Earth Week 2013 begins with your diet

Hosted every April by environmentally-minded student organizations like The Vassar Greens, Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC), and Slow Food, Earth Week devotes seven days to educating students about environmental issues and how to lead a more sustainable life. Along with movie screenings, panel discussions, and feed-ins, VARC’s Veg Pledge has played a major role in the Earth Week festivities for the past few years, garnering hundreds of pledges.

Between April 17 and 24, Earth Week organizers will once again encourage students to replace most or all of the animal foods in their diets with plant foods.

By adopting a meat-free diet for even just one week, students can greatly reduce their environmental footprint as well as the demand for animal foods, which the United Nations recognizes as “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems at every scale from global to local.” Making this dietary shift away from animal foods serves as an effective way to lessen one’s personal impact on the earth—an easy one, too, considering the bounty of vegan and vegetarian options available in both the Deece and the Retreat.

While all agriculture requires manipulating the earth to some degree, modern animal agriculture has stretched the environment to its breaking point with vast amounts of air and water pollution, as well as inefficient use of land and water. Indeed, speakers at the 6th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition, held this February at California’s Loma Linda University, recognize the urgent need for a drastic shift in current agricultural practices. They insist that if we have any hope of feeding the expected global population of 9 billion people by 2050, we will all have to eat a predominantly vegetarian diet. Seeing as animal agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater consumption, 38 percent of total land use, and 19 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, one can easily ascertain why these academics would urge the widespread adoption of vegetarianism and veganism—diets that generate 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than those of meat-eaters.

Livestock grazing accounts for several forms of virtually irreversible land damage: deforestation, desertification, and erosion. According to David Pimentel, Professor of Entomology at Cornell University, animal agriculture accounts for over 80 percent of annual global deforestation, stripping the soil of necessary nutrients and thus decreasing the amount of the earth’s arable land. However, animals raised for food not only require land for pasture, but also for the production of their feed—a process that currently uses 33 percent of global arable land.

Every meat-eater requires 3¼ acres of land to feed themselves for a year, while a vegan only requires one-sixth of an acre—20 times less than the meat-eater. The world’s livestock consume approximately 72 percent of global cereal grains, 80 percent of the global soybean crop, and over half of the global corn crop, statistics not difficult to fathom when one considers that the production of one pound of beef requires 10 to 16 pounds of grain. Not only does the inordinate amount of crops devoted to feeding animals to then feed to people take up land, it could also easily feed the world’s mounting population if fed directly to people. Today, 80 percent of the world’s hungry children live in countries with grain surpluses fed to animals for consumption by the affluent.

Clearly, it’s high time that prosperous nations stop prioritizing their enjoyment of cheeseburgers over the global food crisis.In addition to animal agriculture’s overuse of land, its water consumption also directs valuable resources away from people and to livestock. Farmed animals use more than half of the water consumed in the United States—unsurprising seeing as the production of a pound of steak requires 2,500 gallons of water, as opposed to 219 gallons required to produce a pound of tofu. Not only does animal agriculture use this water, it also pollutes it. The ten billion animals slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. produce nearly two billion tons of antibiotic-and-chemical-ridden waste annually, which runs off into bodies of water surrounding farms as well as into the fields of neighboring farms. Recently, the EPA stated that cattle excrement has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and has contaminated groundwater in 17 states.

Farming that takes place in the water also produces environmental consequences. The harvesting of wild fish contributes to the extreme damage of both coral reefs and the ocean floor, while injuring biodiversity by harming diminishing species, like sea turtles and dolphins.

While proponents of sustainable seafood often advocate for fish farming, this process also requires huge amounts of environmentally degrading antibiotics to feed the up-to-50,000 fish per cage, who generate a proportionately similar amount of waste to that of land animals used for food. If one hopes to live in a more environmentally friendly manner, she/he must consider the detrimental impacts of seafood production alongside that of livestock.

While it is difficult to believe that an individual’s eating habits could truly effect positive environmental change, a vegetarian diet saves an average of 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year and 3,500 gallons of water per day. Additionally, by not consuming the 96.4 pounds of beef eaten by the average American each year, one can reduce one’s personal greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount as required to drive from New York City to Los Angeles and back, and then one-way from NYC to Miami.

As Earth Week approaches, VARC and the rest of the event’s organizers hope to raise awareness about the inherent inefficiencies of raising animals for food and would encourage Vassar students to go meat-free, or to simply cut down on their meat consumption, at least for one week. To kick off the Veg Pledge, join us at the ACDC on Monday, April 22 for a dinner of vegan options crafted especially for Earth Week. As thoughtful, socially conscious, up-and-coming leaders of our generation, we should set a responsible example by concerning ourselves with the profoundly negative impacts that meat consumption effects on the environment, as well as on the treatment of animals. Taking the Veg Pledge can increase your participation in Earth Week from that of an idle supporter to that of a more sustainable, compassionate individual.


—Alessandra Seiter ‘16 is a student at Vassar College. She is Online Editor of The Miscellany News.

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