By Paula Moore
Swarms of giant hornets have killed dozens of people and injured 1,600 in central China in recent months. Experts believe that unusually warm temperatures in the region have enabled the hornets to breed more successfully. Jellyfish recently clogged water-intake pipes at a nuclear power plant in Sweden, forcing officials there to shut down a 1,400-megawatt reactor. Almost all jellyfish breed better and faster in warmer waters.
Most of us probably aren’t surprised to hear that events such as this past summer’s “biblical” flooding in Colorado and the loss of sea ice that has forced 10,000 walruses to come ashore on Alaska’s northwest coast are likely linked to climate change. But other effects of an increasingly warmer planet — such as those jellyfish — may be less expected. Experts warn that we should brace ourselves for everything from aggravated allergies and outbreaks of tropical illnesses in once-cold climates to increased interpersonal violence and global security threats.
The solution to these disparate problems may be just as surprising: Go vegan.
According to a new report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, raising animals for food contributes 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The biggest culprits are the beef and dairy industries, which are responsible for 41 percent and 19 percent of animal agriculture’s total emissions, respectively. Producing just over 2 pounds of beef causes more greenhouse-gas emissions than driving a car around for three hours.
A previous U.N. report found that the meat industry is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global,” including land degradation, air pollution, water pollution, water use and loss of biodiversity.
Our outsize appetite for meat is largely to blame for other global ills as well. While 870 million people worldwide don’t have enough to eat, enormous amounts of grain and soybeans are being fed to farmed animals — rather than to starving people. This is staggeringly inefficient, since it takes up to 13 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat. According to one estimate, climate change and erratic weather patterns could put another 24 million children at risk of going hungry by the year 2050. As increasingly frequent extreme weather events such as floods and droughts result in more and more harvest failures, we simply cannot afford to keep funneling these precious crops through animals first.
The meat industry also wastes a tremendous amount of water at a time when wars fought over water are no longer seen as the plot of a science-fiction novel but instead as a looming threat. According to Arjen Y. Hoekstra, a professor in water resources management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, 85 percent of global water use is related to agricultural products and, in particular, to animal products. Between watering the crops that farmed animals eat, providing billions of animals with drinking water each year and cleaning away the filth in factory farms, transport trucks and slaughterhouses, it’s easy to see why factory farming uses enough water to float the Titanic. “(I)f people are considering reducing their water footprint,” says Hoekstra, “they need to look at their diet rather than at their water use in the kitchen, bathroom or garden.”
A Gallup poll released earlier this year found that 58 percent of Americans “personally worry” about climate change. But worrying won’t prevent the blistering heat waves that are destroying crops and the rising water temperatures that are making our oceans fit only for jellyfish. Each of us can start eating our way to a smaller ecological footprint today simply by choosing tasty sustainable vegan foods that are easier on the planet and its inhabitants.