Why Veg: Environmental Sustainability

Have any idea how much grain it takes to feed your average beef cow? What about the impact of eating fish on our country's natural waterways? Our everyday food choices, including whether or not to consume meat and dairy, have a tremendous impact on the health and sustainability of the entire planet.

Other Reasons to Choose Veg

Saving the Earth, One Bite at a Time

[from COK's Vegetarian Starter Guide]

Increasingly, the environment has become a dumping ground for toxins, chemicals, and widespread pollution. The water we drink is so contaminated, many are afraid to drink anything except bottled water. The air we breathe is tainted with ammonia, methane, and carbon monoxide. Raising animals for food is one of the leading causes of pollution and resource depletion today. Becoming vegetarian helps protect the natural environment.

Polluting Our Water and Air

The more than 10 billion land animals raised for food each year in the United States excrete massive quantities of urine and feces. According to a Minority Staff of a U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry report, the amount of farmed animal manure produced in the United States equals five tons of waste for every single human being. (1)

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the laws regulating animal waste are nowhere near as strict as those regulating human waste,(2) and the Sierra Club notes that the existing laws are often not enforced.(3) This is particularly alarming because the waste generated on factory farms can be hundreds of times more concentrated than untreated domestic sewage.(4)

The two most common techniques for handling waste on factory farms are manure lagoons and sprayfields. Manure lagoons can flood, burst, or leak, contaminating rivers, streams, and groundwater.(5) Nutrient runoff from sprayfields is another way waste enters our water sources.(5) The results can be devastating.

The Senate report mentioned above states: “Spills of liquid animal waste directly into water have an immediate environmental impact, choking out fish and other aquatic life … .The resulting hypoxia (low oxygen) from chronic nutrient enrichment can result in fish kills, odor and overall degradation of water quality.”(1)

Manure lagoons and sprayfields also pollute the air, by emitting ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulfide.

Wasting Resources

It takes more land, water, and energy to produce meat than to grow vegetarian foods. It’s several times more efficient to eat grains directly than to funnel them through farmed animals. According to the Audubon Society, roughly 70 percent of the grain grown and 50 percent of the water consumed in the United States are used by the meat industry.(7) A Minority Staff of Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry report states the beef in just one Big Mac represents enough wheat to make five loaves of bread.(1)

Does Eating Fish Also Harm the Planet?

While the factory farming of land animals contributes to ecological degradation, aquaculture and commercial fishing in the oceans also take a grave environmental toll.

Much of the biodiversity of the oceans has been depleted by “overfishing.” In order to kill large numbers of animals at one time, commercial fishers use sonar, spotting planes, and fishing nets large enough to swallow 12 jumbo 747 jets. While these methods clearly decrease the variety and numbers of ocean animals, aquaculture (factory farmed fish) is not much better for the planet.

According to the journal Science, a two-acre salmon farm produces as much waste as a town of 10,000 people.(8) Aquaculture farms dump waste, pesticides, and other chemicals directly into ecologically fragile coastal waters. Local ecosystems are destroyed, devastating both animal and plant life.

Choosing Sustainability

Becoming vegetarian not only saves the lives of countless animals each year, but also helps restore our natural environment. By avoiding animal products in our diets, we choose sustainability over ecological destruction, and take positive steps toward protecting our planet for ourselves and our loved ones.


  1. Animal Waste Pollution in America: An Emerging National Problem, Minority Staff of Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, 104th Congress, Dec. 1997.
  2. Michael Brower and Warren Leon. The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, 1999.
  3. Clean Water & Factory Farms, Corporate Hogs at the Public Trough, Perdue Farms, Maryland, Sierra Club, 1999.
  4. Howard Lyman with Glen Merzer. Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat. Scribner, 1998.
  5. # EQIP Restrictions For Large CAFOs: A Key to Saving Small Farms and Environmental Quality, Defenders of Wildlife, 2001.
  6. The Rap Sheet on Animal Factories, Sierra Club, 2002.
  7. Resolutions for a New Millennium, Audubon News, Jan. 1, 2000.
  8. Marcia Barinaga. Fish, Money, and Science in Puget Sound, Science, Feb. 9, 1990.