Is vegetarianism really sustainable?

‘Mum, I don’t want to eat meat anymore.’

I was twelve and enthusiastic in my eco cause. Mum was busy with having to cook for six and less enthusiastic about a further complication.

She told me to give her several excellent arguments, preferably written and properly researched. Then she would consider letting me eat a meat-free diet.

So I went off and buried myself in my eco books and Internet searches.

Some of the stuff I found about ‘environmental reasons to give up meat’ surprised twelve-year-old me. A lot of it I’d never considered before. And some of the ‘against’ arguments began to broaden my mind.

I’ll illustrate some of the meat issues I found then, which still hold true now, by the example of a fictional cow. We’ll call her Daisy.


I’m fattening up Daisy, over several years, for the purpose of eating her when she’s reached decent proportions. Whilst she’s growing, she’s eating, drinking, producing copious amounts of waste, farting and occasionally getting ill.

She eats a lot, does Daisy. In fact, I have to give her up to 20 kilos of feed to get one kilo of meat. If I just ate the grains I’m giving her, I’d get up to twenty times as much food.

She’s one thirsty cow, as well. As is her feed, which in turn needed water to produce. Fifteen and a half thousand litres of water go into every kilo of her meat. That’s more than a year’s worth of baths.

Unfortunately, a lot of the food she eats and the water she drinks is wasted. I have to clear away 40 kilos of manure for that kilo of beef. There’s a lot of stuff like phosphorus, nitrogen and phosphate in there, which is fine in small amounts but, if too much of it gets into the soil and water, creates huge pollution problems.

Daisy also farts. She does this copiously and frequently, creating nearly 37 kilos of CO2-equivalent gas for each kilo of meat. This makes up a pretty huge portion of greenhouse gases to further global warming.

When she gets ill, I have to give her medicine. That ends up partially in the meat I’m going to eat, and partially in her waste, which in turn might end up in the soil or in ground water.

After a couple of years of this, she’s finally a good size for eating. It’s a shame I can’t eat all of her, though- a lot goes to waste. In the commercial industry, some of this waste is sold as pet food and some of it is processed into feed and fed to the next generation of beef cows. That’s right. The cows have to eat dead cow. When I was twelve, that floored me.

All in all, the one kilo of meat I now have on my plate has had one heck of a distasteful journey, giving me plenty of reasons not to eat it.

Why, then, is vegetarianism maybe not what it’s cracked up to be?

One of the biggest issues with forgoing meat, but eating other animal products, is what I call the ‘what-about-the-guys’ problem. If I’m using Daisy for milk instead of meat, I’m getting a lot more food value, but she’s also having calves. If they’re girl calves, brilliant, more milk- but I only need so many bulls for breeding and so the rest are useless. If I don’t eat them, what happens to them? The same goes for egg chickens in the factory farms of today: male chicks get killed. So by refusing to eat them, they go to waste anyway.

Most other ecological arguments against being a vegetarian- such as the impact of irrigated farming land on soil erosion- aren’t very sound and are disputed.

All in all, I think that being a vegetarian is ecologically sensible. Being a vegan is better for the environment, as said above, but if you can’t do that, veggie is still a good way to go.

When I showed this evidence to my mum- several months had gone by- she finally said yes to the no-meat diet.

‘But you’re eating fish, milk and eggs.’ she warned, ‘-or you can cook for yourself.’

For now, I can live with that. She is, as she says, the one doing the cooking.

~ this whole wide world


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