Meat and the Environment


Meat and the Environment

“By eliminating beef from the human diet, our species takes a significant step toward a new species consciousness, reaching out in a spirit of shared partnership with the bovine, and, by extension, other sentient creatures with whom we share the earth.”1

Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef

Killing animals for food, fur, leather, and cosmetics is one of the most environmentally destructive practices taking place on the earth today. The Krishna consciousness movement’s policies of protecting animals, especially cows, and broadly promoting a spiritual vegetarian diet could—if widely adopted—relieve many environmental problems.

These policies are rooted in the following philosophical and functional principles:

  1. Humans should not slaughter animals for food. They should be as compassionate to cows and other farm animals as they are to their pet dogs and cats. Nonviolence extended beyond human society is known as ahimsa, an ancient Vedic principle still practiced in some parts of the world.
  2. Cows are the most valuable animals to human society. They give us fuel, fertilizer, power (for tilling, transport, grinding, and irrigating), milk and milk products, and leather (after natural death).
  3. The killing of animals violates karmic laws, creating collective and individual reactions in human society.
  4. Well-documented medical studies show that flesh-eating is harmful to health.
  5. Mass animal-killing for food and fashion erodes mercy, reducing respect for all kinds of life, including human life.
  6. Meat diets are more expensive than nonmeat diets.
  7. If the world switched to a nonmeat diet, it could radically increase its food output and save millions of people from hunger, starvation, and death.
  8. Massive animal slaughter is destroying the environment. We shall now document this destruction, keeping in mind that it amounts to violence against the earth. It also has karmic consequences.

The meat industry is linked to deforestation, desertification, water pollution, water shortages, air pollution, and soil erosion. Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (USA), therefore says, “If you’re a meat eater, you are contributing to the destruction of the environment, whether you know it or not.

Clearly the best thing you can do for the Earth is to not support animal agriculture.”2

And Jeremy Rifkin warns in his widely read book Beyond Beef: “Today, millions of Americans, Europeans, and Japanese are consuming countless hamburgers, steaks, and roasts, oblivious to the impact their dietary habits are having on the biosphere and the very survivability of life on earth. Every pound of grain-fed flesh is secured at the expense of a burned forest, an eroded rangeland, a barren field, a dried-up river or stream, and the release of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane into the skies.”3

Forest Destruction

According to Vegetarian Times, half of the annual destruction of tropical rain forests is caused by clearing land for beef cattle ranches.4 Each pound of hamburger made from Central American or South American beef costs about 55 square feet of rain forest vegetation.5

In the United States, about 260 million acres of forest have been cleared for a meat-centered diet. Each person who becomes a vegetarian saves one acre of trees per year.6

About 40% of the land in the western United States is used for grazing beef cattle. This has had a detrimental effect on wildlife. Fencing has forced deer and antelope out of their natural habitats.7

Agricultural Inefficiency

About half the world’s grain is consumed by animals that are later slaughtered for meat.8 This is a very inefficient process. It takes 16 pounds of grain and soybeans to produce 1 pound of feedlot beef.9 If people were to subsist on grains and other vegetarian foods alone, this would put far less strain on the earth’s agricultural lands. About 20 vegetarians can be fed from the land it takes to feed 1 meat eater.

Eighty per cent of the corn raised in the United States is fed to livestock, as well as 95% of the oats. Altogether, 56% of all agricultural land in the United States is used for beef production.10 If all the soybeans and grain fed yearly to US livestock were set aside for human consumption, it would feed 1.3 billion people.

Soil Erosion and Desertification

Overgrazing and the intensive production of feed grain for cattle and other meat animals results in high levels of soil erosion. According to Alan B. Durning of the Worldwatch Institute (1986), one pound of beef from cattle raised on feedlots represents the loss of 35 pounds of topsoil.11 Over the past few centuries, the United States has lost about two-thirds of its topsoil.

In other countries, such as Australia and the nations of Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara, cattle grazing and feed-crop production on marginal lands contribute substantially to desertification.

Air Pollution

Burning of oil in the production of feed grain results in air pollution, including carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Another major source of air pollution is the burning of tropical forests to clear land for cattle grazing.

The meat industry burns up a lot of fossil fuel, pouring pollutants into the air. Calorie for calorie, it takes 39 times more energy to produce beef than soybeans.12 The petroleum used in the United States would decrease by 60% if people adopted a vegetarian diet.13

And in their book For the Common Good, World Bank economist Herman E. Daly and philosopher John B. Cobb, Jr., say, “If a simple and healthful change in eating habits along with localization of most food production and a major shift toward organic farming were to take place over the next generation, food production and distribution could be weaned from their current heavy dependence on fossil fuels. In the process, the enormous suffering now inflicted on livestock would be greatly reduced.”14

The meat industry, in addition to producing carbon dioxide, is also responsible for other greenhouse gases, such as methane. Methane is produced directly by the digestive process of cows. This greenhouse gas is considered very dangerous because each molecule of methane traps 20 times more heat than a molecule of carbon dioxide.

