vegan teens will save the world (an essay)

by Amy Arnett | shot by Abby

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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)


SOURCES

Emissions:

"Livestock's Long Shadow: environmental issues and options". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome 2006

"Livestock's Long Shadow: environmental issues and options". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome 2006

Environmental Protection Agency. "Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data".

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Hyner, Christopher. "A Leading Cause of Everything: One Industry That Is Destroying Our Planet and Our Ability to Thrive on It". Georgetown Environmental Law Review. October 23, 2015. (New)

Shindell, Drew T, et al. "Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions". Science. 326, 716 (2009)

Vaidyanathan, Sayathri. "How Bad of a Greenhouse Gas is Methane? The global warming potential of the gaseous fossil fuel may be consistently underestimated". Scientific American. December 22, 2015.

"IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. 2.10.2 Direct Global Warming Potential". Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (New)

Shindell, Drew T, et al. "Improved Attribution of Climate Forcing to Emissions". Science. 326, 716 (2009)

"IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007. 2.10.2. Direct Global Warming Potentials". Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (new)

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"Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States". U.S. Energy Information Administration. March 31, 2011

Tilman, David & Clark, Michael. "Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health". Nature. Vol. 515. 27 November 2014"Carbon Dioxide Emissions to 2040". Energy Global. 06 January 2015

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Ross, Phillip. "Cow Farts Have 'Larger Greenhouse Gas Impact' Than Previously Thought; Methane Pushes Climate Change". International Business Times. 26 November, 2013

250-500 liters per cow per day, x 1.5 billion cows globally is 99 - 198.1 billion gallons. Rough average of 150 billion gallons CH4 globally per day.

Miller, Scot M, et al. "Anthropegnic emissions of methane in the United States". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 110. No. 50. 18 October 2013 (new)

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Water:

"Draft Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources". EPA. February 2011

Geetanjali, Chauhan, et al. "Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas and its Environmental Impacts". Research Journal of Recent Sciences. Vol. 4 (ISC-2014), 1-7 (2015) (New)

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Pimentel, David, et al. "Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues". BioScience. (2004) 54 (10): 909-918

"How Important is Irrigation to U.S. Agriculture?" USDA: Economic Research Service. 12 October, 2016

Fulton, Julian, et al. "California's Water Footprint". Pacific Institute. December 2012

Robbins, John. "2,500 gallons all wet?" Earth Save: Healthy People Healthy Planet.

Pimentel, David, et al. "Water Resources: Agricultural and Environmental Issues". BioScience (2004) 54 (10): 909-918.   (New)

"Water Content of Things: Data Table 19". The World's Water 2008-2009

Beckett, J. L, Oltjen, J. W "Estimation of the Water Requirement for Beef Production in the United States". Journal of Animal Science. 1993. 71:818-826

"Water". Environmental Working Group.

"Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison". Water Footprint Network. (New)

"Water". Environmental Working Group.

"Food Facts: How Much Water Does it Take to Produce...?" Water Education Foundation. (New)

Hoekstra, Arjen Y. "The water footprint of food". Water for Food.

Mekonnen, Mesfin M. & Hoekstra, Arjen Y. "A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products". Ecosystems (2012) 15: 401-415

Mekonnen, Mesfin M. & Hoekstra, Arjen Y. "A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products". Ecosystems (2012) 15: 401-415

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

Herrero, Mario, et al. "Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. vol. 110 no. 52

Oppenlander DDS, Richard. "Freshwater Abuse and Loss. Where Is It All Going?" Forks over Knives. May 20,2013


Land:

"Livestock a major threat to environment. Remedies urgently needed". FAO Newsroom. 29 November 2006

Walsh, Bryan. "The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production". Time. Dec. 16, 2013 (New)

Thornton, Phillip, et al. "Livestock and climate change". Livestock xchange. International Livestock Research Institute. November 2011

Smith, Pete & Bustamante, Mercedes, et al. "Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)". Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Chapter 11

"Biodiversity and Food Choice: A Clarification". comfortablyunaware: Global Depletion and Food Choice Responsibility. June 9, 2012

"Freshwater Depletion: Realities of Choice". comfortablyunaware: Global Depletion and Food Choice Responsibility. November 25, 2014

"What is a dead zone?" National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

"What Causes Ocean 'Dead Zones'?" Scientific American

"Nutrient Pollution: The Problem". Environmental Protection Agency

"NOAA-, EPA-supported scientists find average but large Gulf dead zone". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. August 4, 2014

