Vegetarian vs. Non-Vegetarian Diet - Environmental and Health Implications

This discussion is not about individual moral ethics, but is purely from an environmental and health perspective.

Many studies have indicated that agriculture is as much a threat as fossil fuel consumption to the environment. The amount of heat trapping greenhouse gas produced each year by one car driven 10,000 miles – a return overland trip from London to Beijing China – is equivalent to that produced by two cows!

[caption id="attachment_1870" align="alignnone" width="264"] 'Must you always eat as if there's no tomorrow?'[/caption]

The case for a vegetarian diet

  1. The agricultural sector is responsible for almost a quarter of the total global emissions of greenhouse gases and of this amount livestock is responsible for a massive 18% (Tidwell 2009). The main culprit is the ‘output’ in the form of methane and nitrous oxide from cows and sheep. Both these ‘output’ are more potent than CO2 at trapping heat.  According to Mc Michael, to reverse this process, we need to reduce our global meat consumption to an average of 90g per person per day.    (McMichael, A.J., 2007).
  1. It takes more resources to produce meat protein than it does to produce vegetable protein:
    1. land - 6-17 times more land needed to produce meat protein compared to vegetable protein (Harmon & Gerald 2007);
    2. fossil fuel - 20 to 80 calories to produce 1 calorie of animal protein compared to only 2 calories to produce 1 calorie of plant food. In fact producing 2 pounds of beef requires the same amount of energy that it takes to light a 100-watt bulb for approximately 20 days (Geagan 2009);
    3. water – five times more water to grow grains for animal feed than to grow fruits and vegetables (Geagan 2009).
  1. Eating caged livestock that may be diseased distressed and fed with artificially enriched feed containing hormones and antibiotic can make one unhealthy too.

The case for a non-vegetarian diet

  1. Eating livestock that has been free to graze, well treated and fed with a diet free from hormones and antibiotic is healthy. Their fat content is higher in Omega-3. Plant –based food sources tend to be low in saturated fat, an essential component of the brain which is vital for human health.
  1. Humans have evolved with a shorter digestive structure (unlike herbivores) which does not effectively digest cellulose – the main fiber found in plants, especially in grains and wheat. Too much of the fiber can cause cramping, bloating and other abdominal discomforts including constipation and toxic accumulation.
  2. The pervasive use of chemical pesticides in modern agriculture is poisoning our food and environment. Pesticides, mainly neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors destroy the nervous and reproductive systems of insects and the effect pass up the food chain including humans.
  1. Meat contain many nutrients that are not found in plants:
  • Creatine - an energy reserves needed in muscle and brain tissue;
  • Carnosine - an antioxidant that protects against degeneration;
  • DHA and EPA - active forms of omega-3 found in animals that help  to convert ALA (plant omega 3) to an active form;
  • Vitamin B12 - that makes our DNA, prevents certain types of anemia and helps keep our nerve cells healthy;
  • Saturated fat – studies show that it helps to raise good cholesterol than the bad cholesterol. There is also no conclusive evidence that dietary saturated fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease; thus debunking the myth that saturated fat is bad for health;
  • Meat is a complete protein source with a higher biological value and a good source of the difficult to get vitamin D, vitamins B1, B2, B6, and the minerals zinc, selenium, and iron.


Is being Omnivore the best way forward? 

The argument that a vegetarian diet is more planet-friendly than a carnivorous one seems straightforward and simple. We would be using less resource if we simply eat plants, than if we feed the plants to the animals and then eat the animals! But as with most arguments about food supply and the environment, it’s not that simple.

Proponents of a vegetarian diet argue that land needed for the grain production for cattle feed causes deforestation, habitat loss and extinction of many species. However, industrial agriculture of mono-cultures like wheat, corn and soy depends on fossil fuel such as crude oil in their production and transportation.  Such commercial crops, which are in most cases genetically modified for quicker and better harvests, destroy land that would otherwise be kept for livestock natural feed grounds.  Either way, the environmental impact is dire and eco-systems get compromised.

 Ruminants vs. plants

When we talk about a meat diet being not eco-friendly, we often are referring to beef and rightly so. Much focus on the impact of livestock on climate change has pointed the finger to cattle.  Anyway you look at it, beef has the highest environmental cost, be it in its ‘output’ which traps the greenhouse gas, its fertility or feed conversion, compared to pork and chicken.  A cow has only one calf  per year which translates into carbon cost of every cow for beef includes the cost of maintain an adult for a year compared to the two litters per year  from pigs with 10 or more pigs per litter. It takes 10 pounds of feed to make one pound of beef, but only 3.5 pound for pork and two pounds for chicken.

When we measure carbon footprints in terms of weight, the ruminants are indeed the worst offenders with plants looking like angels.  According to the 2011 Meat Eater Guide Report by the Environmental Working Group,  lamb generates 39 kilograms of carbon dioxide for each kilogram of meat, beef – 27, pork -12, turkey -11, chicken -7 and plant from potatoes- 3 to lentils- 1.

But if we switch the measurement of climate impact by calories, it is quite a different picture. To replace one kilogram of beef which has 2280 calories with broccoli, you will need to consume 6.7 kilograms of broccoli, as each kilogram of broccoli has only 340 calories! The chart now looks quite different if we measure climate impact by calories. Ruminants are still the bad boys, but monogastrics such as turkey and chicken look good and are on par with green vegetables; and low-calorie crops like broccoli don’t look so good. The Carnegie Mellon study found that eating lettuce is more than three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon!

Looking at the big picture

  • Beef is climatically costly, but eating pork or chicken is kinder to the environment than broccoli, calorie for calorie.
  • When we claim being vegetarian is being kinder to the environment, we fail to consider that there are other choices such as deer, geese and wild pigs, that when left to overpopulate do a lot of damage to the environment.
  • The importance of eating locally both meat and vegetables and fruits, as far as possible when this is available, cannot be overstated.

We have changed the natural order of things to the point of no return. We haven’t evolved to eat only plants or only meat. Following our ancestors’ footsteps make sense. Hunting and growing our own food is the best option, but most of us do not have this luxury anymore.

We are naturally omnivores and thrive best on both animal and plant nutrients.  We can take small steps towards achieving health for our planet and ourselves by including foods from all natural categories like grass fed animals, wild game, and as far as possible naturally processed food.