism and we weren’t so involved in trying to ensure the future of the planet.

  4. I think that in our industrialized and ever commercial American society, we are so used to having everything at our fingertips and so easy to obtain, that most people don’t realize how conditioned they may be. What I mean by this is that the supermarket has been the primary way to obtain food in the US for decades, so we think that if it is on the shelf, it must be there for us, no strings attached, and that it just magically appears there, without really thinking about what it takes to get there.

    Especially in the area of food, many people gravitate toward what tastes good, and they will generally eat what they like best, without really considering the big picture (health, animals, environmental impact, etc.).

    It all may just blend together as something to eat. If one likes hamburgers and steaks, then they will gravitate toward that, and then overlook all the other options there are.

    Going vegan or vegetarian is a wonderful thing, and I commend all those who do. It can be a radical step for many though that the majority of the public would be unwilling to do. But, I do think that a middle ground is possible, and that in addition to the promotion of vegetarian diets, a promotion of one that is much less meat based, including the awareness of purchasing products by more humane suppliers (free range, etc.), can do a lot of good. A suggestion of substituting two meals per week that would normally be centered around meat to one that centers around beautifully prepared and succulent vegetables, pasta, etc., may really open people’s eyes. Additionally, promoting other types of diets like many Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc., that integrate many more veg-oriented dishes could really expand some palates, let alone the health benefits!

  5. A final note: the biggest concern for all of us is, perhaps, the distance our food has traveled before reaching our tables. The single biggest contribution each of us can make is to eat food that has not required hundreds of gallons of gasoline to get to us. Most Americans consume as much petroleum through their diets as through their cars.

  6. What has to be considered in this argument is the over-dependence on soy products by vegetarians and vegans. Soy has become a crop that is, like corn, ruinous to biodiversity. Much of it requires spraying of various kinds (even “organic” soy can be sprayed with some things in some states), leading to the deaths of insects (includind honey bees) and song birds, creatures which tend to be less valued than mammals, even by supposedly “humane” humans. Even organic growers have plowed under large areas of formerly wild lands, displacing or eliminating the creatures which lived there. And just as when wheat fields are harvested, wild birds and mammals die under the machines in use. Land is just as destroyed by single-crop overplanting as it is by feed lots, and more and more GM soy is being grown. These are serious considerations, but I don’t hear any vegetable-only eaters discussing them. It’s simpler to worry about a cow than about an entire ecosystem, but it is undeniable that agri-business practices are just as destructive when raising broccoli as when raising livestock.

    I prefer to grow my own vegetables, eat only locally grown food (everything coming from within 100 mile range), including some meat/dairy that has been raised free-range, and only eat fish that is approved by the Fish Watch experts. I am Native American, and eat mostly those things which my people have eaten for millenia (foods differ between Nations–there isn’t one “Indian” diet).

    And there’s no reason why people who refuse to eat feedlot animals cannot eat wild game, which due to the loss of predators, must be hunted enough to avoid overpopulation and its repercussions. This is a complex issue–it is not solved by simply refusing to eat meat, period. It’s one thing to say “I prefer to be a vegetarian”; it’s another to say, “My vegetarianism will save the planet.” Not quite, I’m afraid.

  7. Thanks for a great post, and great discussion. I don’t have much more to add, although I’m glad that vegetarianism is making an appearance on this blog – it’s hard for some people to be told that the way they eat is unsustainable, unhealthy, or wrong. But it’s a fact we all need to face if we really want to do what’s best for the planet and all the beings on it.

    I, for one, have never been healthier and I’ve been vegetarian/vegan (I kinda go back & forth) for 4 years. It took some research and reading to learn how to get all my nutrients from plants, but now I feel better than ever and almost never get sick. After all I’ve learned about the devastating effects of factory farming and animal agriculture, I could never go back to eating meat. I don’t see how meat-eaters can really call themselves true environmentalists. Once you know the facts, it’s obvious that a vegetarian diet is much more sustainable (and healthy) than the average American meat-based diet.

