The Environment And A Plant-Based Diet
By: James Robert Deal
Excerpt from Chapter 10
Our impact on the physical environment is enormous. Of course, much of the
problem results from burning fossil fuels, contamination of the environment
with pesticides and other chemicals, our exploding population and the
concomitant usurping of land from wild animals and plants.
However, a significant part of our impact on the physical environment is a
result of the foods we eat and how we produce them.
In a nutshell, the connections between our diet and the physical environment
are as follows, in no specific order:
1) Grazing in some areas has created and enlarged deserts.
2) Deserts produce less biomass than verdant lands, and so they absorb less
carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even today entire forests are being cut
down to graze cattle and grow the corn and soy to feed them.
3) The growing of corn and soy and feeding it to animals consumes vast
quantities of energy, impoverishes the soil, and wastes food that could be fed
to humans or used to produce fuel.
4) To spur growth of corn and soy the phosphate fertilizer industry has arisen,
and its production releases vast quantities of toxins, some of which we put
into our water in the form of fluoride, a substance one should avoid.
5) Animal husbandry consumes vast quantities of water.
6) Animal husbandry contaminates surface streams and wells.
7) Food animals produce vast quantities of methane that worsen the
8) Food animals produce vast quantities of manure, which pollute rivers and
estuaries and wipe out aquatic animals.
9) Domesticated animals in confinement are fed antibiotics on a massive scale,
so pathogens develop resistances to antibiotics. These antibiotics become
useless to treat humans infected with those pathogens.
10) Humans contract many diseases from confined animals and from eating
animal products. Google the new United Nations report on the disastrous
effect of livestock on the physical environment entitled “Livestock’s Long
Half of the earth’s land mass is grazed by livestock. Alan B. Durning and Holly
B. Brough, Worldwatch Institute.
Edward Abbey, speaking to cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985,
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what
you might call cow burnt. Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the
American West you find hordes of cows.
They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers.
They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the
native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of
They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the
exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds.
Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies
and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it,
you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.”
Lands in the Western United States — and elsewhere — are being turned into
deserts by the grazing of cattle and sheep.
Billions of tax dollars are spent to subsidize ranchers by renting federal land
to them at below-market rates.
Ranchers have little financial incentive to stop the overgrazing on public
lands, and recent token increases in rents only motivate ranchers to overgraze
Much of this land was once covered with knee-high grass; along streams
there were trees; it was populated by buffalo, elk, and deer. The grass has
been replaced with tumbleweed and creosote plants, and stream banks have
been destroyed by the hooves of grazing animals.
Some 728 million acres of western rangeland was opened to herds of cattle
and sheep in the late 1800s. With only 15 inches of rain per year, this fertile
land was unable to bear the load.
Ranchers put their herds onto land too early in the spring and intentionally
overgrazed land to keep out other potential claimants.
Fertile topsoil has been mostly lost on 575 million of the 728 million acres.
This land should never have been opened to livestock grazing in the first
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the United Nations enacted the Convention to
The economic cost of desertification has been pegged at $43 billion; it affects
areas on all continents including such countries as Spain, Portugal, and
It obligates countries that have signed it:
“To adopt national measures to combat erosion and soil degradation both by
working through measures to prevent climate change and eliminating land uses
which destroy the environment, including over cultivation and overgrazing.”
The United States refuses to sign the treaty.
The Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula were once forest and savanna but
turned into a desert at around the time that humans began herding animals.
This desert continues into Iraq, northern India and China, and it continues to
expand in part as a result of grazing by domesticated animals.
The Aryan Invaders of Europe and the Semitic Invaders of the Middle East
came west from areas desertified at least in part by their herds.
Henry Bailey Stevens recounts a story in his book The Recovery of Culture,
which highlights the effect of grazing animals on forests:
“Some years ago” says Hugh H. Bennett, chief of the United States Soil
Conservations Service, “I visited Dr. L.T. Shear at Princeton University, on his
return from the excavation of the theater at ancient Corinth. I asked the
famous archaeologist how deep he had to dig to reach the theater. ‘Forty feet,’
he said. Then I asked where the covering material came from. ‘Washed down
from the adjacent hillsides where most of the vegetation had been removed by
goats,’ he replied.” Henry Bailey Stevens.
