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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

Newsletters - Spring 2005 Issue

The Environmentalist Diet
By James Van Alstine

Green food, green planet

A growing number of Americans consider themselves environmentally responsible and even think of themselves as environmentalists.

The term environmentalist usually applies to people who strive to make changes in their patterns of consumption with the goal of reducing their negative impact on land, water and air resources. Such strategic changes also ultimately preserve wildlife and biodiversity. With this aim in mind, many Americans now prefer to eat and grow organic foods and to recycle.

Among all the environmentally wasteful types of consumption, one stands out above all: the use of animal products for food. By eliminating this one non-essential category of products, consumers could cut water consumption in half and fossil fuel consumption by about one third.[1] This reduction would drastically curtail major sources of pollution. No other single consumer choice has as great an environmental impact as the decision to become vegan.

Moreover, in many ways animal products cost us dearly. A network of federal domestic subsidies maintains the illusion that animal products are low cost. These include artificially low grazing fees on public lands (just $1.35 per month) and public investment in fresh water supplies. In addition, the government offers favorable international trade relations with nations such as Guatemala, Costa Rica and Brazil which have low land and labor costs in producing meat and leather.[2]

Vegan and vegetarian diets carry health bonuses. Millions of vegans and vegetarians enjoy good health throughout their lives, demonstrating that animal flesh, milk and eggs are not necessary for the human diet.

Shouldn’t environmentally conscious consumers make the vegan or vegetarian choice?

Waste lagoons, essential to every hog factory, have become notorious sources of groundwater pollution.

Every precious drop

With cities and towns struggling to keep water safe and drinkable, consumers are turning to bottled spring water and home filtration systems to assure that they will have safe, palatable and pure water.

Many responsible consumers also strive to reduce water consumption by using lowflow plumbing devices.

However the amount of water saved with these devices is negligible compared to the water squandered if that same consumer buys one pound of beef. To produce a pound of beef takes 2,500 gallons of water; while changing to a low flow shower saves only 1,100 gallons per year.[3] A package of chicken breasts or a factory farm-raised salmon cost almost as dearly. Animal products account for half the freshwater used in the United States.[4]

Other scientists arrived at even more drastic figures in water waste when factoring in water used to irrigate feed crops.

According to a paper published in Bioscience, an estimated 12,000 gallons of water are required to return just one pound of beef, but merely 250 gallons of water are required to produce a pound of soy. The humble potato requires just 62.5 gallons of water per pound of crop. That makes beef 50 times more costly than soy and 200 times more costly than potatoes in water use.[5]

A single dairy cow will consume an average of 29 gallons of water daily, but returns daily just eight gallons of milk. Then add an additional 40 gallons used for sanitation and the total daily water use per cow goes up to 69 gallons.[6]

Animal production’s impact on water doesn’t end with massive consumption, it leads all other sources of pollution of freshwater in the United States. For example, on the Delmarva peninsula, which juts out between the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, poultry industries are blamed for nitrogen-saturated waste run off into these fragile watersheds. The runoff regularly results in algae blooms and the death or contamination of uncountable multitudes of fish, crabs and aquatic plants.[7] This preventable damage may permanently alter the ecological balance, biodiversity and sustainability of two of the East Coast’s largest and most essential fresh water bays.[8]

Pfisteria, a bacteria that flourishes in manure-contaminated water, has killed billions of fish in outbreaks off North Carolina (1995) and in the Chesapeake Bay (1998). Human victims of the pfisteria outbreaks suffered skin lesions and serious memory loss.[9]

Cryptosporidium, a parasite that killed over a hundred people in a single outbreak[10] and giardia, an intestinal pathogen that has had over 100 outbreaks over a thirty-year period,[11] are commonly present in livestock waste which increasingly finds its way into surface water.

Such events have led the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to label agricultural runoff as a primary pollution source for 60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams that it considers “impaired.”[12]

In an attempt to deal with the problem, in December 2002, the EPA enacted new (but weak) regulations under which factory farms are obliged to plan their own waste management and get a permit to operate within their own plan. In a National Public Radio report, Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, decried the EPA measure. “Instead of setting minimum enforceable standards, EPA created a selfpermitting scheme that essentially shields polluters from liability, and keeps what they’re doing out of the public eye.”

Shepherdson said, “It’s really a disaster for public health and for the environment.”[13]

Intensive factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) often use manure lagoons and “deep pit” manure handling systems that result in massive storage systems that impact ground water supplies. Nitrates, pathogens and salts from manure contaminate ground water as lagoons and pits leach their content into formerly pristine water sources used for municipal water supplies, wells, crop irrigation and by producers of bottled water. In 2001, the EPA ordered Seaboard Farms, a major pork producer, to supply safe drinking water to families near five hog factories in Oklahoma, concluding that leaking waste from the intensive operations created dangerously high nitrate levels in ground water tapped for area wells.[14]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between 1998 and 2002, outbreaks of the dangerous pathogen cryptosporidium in well water more than doubled.[15] Pollutants also can be transferred from ground water to surface water.[16]

Vegans have a great impact on water conservation that literally multiplies as it moves through the food creation process. First, a vegan diet spares all the water directly consumed by food animals.