    Going vegetarian is the best choice I have ever made. I hope others will at least give it a try for a while. The animals and the planet will thank you! πŸ™‚

  8. Jorge Bolivar

    Knowing how huge the damage to our planet is, by the usage of plastic bags;mostly, we consider, important to take action on it. I would like to start a national action to cut off the usage of it, but before that, I like to have more information regard the real damage to environment, and the cost of recicle, and other details to show to local governments in order to make the process legal, and gain other people and invite organizations to our site.

  9. i’m not sure what i think of the article exactly, but i do know one thing. all vegetarians need to add chia seeds to their diet…yes chia seeds. they are a great source of nutrition for everyone, but especially vegetarians because they add a load of nutrition to any recipe and they have virtually no taste so they won’t ruin the taste of other foods. if you want more information on chia seeds you should check out because it has a bunch of info and they are on the forefront of this “new” nutritional powerhouse!

  10. Hey, if we can’t disagree amicably, there’s something wrong with us πŸ˜‰

    As for Carl Lewis, I think the guy was the best sprinter of his time, but I would put Jim Thorpe up against Lewis any day. Heck, I might put Wilma Rudolph or Jackie Joyner-Kersee up against Lewis. Thorpe excelled at several sports; Lewis was primarily a sprinter and jumper. Thorpe won Gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon, which include sprints, hurdles and jumping, as well as throwing events. He was prevented from competing in a second Olympics by both WWI and his banishment for having played some minor league baseball before the 1912 Games. I am trying to take away nothing from Carl Lewis; he might well be the Olympic Athlete of the Century (although I can think of a few others – Michael Gross, Mark Spitz, Clas Thunberg – who certainly qualify for consideration), but to call him the athlete of the century is just not reasonable, IMUO. Don’t Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong deserve some consideration? Granted, this has absolutely nothing to do with the vegetarian discussion; I just had to toss in some comments about that “Athlete of the Century” stuff, especially as it was a fan vote, and none of the men who I mention above was even nominated. But Babe Ruth and Jack Nicklaus were. Gotta wonder about a vote like that :-p

  11. Jim47,

    I do appreciate your comments about statistics and your diplomacy.

    Appreciate your comments.

    Of course, I do have a few replies πŸ™‚

    There are a ton more vegetarian athletes who could be named, and I think if one were to do a full study, however, you would find the percentage of professional athletes who are vegetarian to be much higher than the overall average for the population.

    Regarding finding athletes comparabe to the ones I named, .. sure,.. but.. Carl Lewis was “Olympian of the Century,” and to be honest, it is not an objective issue, but I think that basically means that he was THE athlete of the century.

    Lastly, a GENERAL study on vegetarianism by a neutral group showed that being a vegetarian for 20 years or more adds almost four years to a person’s lifespan.

    Thank you!

    Appreciate the discussion.

  12. I guess my basic point is that small amounts of certain meats can give a person certain nutrients in either greater quantities, or in more-assimilable forms, than a purely vegetable diet can. I readily admit that I eat more meat than I need to; I enjoy the taste. But I have been cutting back, slowly, on the amounts that I and my wife consume, and we have been adding more fish and skinless chicken, and cutting back on beef. It’s a start, but I don’t envision ever completely eliminating meat from our diets. FWIW, as I implied, vegetables are already a major part of our diet; I’ve even gotten Sharon to at least eat *some* lima beans and Brussels sprouts when I fix them. I love both; she’s apathetic, at best, but tolerates my enjoyment of them πŸ˜‰

    A couple of specific responses: for every vegetarian athlete you can list, I can come up with five or ten just as good who eat meat. I can also list a couple of people in their 80s and 90s who have smoked since they were teenagers who show not a hint of emphysema or lung cancer. For every “rule” there are exceptions. The glories of statistics! While it tells the odds of anything happening, it also tells us that if you wait long enough or look hard enough, you’ll find it, no matter how unlikely it might be.

    I agree that the environment has been damaged by our meataholic society; I pretty-much agreed with this earlier, although I didn’t state it as strongly. We definitely need to cut back, even if we continue to eat it. The methods of raising livestock, in general, are horrendous. We need to get back to raising our own foods.

    Tofu: I’m sorry, but I cannot handle it. I’ve tried. I can barely get a small piece or two down in a stir-fry. Amazingly, I really enjoy edamame, and will eat them instead of limas, especially in a vegetable mix. Sharon seems to notice no difference. I suspect that the texture of tofu is what bothers me. Seaweed isn’t bad, though.