How big a threat to the planet is the methane emitted by cows? Overall, the effect is not significant, certainly not enough to justify fears of cows destroying the planet by global warming. Each year about 500 million tons of methane enter the atmosphere, 15 contributing about 18% of the total greenhouse gases. Cows account for 60 million tons of the methane, about 12%.16 Therefore, methane emitted by cows amounts to only 2% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. It should also be kept in mind that feedlot cows, because they eat more, produce more methane than range-fed cows. In India, there are about 270 million cows, but 99.9% of them are range fed.17 Therefore they produce less methane than an equivalent number of feedlot cows.

Water Pollution

About 50% of the water pollution in the United States is linked to livestock.18 Pesticides and fertilizers used in helping grow feed grains run off into lakes and rivers. They also pollute ground water. In the feedlots and stockyard holding pens, there is also a tremendous amount of pesticide runoff. Organic contaminants from huge concentrations of animal excrement and urine at feedlots and stockyards also pollute water. This waste is anywhere from ten to hundreds of times more concentrated than raw domestic sewage. According to a German documentary film (Fleisch Frisst Menschen [Flesh Devours Man] by Wolfgang Kharuna), nitrates evaporating from open tanks of concentrated livestock waste in the Netherlands have resulted in extremely high levels of forest-killing acid rain.

Water Depletion

All around the world, the beef industry is wasting the diminishing supplies of fresh water. For example, the livestock industry in the United States takes about 50% of the water consumed each year.19

Feeding the average meat-eater requires about 4,200 gallons of water per day, versus 1,200 gallons per day for a person following a lacto-vegetarian diet.20 While it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat.21

The Bottom Line

Reducing or eliminating meat consumption would have substantial positive effects on the environment. Fewer trees would be cut, less soil would be eroded, and desertification would be substantially slowed. A major source of air and water pollution would be removed, and scarce fresh water would be conserved. “To go beyond beef is to transform our very thinking about appropriate behavior toward nature,” says Jeremy Rifkin. “We come to appreciate the source of our sustenance, the divinely inspired creation that deserves nurture and requires stewardship. Nature is no longer viewed as an enemy to be subdued and tamed.”22

Other Reasons Not to Kill Cows

Of course, saving the environment is not the only reason it’s good to avoid eating meat, particularly beef. Further reasons, some of which we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, are discussed at length in other books published by the Krishna consciousness movement (see the resource section at the end of this book).

During the process of converting grain to meat, 90% of the protein, 99% of the carbohydrates, and 100% of the dietary fiber are lost.

It is well documented that vegetarians are less likely to contract certain kinds of heart disease and cancer. So better health is one of the benefits of the flesh-free, karma-free diet practiced by the Krishna consciousness movement. This diet is not only healthier but also more satisfying to the mind and taste buds than meat-centered diets.

Furthermore, eliminating meat-eating would release a vast quantity of food grain for human consumption, thus helping solve the problem of world hunger. And on an ethical level, stopping animal-killing would help induce a greater respect for all kinds of life, including human.

When I was asked to write a foreword for Divine Nature, I felt instantly humbled. Here was a book by people for whom every daily act is expressly connected to matters of the spirit, whereas I spend much of my life absorbed in matters of commerce. But then as architects and designers, our finest work is definitely connected to the joy and spirit of the Divine, and it is indeed in nature that we find ourselves in what I call “the world of the making of things.”

This was not the first time I had been asked to comment on the way we might interact with the natural world from the perspective of human industry. In 1992 the city of Hanover, Germany, asked my firm to prepare design principles for the World’s Fair to be held in the year 2000. Of all design principles, there is one that my colleagues among the indigenous peoples around the world insist is the most important: “Respect the relationships between spirit and matter.” We say all design principles flow from this one; this is the source of our joy, our humanity, and also … our responsibility.

I have come to see the act of design itself as one of the first signals of human intention. And if the modern world of industry were being intentionally recreated on a clean slate today, it would represent a most terrifying and unnatural design assignment. Can you imagine being instructed to use human intelligence to design a system that releases billions of pounds of highly toxic material into the air, soil, and water every year? Can you imagine being instructed to create places so befouled by bad air that people fear going outdoors or need a lamp at midday to see their way? Can you imagine, on a planet whose surface is abundant with natural energy flows driven by the sun, being instructed to dig up ancient toxic materials whose very burial has allowed us to inhabit this surface, and further being told to burn it, pave with it, and allow products derived from it to persistently invade almost every living system, to the point where some species can no longer even reproduce? Can you imagine being told to use a wood whose harvest is effectively causing the genocide of a tribe of people half way around the world? One might say these instructions would be not only unethical but unintelligent. One might then conclude that these instructions could not possibly foster ethical or intelligent designs. And yet the horrifying effects mentioned above are some of the daily results of modern industrial artifice.

So if we as a civilization are to begin interacting with nature in an ethical and intelligent way, we must ask ourselves if human beings could imagine a better series of “instructions” and design assignments to which we can apply our unusual skills. This is clearly a central question inherent in the issues being raised by Divine Nature: how do we find, and come to peace with, our place in the natural world?

