Vegging Out

AMY MROTEK | OPINION COLUMNIST

Hailing from a state where beer-battered-brat tailgating is held up as a sacred ritual, the noun vegetarian stands out like a swear word.

I get a lot of brow raising and heavy headshakes when I tell people I limit my meat consumption. It’s nearly always good humored, followed by a smile and an “I could never do that!” As omnivores, humans have nibbled themselves into a convenient evolutionary niche. The planet is brimming with things to roast over a fire and pair with a nice side salad and Cabernet.

Yet even today, the word vegetarian elicits barefooted hippies swaying around a campfire, wearing flowy linens and sporting untrimmed beards. Cue a little Fleetwood Mac drifting through daisy-dotted fields.

And while I do enjoy me some Fleetwood Mac, it’s not so much this curated hippie culture that nixes the animals from my plate. It began with a pinch of curiosity and ended with a steaming-hot stew of environmental ethics.

There is an alarming disjoint that exists between the farm and Festival Foods. Most of us, including myself, roam the aisles in idyllic ease with row after row of colorful products. The simplicity–or, perhaps, the duplicity–of this weekly grocery trip is a contemporary phenomenon, a streamlined excursion made possible through canning, freezing and other modern methods of food preservation.

The byproduct of this funny little food chain, however, tastes a whole lot like obliviousness. We’re eaters who don’t really know what we’re eating, where it came from, and how it was cut, cured and chemicalized onto our plate; that doesn’t exactly settle the stomach.

Meat is no exception. Animal agribusiness accounts for nearly 45 percent of the planet’s land use, a number that includes not only the physical space Bessie’s four legs touch but the land used for her grazing—if she even openly pasture grazes—and the land used to grow feed crops. Worldwide, more and more animal agribusinesses are turning industrial as meat consumption –and therefore livestock numbers—are projected to nearly double by 2050s from 280 million tons/year to 465 million. And like the good ole’ capitalists we are, corporations high-five this demand through concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms. The equation isn’t complicated: stuff more animals into less land to satisfy more hungry barbecuers while government subsidies keep the animal’s corn and soy feed costs down. Yay!

There’s nothing wrong with people wanting to eat meat, and there’s nothing wrong with companies stepping up to that craving. It’s when that industry starts skirting health and environmental rules that ropes get tangled.

Raising animals for grub guzzles 56 percent of freshwater consumption in the U.S., with the majority going toward growing feed crops. One pound of burger patties sitting in the freezer takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce; a pound of chicken breasts almost 1,142 gallons. And even more feeding fun? The world’s cattle population alone consumes a quantity of food that matches the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people – more than the entire human population on Earth. Yippee!

On the other end of things, livestock produces 116,000 lbs. of waste per second. Those cow pies directly produce methane, which is 25-100 times more destructive than CO2 and nitrous oxides—a whopping 296 times more destructive than CO2. In total, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations estimate that between 18-51 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse emissions come straight from animal agribusiness. That percentage range may seem large, but even at its lowest equals a carbon footprint higher than all fossil fuels combined. Hooray!

Now remember all those companies salivating to get into the meat game? Turns out there are about 10 major meat producers worldwide, and only four in the U.S. produce 80 percent our meat (Cargill, Tyson, Smithfield and Hormel Foods). Mergers and acquisitions! Sexy stuff!

None of this even touches the air pollution, antibiotics, growth hormones and habitat loss snarled into industrial agribusiness; the price tag of meat-based versus vegetarian-based meals and the real elephant in the room, the ethics behind taking life.

But hey, now I’m being too much of a hippie.

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