Secondly, a vegan diet saves all the water used in crop cultivation dedicated to animal feeds (that’s the biggest savings). In addition a vegan diet prevents coincidental damage to water supplies, from cattle traffic over delicate stream beds to leaky hog manure pools seepage into fresh water, to nitrogen saturated agricultural runoff.

Deep Doo-Doo

Nationwide, animal agriculture produces 1.37 billion tons of manure, 130 times more than human waste.

The manure from a 200-head dairy operation produces as much nitrogen as the sewage output of a town of up to 10,000 people.

Each dairy cow produces over about 120 pounds of waste each day, 12 times as much as each person and totaling 22 tons per year.[17]

The Delmarva Peninsula is home to 600 million chickens who produce yearly over 3.2 billion pounds of waste that contains as much nitrogen as the waste from a city of 500,000 people.[18]

Home, Home on the... parched earth

Going vegan saves valuable forest acreage both within the United States and abroad. At home, increases in animal product consumption mean ever more forest, field, wetland and wilds are pressed into service as grazing lands or grain croplands essential for meat production.[19] About 87 percent of our agricultural land, and 45 percent of the entire United States landmass are engaged in animal production. Throughout Central and South America, where farming families are desperate to hold a few sustaining acres, miles of countryside are engaged in beef production for US markets and grain production designed to more cheaply supply the vast and growing need for animal feed.[20]

Grazing practices in the U.S. have fundamentally changed vast ecosystems in mid-western and western states. Cattle herds cause immense destruction particularly where grazing land meets water, along delicate and important banks of rivers and streams. Heavy hooves trample miles of plant life essential to the natural purification process of flowing rivers. Where green filtration should occur, erosion takes place, filling streams with silt that damages aquatic habitats and endangers water supplies.

In addition, dominant foreign varieties of grass that were brought west through grazing practices have overrun native grasses.[21]

Where cropland used to contain 21 inches of topsoil, overgrazing, overcropping and deforestation in some regions have depleted the depth of topsoil to less than six inches.[22]

While existing farmlands are being depleted through intensive farming, most of the world’s remaining land is unsuitable for agriculture due to a range of climatic, topographic and geologic limitations.[23] Increases in population also put demands on other land uses for housing, roads and industry; adding up to one acre for each new American.[24]

By 2020 the world may see one billion fewer acres available for farmland.[25] As the world faces the prospect of feeding more people on less land or degraded land, the luxury of meat may become untenable or may separate the world’s rich from growing masses of disadvantaged people who struggle to obtain basic staple plant foods.

Can’t see the forest for the steer

Everyone who chooses a plant-based diet saves an acre of trees each year. The massive demand meat places on land for feed grains and grazing have led to clearing 260 million acres of U.S. forests. Central and South American grazing and feed grain production are a leading economic force behind rainforest depletion.

Nearly 80 percent of our rainforests have been destroyed with most of the former forest land engaged in meat production.[26] Every “quarter-pounder” costs 55 square feet of forest land.[27]

Air today gone tomorrow?

Meat is a one-two punch to the atmosphere. Deforestation reduces our planet’s natural ability to replenish life-giving oxygen, while the massive numbers of food animals and their waste product ammonia (which is toxic when in high concentrations, such as those found in factory farms) and methane, are leading causes of “greenhouse gas.”

In the atmosphere, methane breaks down into carbon dioxide, ozone and water; all of which absorb heat and, in turn, raise the temperature of the atmosphere. Animals and their waste combine to contribute 27 percent of global methane production.[28]

Animal products’ heavy fossil fuel toll makes it a major source of CO2, the leading greenhouse gas.[29]

Got petroleum?

Most of us are only aware of our fossil fuel consumption when we stop at a gas pump, but the whole picture is more complex.

Another significant area of fuel consumption is in the home, through heating, other energy uses and consumer goods that require fuel to produce and ship. Significantly, Americans consume nearly as much fossil fuel at the supermarket as at the gas pump. The typical American burns about 530 gallons of gas by driving, and eating a meat-based diet gobbles up some 400 gallons of oil per person.[30] Meanwhile, each vegan uses just 40 gallons of fuel through food consumption.[31]

Most foods require fuel to grow, and to be processed, packaged and shipped. In the U.S., an acre of corn requires about 140 gallons of oil to produce.[32] Although by world standards this is relatively inefficient, if the corn is consumed directly by people, instead of livestock, the energy investment is maximized. If the corn goes to livestock, only about one fifth of the protein is returned as food[33] and four fifth is lost.

Protein conversion is just one chapter in the story of fossil fuel waste in meat production. When we add processing, transportation, heating and cooling, vegetable foods are ten times more efficient than animal products.[34] So a vegan uses about one tenth the amount of fuel used by a typical meat-eating American.

