Click on an image below to learn about the environmental impact of your food choices.
You are using 40 times more fossil fuel per calorie consumed than if you chose a plant food. Fossil fuel is used to grow grain to feed cows; it takes 16 pounds of grain for each pound of cow used for eating. Added to the fossil fuel needed to grow a cow, the cow must be transported to a slaugherhouse, killed, and then refrigerated while being transported to consumers.
You could shower every day for 90 days with the amount of water it took to produce that 1/4 pound of beef (as John Robbins famously wrote in his book "The Food Revolution"). To make the biggest impact on your water usage, switch to a plant-based diet. That is much more effective than any other single thing you can do to conserve water.
The average American eats about 195 pounds of cow a year or about 1/4 cow. You will eat between 3 and 22 cows in your lifetime if you are eating the standard American diet, depending on how long you live. These are kind, gentle animals who can hold a grudge and like nothing more than socializing with their herd and nurturing their calves.
Many scientist have examined the relationship between the cows we eat and the amount of fossil fuel used to produce the animal food. For example, a Cornell ecologist wrote:
Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein, according to the Cornell ecologist's analysis.
Tracking food animal production from the feed trough to the dinner table, Pimentel found broiler chickens to be the most efficient use of fossil energy, and beef, the least. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle production requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1. (Lamb meat production is nearly as inefficient at 50:1, according to the ecologist's analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Other ratios range from 13:1 for turkey meat and 14:1 for milk protein to 17:1 for pork and 26:1 for eggs.)
A bit of a lighter touch started a social media discussion when New York Time blogger John Tierney compared the fossil fuel used by a car vs. a human bicyclist on the Standard American Diet (SAD) and concluded that the single bicyclist used more fossil fuel per mile than an automobile getting at least 24 miles per gallon. Driving is more efficient that walking in terms of fossil fuel usage when the food of the human is considered. Tierney wrote:
Michael Bluejay, who’s done some number-crunching at BicycleUniverse.info, says that walking is actually worse than driving if you replace the calories with food in the standard American diet and if the car gets more than 24 miles per gallon. He calculates that bicycling is a win for the environment because it’s 117 percent more efficient (in calories expended per distance) than walking is ....
The original source from Michel Bluejay said:
Most people think that bicycling doesn't use gas, but actually it does, indirectly. It takes lots of energy to produce the food for the cyclist's effort probably more than you thought.
Of course, we can't just stop eating, but we can definitely choose what we eat, and here's the kicker: meat requires much more fossil fuel to produce than vegetables and grains. How much more? About 68 times more for beef than for potatoes. The reason for this is simple: Cattle consume fourteen times more grain than they produce as meat. They're food factories in reverse. So it takes a lot more energy to produce that meat (as well as more land and water). We use absolutely horrific amounts of energy to grow grain to feed to cattle. In fact, over 80% of the grain grown in this country is eaten by livestock, not people. So in short, the more meat you eat, the more gas you waste.
Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University calculates that it takes nearly twice as much fossil energy to produce a typical American diet than a pure vegetarian diet. This works out to about an extra 200 gallons of fossil fuels per year for a meat-eater. This means that meat-eaters are "driving" an extra fourteen miles every day whether they really drive or not, when we look at how much extra fuel it takes to feed them.
In fact, meat production is so wasteful that walking actually uses more fossil energy than driving a 35 mpg car, if you get your calories for the standard American diet. (On vegetarian or vegan diets, walking uses less energy than driving.)
The same is not true of bicycling vs. driving, because bicycling is more than twice as efficient as walking (calories consumed per distance traveled). Bicycling uses less fossil energy than driving even if the cyclist were eating nothing but beef.4 But to focus on this misses the point. It's no bombshell that cycling uses less fossil energy than driving, no matter what you're eating. What's important is that meat-eaters use twice as much fossil energy as vegans whether they're bicycling or not.