Can the damage be undone? The Israelis have demonstrated that deserts can
be rolled back to some extent by planting drought resistant trees on the edges
of deserts and by gradually expanding the planting into desert areas as they
However, this process requires that lands not be used for grazing by
domesticated animals. Nevertheless, every author I have read assumes that
pasturing animals “responsibly” will be part of the picture.
It is exceedingly difficult to pasture animals responsibly, except perhaps in
very small numbers.
Virtually all pasturing degrades the land and interferes with native plants and
Visionaries talk of converting much of the West back into a buffalo commons.
The West would be able to produce more income for its residents as a place
for tourism than as grazing land.
Tourists would come from around the world as they come to the wild life parks
in Africa. Pinion-juniper trees, cut down by ranchers—probably to starve out
the Indians who relied on them for food —, could be replanted, and they would
yield a small fortune in pine nuts.
For those who must have meat, it would make far more sense to harvest wild
bison than to erect fences and raise cattle and sheep.
The only semi-ethical way to eat the meat of large animals is to eat only wild
animals, and to kill them in ways that do not terrorize them or cause them pain,
by darting them first with anesthetic, and killing them without them ever
Ninety percent of all soy and 80 percent of all corn grown in the United States
is fed to livestock. (Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet.)
Most of the land we cultivate grows food to be fed to animals. Most of the
nutrition in the food fed to these animals is expended by them just to stay
warm and move about.
In the production of eggs, 74 percent of the protein chickens consume is lost
as is 75 percent of the protein that dairy cows consume to make milk.
In the production of chicken protein, 77 percent of protein eaten is lost; as is
86 percent of the protein pigs eat to make pork protein; as is 96 percent of the
protein cows eat to make beef protein; and as is 97.5 percent of the protein
sheep eat to make mutton protein.
Roughly sixteen pounds of grain is fed to a cow to produce one pound of
beef, although some say this figure is too high. Billions of malnourished
people could be fed with the 15 pounds that are lost in the livestock cycle.
(Aaron Altschul, Scientific American, February 1974.)
Because humans cannot digest grass, this inefficiency might make some
sense if it were only grass that these animals were eating.
However, their grazing days end and they are “finished” (fattened up) on
grain. Of course, if we did not feed grain to animals, there would be more grain
left over that humans could consume, so the alternative would be to use the
excess to feed the starving and grow biomass, which would be used to
produce paper, cloth, fuel, and energy.
The same acre that can produce 10 kilograms of beef protein per year can
produce 15 kilograms of lamb or pork protein, 30 kilograms of milk protein,
around 180 kilograms of barley, wheat, rice, corn or potato protein, 200
kilograms of green pea protein, 500 kilograms of cabbage protein, or 800
kilograms of protein in the form of greens. (William Harris, M.D., The Scientific
Basis of Vegetarianism)
Feedlots and dairy farms produce mountains of manure, far more than can be
turned into fertilizer. A dairy cow produces around 120 pounds of manure and
urine per day.
These wastes are flushed into “lagoons.” They are often sprayed with high-
pressure nozzles onto open fields.
The stench is so overpowering that neighbors are often forced to move away.
These wastes inevitably flow into ditches, streams, rivers, and estuaries. It is
illegal to spray manure in winter, when soil is frozen or saturated with rainfall,
but farmers do it anyway.
Lagoons and other waste handling equipment are often subsidized with state
and federal money.
In Snohomish County, Washington, just north of Seattle, where I live and work,
a law has been passed which protects the right of dairies, feedlots, and farms
in general to produce bad odors.
Sellers must give written notice to buyers of land, which is within a certain
distance of agricultural land, that there may be odors that they will have to
Having received such notice, buyers are barred from suing over the stench.
Washington state law provides:
“Agricultural activities conducted on farmland and forest practices, if consistent
with good agricultural and forest practices and established prior to surrounding
nonagricultural and nonforestry activities, are presumed to be reasonable and
shall not be found to constitute a nuisance unless the activity has a substantial
adverse effect on the public health and safety.”
While the number of dairies continues to drop, those that remain enlarge their
herds to keep up with rising costs. Dairy cows no longer graze in grassy
fields; most spend their entire lives in feedlots where they often stand in
Vegetables and fruits irrigated with water polluted by dairies and feedlots often
harbor deadly E. coli bacteria.
Drinking water wells have been contaminated. The Washington Department of
Ecology says there is more dairy manure pollution flowing into rivers than
industrial and human waste combined.