Zielinski, Sarah. "Ocean Dead Zones Are Getting Worse Globally Due to Climate Change". Smithsonian.com. November 10, 2014 (New)

McBride, William D., Mathews Jr., Kenneth. "The Diverse Structure and Organization of U.S. Beef Cow-Calf Farms". USDA: Economic Research Service. Number 73. March 2011

Nickerson, Cynthia, et al. "Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007". USDA: Economic Research Service. Number 89. December 2011

"Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns". UN News Centre. 29 November 2006


Waste:

"Animal Manure Management". USDA: Natural Resources Conservation Service. RCA Issue Bief #7. December 1995

"Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook". USDA: Natural Resources Conservation Service. Part 651

"Agricultural Waste Characteristics". Agricultural Waste Management Field Handbook. USDA. Chapter 4

"Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations".Environmental Protection Agency. 2004

"Animal Agriculture: Waste Management Practices". United States General Accounting Office. July 1999


Rainforest:

Margulis, Sergio. "Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon". World Bank Working Paper No. 22. 2003

Tabuchi, Hiroko, Rigny, Claire & White, Jeremy. "Amazon Deforestation, Once Tames, Comes Roaring Back". New York Times. February 2017(New)

Bellantonio, Marisa, et al. "The Ultimate Mystery Meat: Exposing the Secrets Behind Burger King and Global Meat Production". Mighty Earth (New)

"Measuring the Daily Destruction of the World's Rainforests". Scientific American (New)

Butler, Rhett. "10 Rainforest Facts for 2017". Mongabay.com. January, 2017 (New)

"Avoiding Unsustainable Rainforest Wood". Rainforest Relief

Butler, Rhett. "Cattle Ranching's Impact on the Rainforest". Mongabay.com. July 2012 (New)

Veiga, J.B., et al. "Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Rainforest". UN: Food and Agriculture Oragnization (New)

"Soy Agriculture in the Amazon Basin". Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sudies: Global Forest Atlas (New)

"The Disappearing Rainforests". Save the Amazon.org

"What is Deforestation?" Kids.Mongabay.com

Butler, Rhett. "Amazon Destruction". Mongabay.com. January 2017

Butler, Rhett A. "Brazilian beef giant announces moratorium on rainforest beef". Mongabay. August 2009


Killed activists:

Batty, David. "Brazilian faces retrial over murder of environmental activist nun in Amazon". The Guardian. April 2009

Butler, Rhett A. "20 years ago the Amazon lost its strongest advocate". Mongabay. December 2008

Sandy, Matt. "Murder of Brazil official marks new low in war on Amazon environmentalists". The Guardian. October 2016 (New)

Nuwer, Rachel. "The Rising Murder Count of Environmental Activists". The New York Times. June 2016 (New)


Diet and Veganism:

Oppenlander, Dr. Richard. "The World Hunger-Food Choice Connection: A Summary". Comfortably Unaware Blog. August 2012

"Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress". UNICEF. April 2013

"Livestock production index". The World Bank

"Global livestock production systems". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome 2011

DeBruicker, Julie. "How much do we eat, anyway?" John Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future. March 2011

"Kings of the Carnivores. Vegetarians should look away". The Economist. April 2012

"Our Food Our Future. Making a Difference With Every Bite: The Power of the Fork!" EarthSave International

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

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/food-choice-and-sustainability-richard-a-oppenlander/1117327379?ean=9781626524354

"Direct Seeded Vegetable Crop Chart". Johnny's Selected Seeds

Schwab, Denise, et al. "Grass-fed and Organic Beef: Production Costs and Breakeven Market Prices, 2008-2009". Iowa State University 2012

"The carbon foodprint of five diets compared". Shrink That Footprint

Scarborough, Peter, et al. "Dietary greenhouse-gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK". Climactic Change. July 2014. Volume 125. Issue 2. pp. 179-192

Pimentel, David & Pimental, Marcia. "Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. September 2003. vol 78. no 3 660S-663S

"Facts on Animal Farming and the Environment". One Green Planet.

"Vegetarianism and the Environment. Why going meatless is important". Vegetarian Guide

Scarborough, Peter, et al. "Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK". Climactic Change July 2014., Volume 125, Issue 2, pp 179-192

"Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health". Environmental Working Group. 2011

Ranganathan, Janet & Waite, Richard. "Sustainable Diets: What You Need to Know in 12 Charts". World Resources Institute. April 2016