As you might guess from the vegetarian stations in both campus dining halls and the prevalence of all-vegetarian restaurants, Chapel Hill is a pretty veg-friendly place.
Vegetarianism is a growing trend, and herbivores often cite reasons like health benefits, finances and personal ethics for choosing this lifestyle. However, a less studied aspect of vegetarianism is its impact on the environment. Is it better for the earth for everyone to lose their veg-inity?
According to a 2005 study from the University of Chicago, the carbon footprint of a vegetarian is much smaller than that of someone with a diet rich in hot dogs and hamburgers. The study reported that the average vegetarian who consumes the same amount of calories as a meat-eater contributes 1.5 fewer tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s the same reduction as switching from a Suburban to a Camry.
This is mostly due to the amount of fossil fuel needed to produce meat. It takes 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of beef and 22 for one of poultry. One calorie of soybeans, on the other hand, requires just one of fuel. (Remember, a calorie is technically just a measure of energy.)
Why is this? Plants need things like sunlight, soil and fresh air, but an animal requires food. Raising animals for consumption adds an extra energy-intensive step to the food chain.
Much of the grain grown in the U.S. today isn’t even intended for humans, but rather for livestock. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Imagine how much bread (or beer) could be made with the 16 pounds of grain that goes into four quarter-pound hamburgers.
Livestock also produce their own greenhouse emissions; cattle are a huge source of methane, which is more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. And livestock require grazing land, adding to the global deforestation problem.
Many argue that pescatarians (those who eat only seafood) have found a middle ground that’s easier than full-fledged vegetarianism but is still eco-friendly. Pescatarians have lower emissions than typical meat eaters.
Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks. Fishing reduces marine diversity, and fisheries have become similar to factory farms — energy-intensive and filled with pollution.