The Worldwatch Institute is concerned about the environmental health of the planet as well as sustainability. They write:
Fresh water, like land, seemed inexhaustible for most of the first 10 millennia of civilization. So, it didn’t seem to matter how much a cow drank. But a few years ago, water experts calculated that we humans are now taking half the available fresh water on the planet—leaving the other half to be divided among a million or more species. Since we depend on many of those species for our own survival (they provide all the food we eat and oxygen we breathe, among other services), that hogging of water poses a dilemma. If we break it down, species by species, we find that the heaviest water use is by the animals we raise for meat. One of the easiest ways to reduce demand for water is to reduce the amount of meat we eat.
The standard diet of a person in the United States requires 4,200 gallons of water per day (for animals’ drinking water, irrigation of crops, processing, washing, cooking, etc.). A person on a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons a day.
—Richard H. Schwartz in Judaism and Vegetarianism
A report from the International Water Management Institute, noting that 840 million of the world’s people remain undernourished, recommends finding ways to produce more food using less water. The report notes that it takes 550 liters of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread in developing countries…but up to 7,000 liters of water to produce 100 grams of beef.
—UN Commission on Sustainable Development, “Water—More Nutrition Per Drop,” 2004
Let’s say you take a shower every day…and your showers average seven minutes…and the flow rate through your shower head is 2 gallons per minute…. You would use, at that rate, [5,110] gallons of water to shower every day for a year. When you compare that figure, [5,110] gallons of water, to the amount the Water Education Foundation calculates is used in the production of every pound of California beef (2,464 gallons),you realize something extraordinary. In California today, you may save more water by not eating a pound of beef than you would by not showering for six entire months.
—John Robbins in The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and the World
Waste disposal, like water supply, seemed to have no practical limitations. There were always new places to dump, and for centuries most of what was dumped either conveniently decomposed or disappeared from sight. Just as you didn’t worry about how much water a cow drank, you didn’t worry about how much it excreted. But today, the waste from our gargantuan factory farms overwhelms the absorptive capacity of the planet. Rivers carrying livestock waste are dumping so much excess nitrogen into bays and gulfs that large areas of the marine world are dying (see Environmental Intelligence, “Ocean Dead Zones Multiplying,” p. 10). The easiest way to reduce the amount of excrement flowing down the Mississippi and killing the Gulf of Mexico is to eat less meat, thereby reducing the size of the herds upstream in Iowa or Missouri.
Giant livestock farms, which can house hundreds of thousands of pigs, chickens, or cows, produce vast amounts of waste. In fact, in the United States, these “factory farms” generate more than 130 times the amount of waste that people do.
—Natural Resources Defense Council
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, livestock waste has polluted more than 27,000 miles of rivers and contaminated groundwater in dozens of states.
—Natural Resources Defense Council
Nutrients in animal waste cause algal blooms, which use up oxygen in the water, contributing to a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico where there’s not enough oxygen to support aquatic life. The dead zone stretched over 7,700 square miles during the summer of 1999.
—Natural Resources Defense Council
If you search for the amount of water it takes to grow cows for eating, you will see many variables considered and some different estimates. However, all the estimates are an order of magnitude greater than simply eating plants. Below are some favorite sources of these estimates.Water Footprint Network Water usage calculator from National Geographic for different types of food
The web site OneKind.org describes the social hierarchies among cows:
PETA also discusses cows hidden lives on their website, confirming cows' intelligence, sociablity and problem solving abilities.PETA Hidden Lives of Cows
Although the number of cattle slaughtered annually in the U.S. has been declining since it's peak in 1990, over 12,000,000 animals are estimated to be killed in 2014. (Link to source at Humane Society) World-wide cow slaughter is increasing as more developing countries try to emulate rich western diets.
These animals, raised in horrendous conditions, face ugly and painful deaths. Imagine a 2,000 animal hoisted by one leg to go through the slaugherhouse. While these gentle beings are legally required to be stunned before skinning, up to 20% pass through while still alive (and this is not illegal as long as "generally accepted practice."). Even locallyg grown cows face the same horrible death.
You are contributing to this suffering when you eat cows and wear leather. Try plants instead and know you are not spending your hard-earned dollars on torturing and killing animals.