    Plains Indians had a diet heavy in meats. They did no real farming; fruits and vegetables were either catch-as-catch-can, or were acquired by barter from tribes which did farm. I don’t think anyone can say that the Plains Indians of the late 1800s were not healthy; they sure kicked a lot of pale-face butt. Of course, they were not sedentary, either.

    And you might be right about iron, although I can cite a number of medical references that call iron deficiency the largest deficiency in the world. I know a couple of nutritionists, one of whom is a vegetarian. She bugs me every now and then to cut meat from my diet, and I ask her how many harmless plants she killed today; it’s a game we play. She is not a Vegan; she drinks milk and eats an occasional egg (something I do not do; I never eat eggs), and loves cheese. But she has told me that she has to work very hard to find the proper diets for young people.

  13. Jim47,
    First of all, I really commend you for your knowledge. It seems to surpass that of a huge chunk of this country’s. That being said, there are a few things mentioned in your argument that are incorrect.
    – What’s “healthy” is highly debatable, and I realize this can go both ways, but what exactly proves Native Americans or Japanese to be healthy? Secondly, both societies have had fairly healthy diets – in regards to the vegetarian parts. Healthy Native Americans ate plenty of local vegetables and were in tune with the environment (something not very possible to be today if you are eating meat shipped half way across the country). Healthy Japanese ate miso, tofu, and seaweed. In fact, after the atomic bombs, those who had diets involving these were proven to do far better than those who did not. Was the meat proven to be a deciding factor? No.
    -I agree that most eat too much meat for their own good. In fact, I would say anyone who eats meat at all eats too much for their own good. Why? As the article shows it creates too much pollution, it raises testosterone levels and leads to a more agressive nature (hmm, is this helping our world?), and it is hard on the human body. For the sake of an objective argument, I’ll leave out the reason most do not eat meat – the moral ambiguity.

    -Meat *may* not be bad for one’s health, but it sure isn’t good for the environment. And given that people DON’T need it to survive or even be healthy, what is the point?

    -I do not know of any vitamins, minerals, nutrients, etc. that are needed that cannot be obtained from a vegetarian diet. What are these? How do animals get them? What is a fact is that the food chain starts with plants (well, after the sun, but it isn’t really an option, so I’ll leave it out). All the animals that people eat get their nutrients from plants, or other animals that eat plants. Many people think there are things you can’t get in a vegetarian diet because they don’t know of the seaweeds, algaes, herbs, sprouts, etc. that provide these things. I just cannot think of anything that people NEED meat for.

    -Does the ability to get something most efficiently using one method really show that method is justified or needed? What if you get something in a less efficient manner, but you still get it, and it is in all other ways a wiser manner? Isn’t this why we teach children not to hit and bite or throw tantrums? Damn, if the lesson can’t be given a wider scope.

    -I happen to be a young woman who has had iron deficiency, and fatigue and health problems stemming from it. Yet I would never choose to eat meat to get more iron. And, I would never need to. Leafy greens in fact do have enough iron to satisfy a person’s needs. I, like many other vegetarians, have deficiencies not from being a vegetarian but from eating the wrong vegetarian foods. Nutrition is not about being herbivore or carnivore, but the more specific food choices.
    Here is a quote from
    “Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of iron, even better on a per calorie basis than meat. Iron absorption is increased markedly by eating foods containing vitamin C along with foods containing iron. Vegetarians do not have a higher incidence of iron deficiency than do meat eaters.”

    -Aren’t there health problems stemming from meat eating? Appendicitis, little do most know, is often caused by a clogged body. A body doesn’t usually get clogged from a vegetable, fruit, nut, etc. diet. Meat has a different effect. Also, as a vegetarian, I have never even understood what pepto bismol or tums or any of that is about. But I see why meat eaters would. Cooked meat does not have anywhere near the ability to digest or break down that vegetation does.

