Unpopular Opinion: Vegetarianism Might Not Save the Planet
Think that using soya instead of minced beef in your spaghetti bolognese is going to save the planet? Think again.
By now, it’s nothing new to hear that going vegetarian is the best thing you can do to save the environment. And you can’t be blamed for believing it, considering that 83% of global farmland is used for livestock production, and such livestock production accounts for 56% of greenhouse gas emissions from food, and yet the meat produced only provides 37% of our protein intake. It is easy to look at these figures and jump to the conclusion that the most efficient way to reduce harmful gas emissions with the least impact for us as humans is to give up eating meat.
This article however, aims to make you think again. Vegetarianism might not be the answer to climate change.
Of course, meat production can be harmful, but you cannot ignore the many other aspects of food production that are also detrimental to the environment, such as:
Environmentally Damaging Food Processes
The last of these, from the soya bean industry, is said to cause more destruction to the environment than any other crop on the planet.
Why is this important?
Because 90% of Europe’s soya imports go towards feeding livestock, where up to 16 pounds of soya is needed to produce just one pound of beef. This means that a lot of soya is consumed, for not very much protein to be produced. It has therefore been argued that halting livestock farming would enable us to re-introduce wild grasslands to absorb more CO2, while humans can consume soya directly as a meat-free alternative, in order to reduce the amount of livestock polluting the planet with methane. However, soya isn’t actually the perfect eco-friendly protein alternative, as its production can really damage the environment. As a result, the increase in vegetarian soya usage means that the soya industry is expanding, and becoming ever more harmful to the environment.
So how exactly is the soya industry harmful?
Well, in order to grow the soya plants, tropical forests have to be felled, and 300 million hectares of them have been deforested in the last 20 years, purely for soya production. Brazil has seen some of the worst cases of this, as in 1940 there were just 704 hectares felled for soya crops, whereas there have now been 20.5 million hectares of rainforest cleared. It is safe to say that anyone caring for the environment would think twice before consuming soya after hearing such figures.
The other dark side to soya is the killing of wildlife as a consequence of the pesticides used to grow it. Such chemicals contaminate the forest, poison rivers, contribute to soil erosion and can even lead to birth defects in humans. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the soya production process also disrupts indigenous communities who depend on the rainforest for food and shelter. And what’s worse is that the profit generated from the soya industry goes directly to multinational corporations, rather than to the local economy. These issues are particularly worrying for Brazil because Blairo Maggi, a billionaire making profits from his giant soya production company, has recently been positioned as agricultural minister, which now incorporates environmental protection. As a result, we can hardly expect the damaging effects of soya production to be limited when all the minister seeks is agricultural profit.
In addition to all this harm that soya production inflicts on our precious rainforests, the food product is not even that nutritional. This is because the soya undergoes a refining process that aims to improve its taste and digestibility, but which simultaneously destroys its vitamin, mineral and protein qualities. So soya is officially detrimental to the environment, and does not even benefit the human diet.
In other words, an influential way to help the environment is to stop being a vegetarian that replaces meat with products like soya, or just stop being vegetarian altogether. This suggestion is supported by the fact that the already decreasing levels of meat-eating is hurting the environment as a result of “under-grazing”. This is when there are too few animals grazing on farmland as a result of the decrease in demand for meat from animals like cows and sheep. Consequently, farmers cannot afford to keep the animals alive by feeding them grass, and so either switch the livestock to a cheaper soy-based diet, or give up farming the animals altogether. This is dangerous because the grazing space becomes a scrubland full of bracken, and no longer supports the local ecosystem. Grazing land is beneficial to the planet as it provides food for pollinating insects, purifies water, and stores carbon, which if released through conversion to continuous crop production, would accelerate global warming faster than the current rate. It is therefore important to have animals like cows to graze on farmland.
Grazing land is also important to farming because such land use breaks up what would otherwise be a process of continuous crop production, which is not sustainable. The land crops are grown on needs to be sown with grass every few years in order to replenish the soil with the nutrients the crops require. If the land is used for nothing but crops, it dries out and never recovers, becoming dry-land.
The dangers of such drylands are demonstrated in Africa, where the land has never recovered from years of continuous crop production, and is today completely dry, leaving the population completely reliant upon livestock for food security. Unfortunately, it is the livestock in these areas that produces the most methane and the least protein. It can therefore be suggested that it is the people in developing dry-land areas of Africa that should convert to vegetarianism in order to save the planet. However, these people have no alternative sources of protein, and would quickly starve. Additionally, cows are these people’s only carbon footprint, which is relatively small in comparison to those in the Global North who travel by aeroplane and by car, and make excessive use of central heating. It would therefore be unreasonable to expect these populations to give up eating meat.
It is thus clear that arable and pastoral farming rotations are invaluable, and this is emphasised by livestock farming’s role in global food security. If there is a natural disaster or a new crop disease, the world’s food security would be lost without pastoral farming.
Another reason why we cannot purely depend on arable farming is that the number of animals killed to protect or expand crop fields could quickly become equivalent to the number of animals slaughtered in the livestock sector. This is because when arable farming land is expanded, wildlife habitats are destroyed, limiting animals like hedgehogs, deer, moles, rabbits and hares’ chances of survival. In addition, extortionate numbers of wild birds are shot down every year to protect crops, meaning that a plant-based diet is responsible for just as many animal deaths as a diet that includes meat.
As a result, it is imperative that the world strikes a balance between arable and pastoral farming in order to protect our natural world. And of course, this will only work if the livestock raised is grass-fed.
So in conclusion, if you want to help the environment, don’t just switch to meat-free alternatives like soya. Instead, ensure that you are eating grass-fed meat, non-processed food, and organic vegetables!
Blog post by NGO Administration Intern Clare Holding