Without making any other lifestyle change, going vegan cuts overall fossil fuel consumption by at least 360 gallons. The vegan’s fossil fuel savings equal those realized by trading an SUV for a 40 miles-per-gallon compact car.

Vegan = Green

With the impacts on land, water, fossil fuels and biodiversity added together, the choice to go vegan is the single most powerful pro-environment choice a consumer can make. No other decision holds the potential to do as much for the environment as the choice to go vegan.


1 Bureau of Land Management, www.blm.gov/nhp/efoia/wo/fy01/im2001-097.html  and Todd Oppenheimer “The Rancher Subsidy” Atlantic Monthly, January, 1996

2. Acres, USA vol 15, no. 6, June 1985, p.2 and John Robbins, Diet for a New World, p.35

3. Pimentel, D. and others “Water Resources: Agriculture, the Environment and Society” Bioscience 42: 97-106, 1997.

4. Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, 20th Anniversary Edition, Ballantine Books, New York, 1991, pg. 76

5. Pimentel, D. and others “Water Resources: Agriculture, the Environment and Society” Bioscience 42: 97-106, 1997 and Compassion in World Farming Trust, Factory Farming and the Environment, October, 1999, http://www.ciwf.co.uk/Pubs/Reports/ff_and_envir.pdf 

6. The Idaho OnePlan, information for Idaho farmers, http://www.oneplan.org/Stock/2sDairyW.htm 

7. Heading Toward the Last Roundup: The Big Three’s Prime Cut, A.V. Krebs, p.47.

8. Washington Post “Maryland counties awash in pollution-causing nutrients” October 3, 1997.

9. The Lancet, August 15, 1998 and Reuters August 14, 1998.

10. Washington Post, U.S. Warns Of Parasite In Tap Water, June 16, 1995

11. Pathogens Excreted by Livestock and Transmitted to Humans Through Water, Edward R. Atwill, DVM, MPVM, PhD1997, UCD Animal Agricultural Research Center, UC Agricultural Issues Center

12. Animal Waste Pollution in America: An Emerging National Problem, Environmental Risks of Livestock & Poultry Production, December 1997, Report of the Minority staff of the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, for Senator Tom Harkin.

13. National Public Radio, Living On Earth, “Factory Farm Rules”, December 21, 2002

14. Hog Industry Insider (an industry journal for hog producers) #25 6/18/01.

15. Reported on National Public Radio, Morning Edition November 22, 2002.

16. Water Pollution From Feedlot Waste: An Analysis of its magnitude and geographic distribution, a paper of the US EPA Feedlot Workgroup – 1993.

17. Los Angeles Times, State Dairy Farms Try to Clean Up Their Act, April 28, 1998, www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/SCIENCE/ENVIRON/t000039924.html 

18. Animal Waste Pollution in America (see #11)

19. PeTA, Vegetarian Starter Kit.

20. Acres, USA, Kansas City, MO, Vol. 15, No. 6, June, 1985, p.2, cited by John Robbins, May All Be Fed, Diet for a New World p. 35-47

21. Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, p.187, Plume/Penguin Books, 1992

22. Michael Fox and Nancy Wiswall, The Hidden Cost of Beef, The Humane Society of the United States and Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, p.187, Plume/Penguin Books, 1992, p.200, and p. 202-203

23. Henry W. Kendall and David Pimentel, “Constraints on the Expansion of the Global Food Supply,” Ambio 23, no. 3 (May, 1994) p. 198-205, http://www.esb.utexas.edu/drnrm/dieofforg/page36.htm , and Erik Marcus, Vegan, The New Ethics of Eating, p.158-159

24. Ibid

25. Ibid

26. World Resources Institute, www.wri.org

27. Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org/info_center/factsheet/s10.html 

28. Water Pollution From Feedlot Waste: An Analysis of its magnitude and geographic distribution, a paper of the U.S. EPA Feedlot Workgroup – 1993

29. David Pimental, “Waste in Agriculture and Food Sectors: Environmental and Social Costs,” paper for Gross National Waste Product, Arlington, Virginia, 1989, p.9-10.(Cited by Rifkin)

30. Marcus, p162, Rifkin, p225 and fuel consumption statistics, Department of Energy, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/mer/txt/mer1-10 

31. Roller, W.L. et al, “Energy Costs of Intensive Livestock Production”. American Society of Agricultural Engineers, paper no. 75-4042, cited in Animal Factories, Jim Mason and Peter Singer, p. 115

32. Marcus, p161

33. Compassion in World Farming Trust, Factory Farming and the Environment, 1999 and McLaren D., Bullock S. and Yousuf N., Tomorrow’s World, A report from Friends of the Earth. London, Earthscan Publications Ltd, chapter 6, 1998 and Jeremy Rifkin, The Worlds Problems on a Plate, The Guardian, May 17, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,717044,00.html 

34. Roller, W.L. et al, “Energy Costs of Intensive Livestock Production

35. Based on an 18 mpg SUV and a 40 mpg compact each driven 11,766 miles per year (the estimated annual average miles driven as reported by the U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/mer/txt/mer1-10

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