Vegetarianism – A Step to Sustainable Future?

Vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular all over, with many giving up consumption of meat for a variety of reasons. As of 2018, it is estimated that vegetarians, including vegans and other semi-vegetarian categories, constitute 8% of the entire world population.

Reasons for vegetarianism vary amongst people and even countries. While many Western countries are shifting towards a meat-free diet for environmental and moral reasons, many Indians adopt vegetarianism as a lifestyle for religious reasons, leading to India having the highest percentage of vegetarians in the world. Shifting to a vegetable-based diet has many benefits, be it environmental, economic, health, etc. Especially, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, most people in India are considering vegetarian food more favorably than ever before.

Impact on the environment

The human population is set to exceed 9 billion by 2050 and the planet’s resources are being depleted and exploited at an exponential rate. Humans have wreaked havoc on the environment and are now facing adverse consequences, with climate change being one of the biggest problems faced by the modern world. Going vegetarian is one of the most sustainable and easy methods to reduce climate change.

The environmental damage by the meat industry is alarmingly high. Agriculture, on a whole, is responsible for 10-12% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, meat, poultry and dairy farming is responsible for over three quarters of this figure. The meat industry produces much higher emissions per calorie than a typical vegetarian diet, with beef being the worst emitter, almost four times higher than chicken or pork. Cows and sheep are responsible for 37% of the total methane generated, a greenhouse gas much more potent that carbon dioxide. Ammonia, a significant contributor to acid rains, is also released by the livestock industry in large quantities. It is estimated that a vegetarian diet could have 2.5 times less carbon footprint than that of a meat diet and eating vegetarian food for a year would be equivalent to removing the impact of a car on the environment for 6 months.

Catering to the meat industry has also changed the way land is utilised around the world. Natural habitat destruction is cited as the primary reason for the mass extinction of animal species and eating meat continues to contribute to this loss. A massive 30% of the earth’s entire land surface is used for rearing farmed animals. This represents over 70% of the entire agricultural land. Livestock or cattle farming required most land among all forms of agriculture and has been a major driver of deforestation. Valuable ecosystems have been destroyed to cater to the growing demand for livestock, with the recent Amazon forest fires in Brazil being a prominent example of rainforests being cleared for pastures. Livestock farming also leads to soil erosion, desertification and deforestation as 20% of the world’s grazing land has already degraded due to the rearing of animals for their meat.

Given the scarcity of fresh water globally, it is vital to reconsider how this precious resource is being utilised as the entire process of rearing animals for consumption to processing the meat up to the final consumption requires exorbitant quantities of water. It is estimated that over 13,000 litres of water is required to produce just one kilo of beef and it can easily reach up to 100,000 litres. When compared to the water required to produce a kilo of wheat, which is somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000 litres, it is obvious just how much more water is wasted to process meat to cater to non-vegetarianism. Addressing another angle related to water, the current fisheries are extremely unsustainable and overfishing has caused a problem for our seas and oceans.

By shifting to a vegetarian diet, individuals can directly reduce their ecological footprint on Earth and eliminate the damage caused to land, water, and other resources by the meat they might otherwise consume.

Vegetarianism as a moral standard

Advocates for vegetarianism raise ethical concerns as the one of the primary reasons to give up meat consumption. The fact that almost half a billion animals perished in the Australian bushfires grabbed attention all over the world. However, far more are slaughtered daily for human consumption with the daily total reaching almost 3 billion animals. Cows, pigs, sheep, ducks, turkeys, chicken, fishes are just a few out of the long list of animals that cater to the growing meat consumption and the numbers are staggering. Over 60 billion chickens hatch every year for the primary purpose of growing to an edible size and ultimately dying for human consumption. According to estimates by PETA, more than 4 million pigs are killed for food daily and up to 1 million additional pigs die in the back of crowded trucks on the way to slaughter. On an average, more than 800,000 cows are killed for food every day. Female cows are forcibly impregnated with their young taken away to be slaughtered immediately. Such treatment is highly unethical and disturbing.

Animal suffering is the most direct and inhumane consequence of consuming meat. Despite claiming to cause the animals as little pain as possible, humane slaughter is an oxymoron. Not only is the future existence of these animals being robbed but many spend their whole lives in cages or windowless slaughterhouse, subject to extremely harsh living conditions. Graphic images of animals in deplorable slaughterhouses dissuade many from eating

Easier on the wallet

Vegetarianism has many economic benefits as well. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it was estimated that if people continue to follow current trends of meat consumption rather than shifting to a more balanced or plant-based diet, it could cost the global economy up to $1.6 trillion by 2050. It is widely acknowledged that the cost to produce food from animal-based sources is significantly more than from plant-based sources and this is also reflected in the prices that a consumer pays for an average vegetarian meal compared to a non- vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism also cuts down on health costs as meat-based diets are known to be higher in cholesterol and can increase the risk of heart diseases, diabetes and cancer as well. Not only is a meatless diet cheaper, it also provides more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are considered to be integral to a comprehensive and healthy diet. Mediterranean eating patterns highlight the health benefits of vegetarianism. By placing an emphasis on plant foods with a sparing use of meat, they are known to be associated with longer life and reduced risk of several chronic illnesses.

A growing trend toward vegetarianism and veganism is witnessed in recent years, especially among young people, due to increasing awareness of health, the environment and empathy for animals. Mainstream restaurants all over the world have been introducing more and more vegetarian dishes and remaining profitable as well. Alternative meat or mock meat is a new concept that is gaining popularity with more than $2 billion being invested in plant-based meat. These are all positive signs and point towards a possible future where vegetarianism is the norm. However, this future is quite a long way away and increased efforts and awareness is of utmost importance for a sustainable future.

Picture Credits: / bhofack2 / iStock /Getty Images

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