“I’ll have a number three, no onions, extra cheese. To go, please.” The cashier mindlessly punches in your order and hands you a number. After a short wait, your meal is handed to you in a paper bag, ready to be taken to the car and savored. After all, your health isn’t really important to you (or at least not important enough to resist the juicy temptation of the Dollar Menu). So, why not?
Most people don’t think about where their food actually comes from. But before it gets to the grocery store (or the drive through), everything we eat, including such delicious hamburgers, goes through a process that is– as Al Gore would say– an inconvenient truth.
As the human population continues to grow exponentially, worldwide meat consumption soars along with it. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that by 2050, meat consumption is expected to grow 70%. This holds devastating consequences for our biosphere (global ecosystem) and specifically, for the tropical rain forests.
Though other factors contribute, the agriculture industry is the single largest driver of global deforestation. The majority of this deforested land is used in the meat industry; it is turned into pasture for cattle grazing. In fact, according to the Center for International Forestry Research, the ratio of pasture to crop land in Brazil (the second largest exporter of beef in the world) is approximately 6:1. That’s before even taking into account the amount of crops used to feed livestock around the world.
Rates of both deforestation and its cousin, desertification, are increasing most alarmingly in rain forests like the Amazon. The NASA Earth Observatory predicts that if the current rate of deforestation continues, all of Earth’s rain forests (and the animals that live in them) will be completely obliterated within 100 years. These rain forests are perhaps the most important reserves of biodiversity on the planet, and are very important for advances in the medical field. The loss of the rain forests is much more than a few trees dying– it could mean a potential cure for cancer or AIDS is lost forever. Forests, especially those as dense as the tropics, are integral to the carbon cycle, and are often referred to as carbon sinks due to their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. On a more immediate level, deforestation would also displace the numerous indigenous people who live in tropical forests, stripping them of both their home and their culture.
In addition to the growing problem of deforestation, the meat industry plays a significant role in climate change, producing 14.5% of human-induced emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It is also extremely wasteful, especially in regards to the amount of fresh water used.
Of course, no one is expecting the entire world to become vegan. Meat is an important staple in many cultures’ diets. However, next time you order your number three, think about where that burger came from and what it took to get it to you, and consider asking for a veggie burger instead. Not just for the cows, but for the continued sustainability of our planet as a whole.
To read more about the differences between plant-based and meat-based diets on the environment, visit this article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Pacheco, P., Wunder, S., Mertens, B., & Kaimowitz, D. (n.d.). Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.cifor.org/publications/pdf_files/media/Amazon.pdf?&utm_source=http://blog.cifor.org/17312/seeing-the-forest-and-the-trees-brazils-transparency-in-deforestation-data?utm_source=Amazon Landing page&utm_medium=story link&utm_campaign=AMAZON Package&utm_medium=Further reading&utm_campaign=Blog featurePimentel, D., & Pimentel, M. (2003). Sustainability of Meat-based and Plant-based Diets and the Environment [Abstract]. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.U. (2014, October 21). Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htmUrquhart, G., Chomentowski, W., Skole, D., & Barber, C. (n.d.). Tropical Deforestation. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/tropical_deforestation_2001.pdf
Edited by: Daryn Dever