From my design perspective, it is obvious that we should be working with, and not against, nature’s own design principles. For example, nature barely entertains the concept of waste: one thing’s waste is another thing’s food. Everything moves in cycles: cradle to cradle, not cradle to grave, as modern industrial protocols would ask us to believe. Nature operates on “current income”—it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves, and it does not borrow from the future. Nature is an extraordinarily complex yet elegant and efficient system for creating and cycling nutrients, so economic that modern manufacturing methods pale in comparison. And nature loves diversity: everything is different from everything else, but everything has its place.

Today politicians, scientists, and business people are becoming aware of the critical importance of biodiversity; they are recognizing the richness of all living systems and the infinitely complex interdependencies within and between them. They are beginning to see that everything is indeed connected to everything else, and they are becoming aware of an impending crisis. Some see grave dangers, others opportunities lost. I was told a story recently about an eminent naturalist who went to see the chief of staff of a U.S. President to explain the importance of a proposed international biodiversity convention. Apparently the politician, who was trained as an engineer, responded in effect: “Oh, I see, you’re talking about an Endangered Species Act for the whole world, and it sounds like the Devil is in the details,” to which the scientist responded, “No, sir, God is in the details.” Einstein is credited with noticing that almost no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.

The change in consciousness needed now must be deep, informed, and integrated with a great deal of ancient wisdom. As this book explains, we must be humble enough to recognize that those who came before us have pondered many of our concerns.

In the world of design, some of the proposed solutions may reflect the same linear consciousness that got us to our present state. A single example may suffice. In many places in the world, designers are looking toward the production of biomass to produce energy—growing grasses, trees, etc., specifically to be burned to create heat and electricity. The problem is that while the system may be what engineers call CO2 neutral—i.e., it releases only as much carbon dioxide as was absorbed by the plants as they grew to maturity—it represents a linear design that focuses on solar energy alone. Because the system does not close the natural nutrient or water cycles of the soils being depleted, it can reduce biodiversity. The biomass is seen as carbohydrates replacing hydrocarbons, and water is seen in chemical terms, as H2O, and not as part of a larger living organism.

Outside nutrients such as mineral fertilizers must be imported to maintain energy production levels because many of the soil-nurturing materials have gone up in smoke. Such a system of energy production is the large-scale equivalent of burning wood to boil water, which really makes sense only where you have a lot of wood and a few people, like a forest tribe. But right now the planet is experiencing a dramatic loss in the number of trees and a sobering increase in the number of people. So if the current system of getting energy by burning either biomass or fossil fuel is continued, it is only a matter of time before population pressure will strain the system to its breaking point.

I helped design villages like those described in this book, villages where people are elegantly and efficiently harvesting solar energy in all its myriad forms: as food, in low-temperature thermal collection, in the form of animal husbandry, and as cooking gas from “digested” dung and biomass. Nutrients are returned to the soil, completing an endless cycle of use and refreshment. The intent is clear: nothing is lost and nothing is wasted and nothing needs to be imported from far away. This is the model to which we must turn our attention if we are to create both ethical and intelligent designs.

As designers, we are using these models to inform every scale of our work: for products, for buildings, and, yes, even for cities. We are designing products that can be safely composted at the end of their useful life, others that go back to solar powered manufactories to be completely reused over and over, without any waste or release of materials in the cycle, and we are also developing the concept of “zero-emission” industries within “industrial ecologies.” Essentially we are trying to imagine the next industrial revolution: with small-scale, linked, local enterprises, where prosperity is measured by the health of the economic and ecological system in terms of the quality of all life, and where productivity is measured not by how many resources are “used up” by how few people but by how few resources are “used up” by how many people.

Now that I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, I often think of Thomas Jefferson, who designed the house in which my family lives. He was clearly a person who understood design as a signal of intention. He also wrote in his Declaration of Independence of the need for “life, liberty, and happiness” free from remote tyranny. There is no question in my mind that if Mr. Jefferson were alive today he would be calling for “A Declaration of Interdependence” and the forms of remote tyranny concerning him would include those being deposited in the air, water, and soil. In 1789 he wrote the following in a letter to James Madison: “The earth belongs … to the living: … then no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the use of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, … no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”

This is one of the organizing concepts being talked about today under the heading “sustainable development,” and it is indeed wonderful to see people worldwide recognizing that their common security lies in embracing this principle. But even sustainable development has the ring of anthropocentric tyranny, remote form the rest of nature. It often speaks of resource flows but barely touches the most ineffable of relationships, which are also the most human—the relationships between spirit, matter, and place. These intertwined relationships still seem to be the least understood and most resisted by an industrialized world whose guiding principle has been dominion over nature and whose stewardship of the natural world is often patronizing. We must learn again of our kinship with the natural world and enjoy its message, which tells of the value of all life and the rightful human place as part of it.

This book, Divine Nature, reminds us that we must learn again to live within the laws of nature and find the means of expressing our human intention as interdependent actors, aware that we are at the mercy of sacred forces larger than ourselves, and aware also that we must obey the laws governing these forces in order to honor the sacred in each other, and in all things. It instructs us correctly: we must come to peace with and accept our place in the natural world in order to enjoy the spirit of belonging to the earth firsthand.

William McDonough

Charlottesville, Virginia