    -And there are enough omega-3’s in flax oil, walnuts, all that you mentioned. And even if a person doesn’t get the recommended amount of omegas straight from their diet, guess what, their brain will not collapse in on itself, they will be fine. It’s not exactly the biggest issue.
    As far as Zinc goes, this is another thing completely covered by greens, the powerhouse of foods. A balanced diet rich in greens is arguably the healthiest diet there is.
    On that note, I would like anyone who doesn’t believe you can be healthy without meat to eat a raw vegetarian diet for two weeks. Geeze, even one week. Hell, a person can just look at a raw foodist and see that they glow with vitality.
    And really, even if a vegetarian has to take supplements to be healthy, even if a vegetarian isn’t at an optimum level of health, even if they aren’t very healthy at all, is that worse than the extreme damage done to the environment through meat production? If we are healthier, and people are dying in heat waves, from lack of water, from lack of food, in wars propelled by global warming, is that really better?
    When there’s a way to live that’s better for our bodies and the environment, why not utilize it?

    Thank you anyone who does, for reading my super-long post. There are a lot of points to make!

  14. Jim47, & others,

    The health issue is a big one, and I think the evidence weighs heavily in favor of vegetarianism.

    There are a few pieces of a few studies and theories (the ones you mentioned) that people cling to, but I think they are far from convincing that humans are supposed to be vegetarians.

    A few famous athletes who were vegetarian:
    *Carl Lewis: “Olympian of the Century” (VEGAN! – Not just Vegetarian)
    *Desmond Howard: Hesiman Trophy winner and Superbowl MVP
    *Ruth Heidrich: Ironman triathlete, age-group record holder
    *Edwin Moses: two-time Olympic Gold medalist in hurdles
    *Martina Navratilova: one of the greatest female tennis players of all time

    And a fun video to check out,
    simple but i think it makes some good points:

  15. I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate on this one. And let me state at the outset that I am an omnivore; I enjoy my meat, but I also love vegetables. With few exceptions (eggplant, okra, certain hard-shelled squashes), you can put a plate of veggies in front of me, and I’ll be perfectly happy. And I’ve never met a fruit that I didn’t like. Oh, yeah! I am using the “popular” definitions of fruit and vegetable: I know that tomatoes and squashes are fruits.

    Native Americans and Japanese are but two cultural groups, which are often held up as exemplars, which have meat as a traditional part of their diets. Fish and fowl, and buffalo in North America, are a part of a diet which has been healthy for these groups.

    Let me express my belief that it is not “meat” qua meat, so much as the quantities of it that are consumed, as well as the methods of raising and butchering meat animals, which raise the hackles of most people when the discussion turns to meat. And I would agree that too many people eat far too much meat for their own good. But to say that all meat is necessarily bad goes against far too many dietary studies, as well as anthropological evidence. It is probably true that one can get *most* of the nutrients needed purely from vegetables and fruits, but it is a medical fact that a few of them do not occur in vegetables, or in amounts too small to be acquirable except by eating huge quantities. The minimum RDA of iron is difficult to get from a purely vegetable diet, and young women are particularly susceptible to iron deficiencies. Zinc is another nutrient that is difficult to get enough of from vegetables, unless one eats lots of lentils and certain other beans. Omega-3 fatty acids are a necessity, something which the body cannot produce. Cold water fish is a good source of this, as is flax seed and walnut, certain berries and eggs. But berries are highly seasonal, and flax seed can only go so far.

    Ultimately, my point is that, while it might be possible to get everything needed purely from vegetables and fruits, it is difficult to do so without supplements. Small amounts of grass-fed lean beef, salmon, mackerel and herring, and skinless free-range chicken are not only not “bad” for one’s health, but can actually improve it. We certainly need to cut back, as a society, on our meat consumption, and we definitely need to improve the methods of raising and butchering livestock.

  16. It’s completely absurd how rarely veganism or vegetarianism and the livestock sector are discussed as issues important to environmentalism–especially considering how a respect for the environment seems to tie in implicitly with a respect for animals. Yet perhaps the larger absurdity is the relentless focus placed on transportation when it amounts to only a tenth of co2 emissions.

  17. Meat isn’t even needed – it is mainly eaten by people who have a habit, don’t recognize their options, and usually try to forget what they’re eating anyway. Another facet of a world in denial, really. Great article!

  18. Very good article. Thanks for contributing to this discussion. Many people don’t even want to think about it and it’s time we talk about this like adults!

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