After spending a few months watching different documentaries and reading online articles, last spring I decided to try out a vegetarian diet. My primary motivation came after learning the negative effects that meat production has on the environment, most notably the carbon emissions and water consumed by the process. 

Some figures especially struck me as alarming: livestock and its byproducts are believed to be responsible for 18 percent of the world-wide greenhouse gas emissions each year, global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999-2001 to 465 million tons in 2050 and about 70 percent of forest cleared in the Amazon has been turned over for livestock grazing.

It was clear to me that the meat industry was having a serious environmental impact. Since that time I’ve gone back and forth with the diet and at times have abandoned it completely. The health benefits were tangible and I overall felt much better throughout the day: My energy was far more consistent and I had fewer groggy periods of the day compared to when I was eating meat. I recently decided to try vegetarianism again, but this time when I did some research I learned that the environmental impact of our diets, like most issues, are quite complex.

According to a study conducted by Carnegie Melon, eating a vegetarian diet could actually have worse environmental impacts than eating a meat-based diet. The study found that the production of many fruits and vegetables actually requires more resource consumption and produces more carbon emissions per calorie than some meat items. The issue comes in the matching of calories. If we were to take the advice of the USDA and replace meat with a mix of fruit, vegetables, dairy and seafood we could expect to see energy use rise by 38 percent, water use increase by 10 percent and greenhouse gas emissions to go up by about 6 percent.

The study also evaluated the effect that a reduction in total calories from the average U.S. diet would have on the environment and found that there would be about a 9 percent decrease in energy use, water consumption and total emissions. This facet of the study proves to me to be the most substantial finding. The reality is that we have a consumption issue in our country and its effects can be seen not only in the environment but also in our waistlines. Today over 60 percent of Americans are considered overweight or obese. As is often the case, the solution to our consumption issue could solve another one of the country’s most pressing issues.

While many of the results were surprising, one common assertion was reinforced. The production of beef in particular has severe environmental effects that “dwarf” those of that come from the production of dairy, pork and poultry. Coincidentally, beef is widely known to have adverse effects on health, cited as responsible for the increase in likelihood of development of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

So what does this mean for the informed consumer who wants to follow a diet that won’t have adverse effects on the environment? The findings of this study contribute to the growing argument that our issue is a matter of our quantity of consumption. Our depletion of natural resources, the growing obesity problem and our pollution of the environment can all be traced back to our culture of overconsumption.

The growing population is obviously to blame but we can’t rely on this problem to justify our unquenchable demand for products whose production is putting a massive strain on our natural resources. The change starts with us and we must acknowledge that our culture consumes with minimal concern for anyone else. If you want to make a real impact, evaluate your consumption habits and identify places where you can reduce these habits, not replace them with varied consumption habits. The solution lies in the quantity, a variable over which we all have control.

Spencer Munson is a senior management major. Contact Spencer at munsonsc@dukes.jmu.edu.


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