There is little enforcement of pollution control laws. There are too few
inspectors, and there is political pressure against shutting down violators.
Stockyards, chicken ranches, and slaughterhouses add to the endless supply
of manure, urine, and blood that is washed into rivers and estuaries.
I read articles about the coming extinction of salmon in Puget Sound in which
clueless reporters express bewilderment as to why the salmon are
I debate with myself whether there is a conscious cover up between the
connection between the manure and the death of the salmon. Or whether
reporters presume that dairy products and meat are absolutely essential and
therefore have top priority. In either case there is a twisting of values.
Half of all fresh water consumed in this country goes directly or indirectly to
raise livestock. Certain aquifers are being permanently depleted; water that
accumulated during the last Ice Age is being “mined.”
If present practices are continued, Mid-Western aquifers such as the Ogallala
will not completely recharge until the next Ice Age.
Instead of building expensive new water facilities, we should just quit
producing animal-based foods and in the process save the grain and water
that are fed to animals.
To produce a pound of tomatoes requires only 23 gallons of water, but to
produce a pound of beef requires 5,214 gallons. Tom Aldridge and Herb
Schlubach, “Water Requirements for Food Production.”
Throughout the world forests are being cut down to provide pasture to
animals and grow corn and soy to feed them. This results in the loss of 7
billion tons of topsoil per year.
According to John Robbins:
“Two hundred years ago, most of America’s croplands had at least 21 inches of
topsoil. Today, most of it is down to around six inches of topsoil, and the rate
of topsoil loss is accelerating. It takes nature 500 years to build an inch of
topsoil. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service reports that over 4 million acres of
cropland are being lost to erosion in this country every year. That’s an area
the size of Connecticut.” (Diet for a New America.)
Mangrove forests are found in river mouths and estuaries throughout the
tropics, from Taiwan to India to Central America, wherever sand beaches do
not build up because of ocean currents. I have paddled and swum through
shallow mangrove estuaries in Mindanao.
Half the world’s mangrove forests have been ripped out and replaced with
prawn farms. Such farms pollute surrounding rice growing areas and poison
They often fail after a few years and are abandoned, leaving ugly muddy
waterholes. Mangrove forests are the nursery of aquatic life. When you
remove the mangroves, the wild fish have no place to lay their eggs, and this
eliminates the wild fish which millions of fisher folk rely on.
In British Columbia, hundreds of salmon farms have been set up. Salmon are
fed several pounds of fishmeal for every pound of salmon meat produced.
Because these animals are confined, they tend to be diseased and so are fed
Because they do not eat the same fish that wild salmon eat, their flesh does
not turn pink, and so they are fed dye. Farmed fish are often fed corn and soy,
and thus they contain lower levels of the essential fatty acids found in wild
Farmed salmon are infested with sea lice, which are controlled through
chemicals introduced into their feed. Swarms of sea lice latch onto passing
wild salmon and dramatically diminish wild salmon populations.
I should point out that it is possible to farm fish in a way that is not degrading
to the environment. For thousands of years the Chinese have raised four
species of carp together, each feeding on different naturally occurring plants
Humans add only vegetation to fishponds. Filter-feeding clams and mussels
can be raised in cages suspended offshore where they suck in and eat
Shellfish could provide an almost infinite food source. Unfortunately, experts
advise limits on shellfish consumption because in the process of filtering
water, they concentrate PCBs in their tissues.
Although the human population of the world is around 6.6 billion as of 2007,
the farm animal population of the world is around 15 billion: 1.3 billion cattle,
2.7 billion pigs, sheep, goats, horses, buffaloes and camels, and 11 billion
However, other estimates of the total domesticated animal population are
much higher, up to 40 billion. The recent United Nations report entitled
Livestock’s Long Shadow says 48 billion fowl are slaughtered yearly.
Perhaps the lower number represents the number of animals alive at any given
time while the higher number represents the number living and being
The impact of such large numbers of animals on consumption of grain, water,
fuel, and energy and also their production of fecal waste and methane is
Confined animals are a breeding ground for resistance to antibiotics, and so
the cost to our health will be great in the long run.
Every time you drink milk, eat cheese or ice cream, put butter on your potato,
or eat beef, pork, eggs, or chicken, you are doing your small part to further the
world’s environmental degradation.
You might respond: I am only eating a few pounds of animal products each
week. That’s such a small impact; it doesn’t matter that much.
