With worsening wildfires, deforestation and threats to alpine species like the pika, the Colorado River goes dry each year, never reaching the Gulf of California due to global warming and the worst American drought in 1,200 years. Climate change not only keeps winter snow packs from meeting regional water demands, but 10 percent of what melts is lost to summer heat waves. Last year, Lakes Mead and Powell lost nearly a million acre-feet of water to evaporation. Not that cattle ranching, intense irrigation of arid land, and 40 million other Americans in seven western states don’t overuse the resource, contributing to water crises. But, the Colorado essentially flows through every beef and burger joint and produce bin from Albuquerque to Montpelier. Half the water used in the U.S. grows grain for cattle feed. If Americans avoided meat just one day a week, water volumes saved (5,000 gal/beef lb) would be equivalent to the Colorado’s annual flow, alleviating shortages. Meatless days supported wars, why not save the planet with them? Bacon and Buffalo wings needn’t be America’s raisons d’etre.
That large-scale meat consumption has enormous environmental tolls is common knowledge. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and modern ecology prove it’s unsustainable. Longer food chains become unstable because higher trophic levels lose energy with each successive transition from producers to consumers. “Lindeman’s Law,” as we call it, has been taught since Fundamentals of Ecology by Eugene Odum (University of Georgia) first appeared in 1953. Known for his pioneering work in ecosystem interdependence and energy flows, Odum referenced a 1941 thesis by University of Minnesota Ph.D. student, Raymond Lindeman. Submitted to Ecology just 6 years after the term “ecosystem” was coined, Lindeman would die (age 27) before it was published. But, thanks to Odum, energy losses between ascending ecological trophic levels carry Lindeman’s name. Verified repeatedly, Lindeman’s Law (aka “coefficient”) predicts 90% losses of energy when herbivores are eaten instead of plants on which they subsist.
Even if human population growth stopped, saving wilderness and croplands, such inefficiency’s unsustainable. Meat production, roughly 350 million tons a year, doubling the last 30, puts enormous pressures on Earth’s ecosystems, accounting for 60% of biodiversity loss. It takes 75 times more energy to produce meat protein versus equivalent protein from corn, for example. Using similar comparisons, researchers estimate red meat is over 35 times more damaging to the environment, producing 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions, and using 100 times the amount of land. In the U.S., 56% of farmland is dedicated to producing beef. Globally, meat production and its billions of tons of annual fecal pollution comprise 15% of all anthropogenic atmospheric carbon emissions. Cattle alone (1.5 billion worldwide) account for 37% of the methane. According to Oxford findings published in Nature, the West’s beef consumption will have to decline some 80-90 percent to mitigate climate change. Meat-eating also contributes mightily to food crises because half the world’s total harvest goes to livestock feed. Luckily, nutritionally-superior plant-based products abound with tastes and textures identical to beef.
Unconscionably, 72,000,000,000 terrestrial animals are slaughtered annually for human meat consumption; 95% are chickens, 300 million cattle; 1.5 billion pigs. Yet, 40 % of food is wasted. For health, ecology, ethics and economy, a more vegetarian future is a moral imperative and global necessity, especially in the U.S. and Australia, where meat-eating’s excessive. That consideration extends to oceans as well, where Jacques Cousteau said “we act like barbarians.” Pisces populations are so overfished jellyfish are again dominating “oceans of slime” as they did 300 million years ago. Taxes shouldn’t subsidize meat addictions contributing to widespread obesity, heart disease, antibiotic resistant bacteria and other moral and physical afflictions. Aspiring vegetarians/vegans can look to Pythagoras, da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Einstein, Gandhi, Billie Jean King, Hank Aaron, Edwin Moses, Johnny Weissmuller, Jane Goodall, Cameron Diaz and countless others for role models.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.