It sounds like the plot of a made-for-television science fiction movie, or maybe an episode of “South Park”: As the global population continues to grow exponentially, so does the demand for meat. Cows proliferate, taking over virgin forestland worldwide and passing enough methane gas to eat through the atmosphere and bring about an environmental crisis. It sounds, in a word, ludicrous. It’s also not far from the truth.
By now it’s common knowledge that an excess production of greenhouse gases is contributing to global climate change — a process which threatens to raise the sea level, drive a number of species to extinction and deplete available sources of fresh water, among other crises. What’s less common knowledge is the fact that, between the methane they pass, the nitrous oxide their manure gives off as it decomposes and the energy used to transport and process them on their way to our dinner plates, cattle and sheep are responsible for an estimated 18 percent of those harmful emissions.
When people ask why I’m a vegetarian, they’re never surprised to hear that the decision was in part motivated by the inhumane treatment of animals by the meat industry. This answer, I’ve found, is what people generally expect. Most of the vegetarians I’ve talked to give the same rationale.
When I cite environmental concerns as a reason for my vegetarianism, however, I’m more often met with confusion. Just as we know that the meat industry spares little suffering on the part of its livestock, we have by now learned that our cars, our appliances and our landfills are poisoning the atmosphere. We’ve been taught to reduce our carbon footprint by turning off the lights when we leave a room, taking a bike or the bus instead of driving and separating our trash from our recycling. The link between environmentalism and our diets, by contrast, is left largely unspoken and untaught.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I really began to comprehend the ways in which the organic, locally-grown food my family had always sworn by benefitted not only us, but the planet as well. Before this I assumed that my responsibility to the environment began when a meal was finished, when I would recycle any metal or plastic packaging and relegate leftover pieces of bread, pasta or vegetables to the compost pile. I had gathered from my classes that fragile ecosystems were destroyed by the plastic configurations that held together six packs of soda, by recycling that made its way into landfills and failed to break down as years passed. No one had ever told me that food itself could constitute an environmental issue.
When I was 17, I decided to revert to the vegetarian diet I was raised on after four years of hot dogs, pepperoni pizza and constant, low-level guilt. To a degree the decision was motivated by the cruel treatment of livestock, which struck — and continues to strike — me viscerally. But it was also the culmination of my education in sustainable eating —an education which I, for the most part, had to seek out for myself.
I chose to be a vegetarian for a lot of complex reasons, but perhaps the biggest one was that it was a sacrifice I felt I could gladly make for the sake of the planet. We’re faced with a lot of those choices, now: whether or not to drive, to buy organic, to go paperless. As a teenager living at a boarding school where many of those choices were made for me by higher authorities, my vegetarianism felt like something I could control. Something I could do, myself, to fight for a cause I cared about.
For most of us, meat is not a dietary necessity. Despite that, only 5 percent of American adults identify as vegetarians, and 2 percent as vegans. The production and consumption of meat worldwide has risen substantially in the last half century and is expected to continue to do so. It’s a trend that threatens the environment through the production of greenhouse gases, the clearing of forests and the disruption of aquatic ecosystems. And it’s one we’re not talking about.
I think it’s time we started.
Annika Neklason is a College sophomore from Santa Cruz, Calif., studying English. Her email address is email@example.com.