It can be puzzling to some people why vegetarians exist – why not eat meat? It’s a luxury that many people indulge in, in the developed world, and, increasingly in the developing world. Vegetarians have their reasons, though, as one can assume. 3.5% of the US population claim to be vegetarian, and that number seems to be rising. This is an amazing number, as even three decades ago, vegetarianism was considered a fringe culture – something for eccentrics. As we become more knowledgeable about our food and food system, vegetarianism seems to be a good option for some people. Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons.
Concentrating animal meat production into centralized locations is a recipe for environmental degradation – both locally and worldwide. There are huge concerns about animal waste polluting waterways, increasing nitrate levels in aquifers and rivers to toxic levels in some cases. Animals consume huge amounts of energy to create relatively little in the way of edible product – for every 16 calories of grain fed to cattle, for instance, only 1 calories of meat makes it to the plate. There is also the housing, transport, and processing of the animals to consider. All of this adds up to animal production being one of the dirtiest industries in the world – some estimates suggest that it emits 20% of global greenhouse gases.
Animals are treated like products in the meat industry – they have been, quite literally, industrialized. Thus, profitability is a priority over the comfort and natural rights an animal might have. The centralization of animal production into fewer hands worldwide has packed huge numbers of animals into small spaces – cattle, poultry, and hogs are routinely abused as a result. Some vegetarians choose to abstain from meat for this very reason.
Not only does becoming a vegetarian effect the world, but the body, as well. Many health studies show that the vegetarian diet is largely beneficial to health. Vegetarians have lower early mortality rate, longer life spans, and have a decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. This is most likely due to a decrease in the amount of saturated fat and LDL cholesterol in their diets, as well as an increase in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. There may not be a direct correlation between vegetarianism and health, it may just be that vegetarians are generally more health conscious than the average eater. Whatever the reason might be, in the end, vegetarians have a significantly increased chance of being overall healthier.
Some religions suggest abstaining from meat. Some Buddhists and Hindu are vegetarian because they believe in compassion towards all living things. Some Christians even become vegetarian because of their own interpretation of the Bible.
As stated earlier, meat production is inherently inefficient – too many calories go in, and not enough come out. If this grain were to be fed directly to humans, rather than be filtered through animals first, there would be more calories overall to go around. Certainly, global hunger is not the result of too few calories at present – clearly it’s an issue of global capitalism and distribution – but supply will be an issue in the coming years. Rather than relying on the next green revolution to take hold, not eating meat frees up plenty of calories for more people to subsist on.