The problem, of course is that there are 6.6 billion people, all of them making a
small impact. You can make a small impact in degrading the environment, or
you can make a small impact in improving it.
Oil, coal, and gas contain carbon that was buried millions of years ago.
Burning them puts greenhouse gasses back into the atmosphere and thus
contributes to global warming.
Burning of coal is the biggest source of mercury pollution. Mercury goes up
the smokestack and ends up in the oceans. It has done more than anything
else to make fish a toxic food.
We burn fossil fuels to produce fertilizer and grow food for farm animals.
Ninety percent of all soy and 80 percent of all corn grown in the United States
is fed to livestock.
If everyone in the United States adopted a vegan diet tomorrow, then all this
mass of oil seed and biomass could instead be used to feed hungry humans
and produce biodiesel and ethanol.
If we grew as much biomass and oil seed and did not feed it to animals, the
product saved would be available to replace oil and coal.
If the right kind of biomass were grown, it would enrich the soil.
If biomass, grain, and oil seed fed to animals were used instead to produce
biodiesel and ethanol, and if as much additional biomass, grain, and oil seed
were produced as possible, and if solar, wind, wave, and tidal power, and
power from the temperature differential of ocean water at different depths were
all harnessed, would there be enough energy to replace petroleum, gas, and
Biodiesel burns better than petroleum diesel and produces fewer unwanted
emissions such as carbon monoxide, sulphur compounds, and ozone,
although it does produce more nitrogen oxides.
Tailpipe emissions smell like French fries being cooked. Ethanol made from
corn, sugar cane stalks, and other forms of biomass has a high octane rating
and burns cleaner and cooler than gasoline.
Corn makes a poor biofuel because it takes almost as much fuel to produce it
as it yields. Green fuels recycle carbon; burning carbon from plants after
those plants have taken in the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere in
order to grow.
In the greenhouse gas debate, carbon dioxide is mentioned most. Methane is
largely ignored. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a hundred
years and is increasing slowly but surely.
However, methane is 24 times as potent a greenhouse gas as is carbon
dioxide, and methane levels are increasing faster than carbon dioxide levels.
Methane is responsible for half of human-induced global warming. The major
human induced source of methane is animal agriculture, with methane coming
from animals expelling gas and from the decay of manure.
Methane production from animal agriculture continues to rise: Meat
consumption has increased from 44 million tons in 1950 to 242 million in 2002.
There are massive quantities of methane dissolved in arctic tundra, which is
already being released as more and more tundra thaws.
Too there are staggering quantities of congealed methane hydrate ice in the
mud at the bottom of oceans around the world. As ocean temperatures rise,
this methane may melt and gassify and “burp” upwards into the atmosphere.
The only good news about methane is that it persists for only eight years
before being reabsorbed out of the atmosphere. This means that “going
vegan” can do more to reduce global warming in the short term than buying a
Al Gore says not a word about the connection between domesticated animals,
methane, and global warming in his An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe this is a
truth just a little too inconvenient for middle-of-the roader Al.
The environmental outlook is grim. I feel fairly certain that calamitous change
will occur. Al Gore suggests there is still hope, but I doubt it.
Runaway global warming will occur and we may see devastating effects in our
lifetimes, including rapidly rising ocean levels, along with droughts and other
forms of climatic instability.
When there is instability, the outcome is unpredictable. The world could keep
getting hotter, or deep ocean currents could be disrupted, and the world could
be plunged into a new Ice Age.
In either case billions of humans could be displaced or killed.
Sleepwalking humans will not change their ways until they are forced to
change, and by the time they are forced to change, it will be too late for there to
be a “soft landing.”
I hope that we will wake up before it is too late and mend our ways—and
change our diet.
Both of the political parties, which govern us, are capitalist. Republicans are a
little more short term about their capitalism than are Democrats.
But they are both “crony capitalist” in orientation, meaning that they irrationally
subsidize and protect moneymaking industries such as the saturated fat
I must admit confusion as to why Republicans do not adopt the global
warming issue: Republicans own most of the waterfront property that is going
to be flooded as oceans rise.
For all the reasons outlined above, I hope you will agree with me when I say
that one cannot be an environmentalist without being a vegan or moving
strongly in that direction.
By: James Robert Deal
Excerpt from: The Environment and a Plant-Based Diet