Food as medicine for us and the planet

12/21/2017

A couple of months ago I wrote about how my personal health has been greatly improved by transitioning to an organic, plant-based diet. This is the only diet that has been proven to reverse disease: it actually helps, if not reverses, 15 of the 16 top causes of death in the United States. The one that it can’t help is death caused by accident.  

It is amazing how simply removing animal products from one’s diet can reverse most if not all of your health issues. But what about the planet? It only makes sense that foods proven to be bad for your body would be bad for the planet—right? With a planning process underway for the use of our open lands for livestock, the following information can help all of us make informed decisions. 

Raising livestock, even if it is organic or grassfed, for protein harms and depletes our ecosystems in a number of ways. First, raising animals for food is extremely energy inefficient. More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the United States are used for animal production, according to the book “Ecological Cooking.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that it takes 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of animal protein, while it only takes one calorie of energy to produce one calorie of plant protein. John Robbins, in his book “The Food Revolution,” writes that the energy used to produce one hamburger equals the energy used to drive a car 20 miles and wastes five times its weight in topsoil. 

Water is also wasted in the raising of livestock. Robbins says nearly half of the water used in the United States goes to raising animals for food. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat, but only 25 gallons to produce one pound of wheat, according to a study by Marcia Kreith. The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook states that the water required to provide a meat-eater with a day’s worth of food requires 4,000 gallons; that number is 1,200 gallons for a vegetarian and just 300 gallons for a vegan.

Water pollution and waste disposal are other major problems associated with raising meat and dairy animals. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population. Since the disposal of animal excrement is not regulated, it ends up polluting our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Run-off of animal waste that contains pesticides, chemicals, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics is a major contributor to dead zones in coastal areas and the degradation of coral reefs.

As with water, the use of land in raising animals for food is wasteful and inefficient. As reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 30 percent of the earth’s land mass is used for grazing and raising feed for animals. Seven football fields worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals and for the crop land needed to feed them, according to the Smithsonian Institution. The book “Major Uses of Land in the United States” states that of all the agricultural land in this country, 80 percent is used to raise animals for food and to grow the grain needed to feed them—almost half of the total land mass of the lower 48 states. Is it smart to use all of this land, and destroy the rainforests, so we can continue our meat-based diets, especially when raising food for a plant-based diet is so much friendlier to the earth? 

Livestock production also creates problems with our air and is a major cause of global warming. Not only do animals create more methane and carbon than all vehicles, trains and airplanes combined, but the massive amounts of excrement produced by livestock emit toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Roughly 80 percent of ammonia emissions in the U.S. come from animal waste. The emissions of reactive organics and ammonia from animal farming play a role in the formation of ozone and air pollution. Raising animals for food also affects our health. Air pollutants generated by animal farms can cause respiratory illness, lung inflammation and increased vulnerability to respiratory diseases such as asthma. 

Food availability for an ever-growing population is impacted by our reliance on animal protein as a major food source. Seventy percent of all grain grown is fed to animals on feedlots. According to the books “Plants, Genes and Agriculture” and “The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat,” it takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. Fish farms feed five pounds of wild-caught fish to produce one pound of farmed fish flesh, Robbins writes. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire earth’s human population. The use of animals for providing food means that millions of people are starving. This doesn’t make sense, does it?

The single most important thing you can do for our planet is to reduce your consumption of animal products. What is more effective than reducing the demand for something? If we don’t buy it, they won’t produce it. You can make a difference to your health and to your planet, and it is something only you can do.

 

Dave Osborn is a co-owner of Black Mountain Ranch, a ranch in transition.