Bon Appetit: The Environmental and Health Benefits of Vegetarianism

Have you noticed that almost every “main plate” served at the dining hall consists at least partially of a meat product? There are certainly vegetarian options as well, but I have yet to enter a dining hall and see no meat option whatsoever.

As a lifelong vegetarian, this strikes me as odd. The concept of regularly consuming meat is so foreign to me that I am surprised when I see meat at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Growing up in a vegetarian household, I never questioned why we didn’t eat meat. When kids at school asked, I simply told them that it was because I didn’t like it. Yet when I was old enough, I realized that it wasn’t the taste I didn’t like; it is the method in which meat is produced and its environmental and health implications that I find problematic.

Many students, however, enjoy the meat options in the dining halls. If you grew up eating meat at every meal, why should you have to give that up in college? Well, I suppose you shouldn’t. But in reality, how many people actually eat meat three meals a day, seven days a week? The majority do not. Perhaps we should look at the impacts of having so much meat widely available to students at the 5Cs.

From an environmental standpoint, it is highly resource-intensive to produce meat as compared to vegetarian products. To put it in perspective, it takes about 16 pounds of grain or soy and 5,214 gallons of water to produce one pound of edible beef. Meanwhile, tomatoes only need 23 gallons of water per edible pound, according to G.E. Miller’s article “Frugality Through Vegetarianism.” The processes of producing beef and producing tomatoes are very different from one another, but vegetable crops are indisputably much more resource-efficient food sources than meat products.

Aside from resource use, the meat industry is also a huge contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions annually than all forms of transportation. That’s not a statistic that you might expect, considering how much emphasis is put on reducing carbon emissions from motor vehicles. Perhaps we are only looking at part of the problem. Companies that distribute meat products don’t want their consumers to know that the hamburger they put on your plate is playing a large part in global climate change. If you knew that, you might not be so inclined to dig in. Despite this, most people find it too difficult to eliminate meat from their diet entirely. 

Fortunately, minor changes can make a big impact; it’s not necessary to go vegetarian cold turkey (no pun intended). If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads. If 5C students started employing this practice, we could make our campus even greener. As a community that prides itself on its environmental sustainability, I think that the 5Cs would benefit from more widespread education on this issue.

If you’re not yet convinced that reconsidering your meat consumption might be a good idea, consider this: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarians are at lower risk for developing certain cancers, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. It is also the single most effective way to stop the progression of coronary artery disease, the most common cause of premature death in the U.S. Choosing a veggie option over a meat product at any given meal could be the first step toward a healthier you.

So next time you’re in line at the dining hall, think about switching out that sausage or popcorn chicken for your vegetarian meal of choice. It might make all the difference.

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