Guest column by Jessica McCool, junior sociology major
Do you have to be a vegetarian or vegan to care about the environment? Not at all. Take me, for example. I am not a vegetarian, but I love the environment. There is no contract that must be signed stating that, to be an environmentalist, one must give up meat.
Becoming a vegetarian may not be an option for some people due to time, money, health, cultural or religious practices, or because they simply don’t want to be. No matter the reasoning, everyone is welcome to care about the environment. The environment happens to be one of the only things we all have in common.
First of all, we cannot ignore the physical conditions of concentrated animal feeding operations, farms in which animals are raised in confinement. The amount of urine and feces from even the smallest of these farms is equivalent to the urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans, according to the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization. Animals are often confined in small areas without vegetation for long periods of time, sometimes suffering through their whole lives in these cramped conditions. This inhumane method of farming is bad for people, too: Those who live near these farms are at a higher risk of developing respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal problems and psychological issues.
Agriculture is one of the main contributors to water, food, land and air degradation. We use 70 percent of the readily available freshwater on the planet to feed livestock and grow crops to feed livestock. If people consumed all the grain fed to livestock in the U.S., the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million, according to David Pimentel, an ecology professor at Cornell University.
Deforestation rates increase so that industries can use the land for crops and concentrated animal feeding operations. Livestock now uses 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface, which takes away agents that absorb greenhouse gases. When cows digest food, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. When cows flatulate and burp, they release this dangerous greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.
Runoff from these facilities, composed of fertilizers and sewage, gets into the waterways eventually leading to the ocean. Eutrophication occurs, meaning that bodies of water are flooded with excessive nutrients that can induce algal blooms. It prevents the plants in the ocean from absorbing sunlight for photosynthesis, which depletes all of the oxygen in the water. These dead zones can no longer sustain marine life, which is both intrinsically valuable and instrumental to sustaining human life.
The western world has become a society of overconsumption and wastefulness, and with new innovations and technologies, it becomes easy to consume excess resources. As consumers, we have the power to change policy. We vote people into office and keep companies in business by consuming their products. We have slowly and thoughtlessly adopted an unhealthy dependency on meat that depletes the Earth of its resources and is killing our planet.
With this, I have three suggestions. The first is to consume less. I am not telling you to stop eating meat cold turkey (no pun intended), but there are small steps that we can collectively take to create strides for humanity. The second is to learn more. The environment is constantly changing, so stay aware of policies and practices. Learn about how your products are made and what resources are exploited in making it. Finally, share. A largely overlooked part of the environmental movement is advocacy. We each have the duty to educate ourselves and others on these issues that affect the quality of all of our lives and those of future generations.