The dining centers across campus produce massive amounts of material waste. Thankfully, most students here usually give at least a little thought to sustainably managing this waste by reusing their cups, recycling their containers, eating-in rather than to-go, etc. Many students fail to realize, however, that their environmental responsibility begins well before their trip to the trash can.
The American diet includes massive amounts of meat, averaging almost 200 pounds a year per person (more than twice the global average), with some people eating meat in every single meal. At the grill station in Commons Dining and even in our beloved Rand Bowl lines, I have seen Vanderbilt students play a part in this culture of frequent meat consumption. Knowingly or not, people who engage in this carnivorous lifestyle are contributing to one of the largest sustainability crises in the United States.
Meat production represents inefficiency to a T (-bone steak). Producing one pound of beef, for example, requires around 2,400 gallons of water. In contrast, one pound of corn requires only 147 gallons of water, one pound of wheat requires 193 gallons and even one pound of water-guzzling rice requires only 299 gallons. The 2,500 gallons of water required to produce one pound of beef includes the massive amount of grain farmers feed their cattle. Additionally, 80 percent of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. ends up in the stomachs of livestock. Cattle not only require massive amounts of resources, but they also require massive amounts of land. Around 20,000 pounds of apples, 30,000 pounds of carrots and 50,000 pounds of tomatoes could be produced on one acre of land. In contrast, only 250 pounds of beef could be produced on one acre. The crux of the issue here is that we don’t get out nearly as much as we put in.
Raising animals not only requires an absurd amount of input, but it also produces a large environmental impact. The production of one pound of beef results in 35 pounds of lost topsoil, resulting in massive desertification of America’s grasslands. Many farmers also divert their animals’ waste to water sources, polluting 27,000 miles of rivers and streams in the United States. Some concentrated areas of animal waste produce oceanic “dead zones” where algae blooms monopolize all the oxygen and nutrients, eliminating all other wildlife. Livestock also contribute to global warming, emitting 16 percent of the world’s methane production. As meat consumption continues to gain popularity in developing countries, this figure will surely increase. All of these environmental effects, of course, impact the biodiversity of the areas. In Central America, ranchers have destroyed over 40 percent of the region’s rainforests to raise cattle, sacrificing a wide array of life forms for a meat-based diet In the U.S., as we continue to add meat to our plates meal after meal, we should think about this statistic as a cautionary tale.
Finally, meat consumption presents a sustainability issue because of its connection to both communicable and chronic diseases. For instance, 89 percent of beef ground into patties reportedly contains traces of E. coli. Livestock waste contains more than 40 disease-causing pathogens, and with a significant amount of manure diverted to flowing water sources, these microbes circulate fairly extensively. On the flip-side, meat consumption often correlates with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even cancer. The American Cancer society even lists processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic. The acute infections and chronic diseases brought about by meat consumption ultimately require incredible amounts of time, energy, money and resources to treat.
Although I only discussed beef in this article, every type of animal production requires extensive resources and produces more waste than a plant-based alternative. It’s important to note that there exists a complex dimensionality to this issue, and I strongly encourage everyone to conduct their own research and explore the many studies that have been conducted., But in the end, no matter where your research takes you, I think we all should come to a similar conclusion: reducing and even eliminating meat consumption provides a huge step toward improving the sustainability of America, and even the world.