Sunday, July 13, 2008

Vegetarianism and the environment – a different angle

“It takes soo much less land to produce a calorie of energy from vegetables than from meat. If only we all ate less meat we could free up so much land from farming.”

This type of message is heard quite often, especially around my suburb, which is renowned form its high concentration of hippies. But on what basis are such claims made?

There is no debate that less land is required for a vegetarian diet than an omnivorous one. The debate centres on whether widely adopting vegetarianism is likely to result in an improved environment.

Let us meander through a thought experiment. Imagine the world today, and the present diet of the people, and then imagine that in one day 95% of people decide to become vegetarian. Meat industries of the world collapse while grain and vegetable farming expands rapidly. At this point the world is fed on the new diet, and some land previously used for grazing is now vacant. This is the utopia envisioned in the quote above, but what happens next?

The world does not stand still, that is for sure. There are many flow-on effects. The typical diet will now be cheaper, allowing money to be spent elsewhere. Not only will this consumption have environmental impacts of its own, but the increased level of wealth will allow a population increase. Such a rise in population will result from increased life expectancy afforded by increased wealth. More people will also require more resources. The likelihood of such effects offsetting the reduction in land used for meat production on the net environmental condition of the globe is uncertain.

What is certain is that such a narrow justification for individual actions to reduce environmental pressure is misleading, and can often suggest the opposite result from the true eventuality.

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