vegan teens will save the world (an essay)
by Amy Arnett | shot by Abby
There is no doubt in my mind that the youth of our generation have power to evoke change through their activism. From hate crimes to gun violence, teenagers have been adamant about taking a stand for the various causes that fuel their personal fires. One of the many topics of conversation that is slowly but surely drawing a curious eye is the fight for environmental conservation, particularly from a growing community of vegan and vegetarian teens. After looking into the numbers, the sudden surge against animal agriculture is no surprise. There’s so many details I uncovered about the industry that I never expected to find. The fact of the matter is this: Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, water pollution, habitat destruction, and ocean dead zones in the world, and while organisations and governments have been ignoring it, individuals can have a large and positive impact.
First, let's take a look at some of the facts. Livestock covers 45% of the earth’s total land, and nearly half of the contiguous US is devoted to animal agriculture. Even these first numbers may be a bit of a shock, because you don't tend to think of agriculture as being such a large industry.
One of the biggest focuses of our time has been on climate change, and how to reduce the impacts of CO2 levels in our atmosphere. What you may be surprised to learn, is that animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions which is, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. Yes, you read that right. Transportation exhaust is responsible for 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Why isn't this being discussed in the media if it's such a large issue? Several answers loom, but one could be that the issue with animal agriculture isn't carbon dioxide emissions, but methane.
Methane is 25-100 times more destructive than carbon dioxide on a 20 year time frame. Methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide on a 20 year time frame. Worldwide, cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day. Methane emissions from livestock and from natural gas are nearly equal. And it's more than even just methane! Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and which stays in the atmosphere for 150 years.
This isn't even taking into consideration that emissions for agriculture are projected to increase 80% by the year 2050.
The damage left by animal agriculture isn't purely airborne; the waste is tangible too. Every minute, 7 million pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US. That is an amount equal to 700 Orca whales every single minute. A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people.
When you actually break these figures apart and look at the data, its irrefutable. 130 times more animal waste than human waste is produced in the US, Which is 1.4 billion tons from the meat industry annually.
The numbers can seem like only numbers until you put it into perspective. 1.4 billion tons is the same amount as 4 football stadium parking-lots entirely filled with school buses, annually.
If you thought the evidence would stop there, you were wrong. Not only is animal agriculture detrimental to our atmosphere and to our waste capacity, but the impacts it has on our water supply are astronomical. Animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. Again, for comparison purposes, that's enough water to fill over 115,000,000 olympic-sized swimming pools, which would take up as much space as the entire American East coast, as agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of all US water consumption.
You may now be wondering, “where does that water go? Surely the amount of water that a cow drinks in a day can’t equal that much!” And you would actually be correct. This vast amount of water isn't even going directly to the animals, but is what is required to grow the food that the animals eat. Growing feed crops for livestock consumes 56% of all water in the US.
Californians on average use 1500 gallons of water per person per day. Close to half of that is associated with their consumption of meat and dairy products. When you break all these numbers apart, you can see that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, 477 gallons of water to produce 1lb. of eggs, almost 900 gallons of water for 1lb. of cheese, and 1,000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk.
We constantly promote turning off water when you’re not using it, taking shorter showers, and not watering your lawn every day, but when it comes down to it, only 5% of water consumed in the US is by private homes, and 80-90% is for animal agriculture. Why isn't this the leading topic of discussion when we talk about California’s drought?
Now, as someone who prides herself on being environmentally aware, I was upset to discover just how much I didn't know about the animal agriculture industry and its effects. I had spent hours of my life planning projects to help prevent further rainforest destruction, while being completely blind to the fact that 1-2 acres of rainforest are cleared every second, and animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of that clearing.
The vast importance of our rainforests to our survival are measures than cannot be overstated. On top of rainforests being enormous carbon sinks, largely responsible for regulating carbon and nitrogen cycles in our atmosphere, 25% of all our prescription medications have been discovered in the 10% of forested area that has been discovered and studied. The cures to illnesses ranging from colds to cancers lie most likely within these forests, that are being killed as you read this. Destructed land is land that cannot be studied, and up to 137 plant, animal and insect species are lost every day due to rainforest destruction.
Every day, millions of rainforest trees are cut down solely for the purpose of making room for continued animal agriculture, an avoidable and unnecessary practice.
At a certain point in my research, I had to ask myself why nobody is talking about this massive impact. It just didn't make much sense how so much of this information had simply never been presented to me, even though it seemed so blatantly clear. The public has been made vigilantly aware in recent years of the destruction caused from their daily use of cars, plastic, water, and garbage, so why isn't consumption of meat and dairy also a top priority?
What I discovered was even more unsettling than I had previously believed, if that was even possible at this point. In south America, where a large portion of the world meat and dairy production takes place, 1,100 Land activists have been killed in Brazil alone in the past 20 years. One of these people was a 73 year-old nun from Ohio, Dorothy Strang, who devoted her life to rainforest preservation, and to speaking out against the large animal agro-business. She was murdered in 2005 by hired gunmen from a brazilian rancher, threatened by the truth of her sentiments.
Dorothy Strang and her story are not unique in their tragic end. Thousands of people every year are murdered, run out, or blacklisted by large corporations who have financial backing from these large corporations.
The numbers just don't check out. We cannot keep living this way, and at this point it doesn't even make sense any more. Animal agriculture has undeniable, detrimental effects to our health as individuals and to the planet that we live on.
On Earth, we are currently growing enough food to feed over 10 billion people, but at least 50% of the grain grown is fed to livestock. 82% of starving children live in countries where the food they grow is fed to animals, and the animals are killed and eaten by wealthier countries. No part of me feels content with these facts, and rightfully so.
Nothing is more frustrating to me than a problem that has no solutions, so, I immediately began looking for our options. The simplicity I found in the answer was a huge relief. The change that can be fostered through one person's decision to stop eating meat was surprisingly substantial.
Land required to feed 1 person for 1 year:
Vegan: 1/6th acre
Vegetarian: 3x as much as a vegan
Meat Eater: 18x as much as a vegan
1.5 acres of land can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food, but only 375 pounds of beef. Choosing beef is choosing destruction. But is eating vegan healthy? There’s no way to get protein, right? Wrong! You can grow 15 times more protein on any given area of land with plants, rather than cows. In our current society, reducing your consumption of meat and dairy is possible for everyone*.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, water pollution, habitat destruction, and ocean dead zones, and there is something monumental that you can do to stop it: Go vegan. Or even vegetarian! Or even simply reduce your meat and dairy consumption! The impact of one individual in turning off the water when they brush their teeth is nothing compared to the thousands of gallons of water behind your cheeseburger. A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food. Each day, they save 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life. We are not in a position to make thoughtless decisions about our environment and how we affect it anymore.
* everyone, given personal health accommodations. (such as having an allergy to soy and/or nuts which can make it very hard to get protein, or something similar)
Gerbens-Leenes, P.W. et al. "The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparitive study in different countries and production systems". Water Resources and Industry. Vol. 1-2, March-June 2013, Pages 25-36
Diet and Veganism:
Eishel, Gordon, et al. "Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production in the United States". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 111 No. 33 June 2014