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Don't Have a Cow! Vegetarian Diets for Green Living

Updated on March 6, 2015

Holy Cow! What are we Eating?

Want to live green? Well, don't have a cow!

No, I mean it. Don't eat red meat. Forgo the foul. And you'd better not wish for fish.

A plant-based diet is shown to be significantly more healthy and eco-friendly than one that includes beef, pork, chicken and even fish. Perhaps you've heard that claim and wondered about why vegetarian diets are a significant component of green living? In large part, it has to do with the way we raise our food today, compared to past practices.

With the rising demand for cheap meat, we have arguably reduced ourselves to the level of animals. We squeeze in hundreds, if not thousands, of livestock into small pens. There, we provide them unnatural feed (for example, corn instead of grasses), and then we vaccinate them so that the close quarters in which they live do not result in a spread of illness. Oh, and don't forget the hormones used to build a bigger, fatter steak or drumstick.

Have you heard of the chickens so heavy that they cannot walk?

Not only are these practices inhumane, but they harm the environment in which they are found. Methane gas emissions from cows are said to rival CO2 emissions from cars, trucks and airplanes when it comes to greenhouse gases. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria may be emerging from the fact that we attempt to kill off every bug that could impact the food supply.

Let's review some of the environmental concerns with factory farms, antibiotics, and animal feed.

There's plenty to go around. Just don't be a hog.

What if cows had a support hotline?
What if cows had a support hotline?

Famous Vegetarians

Is it More Eco-Friendly to Eat Plants?

Ask anyone you know who enjoys bacon or burgers, and you're bound to get a negative reaction to the idea that its more eco-friendly to live vegetarian.

However, there is plenty of evidence to support that theory.

If you're concerned about your carbon footprint, one of the most effective steps you can take to reduce it is to stay away from animal-based foods (meat, eggs, dairy). This is in large part due to the fact that it takes much more energy to feed and maintain livestock than it does to grow plants.

A 2005 University of Chicago study [entitled "Diet, Energy and Global Warming"] found that a vegetarian diet (one that includes milk and eggs) produces around 1.5 metric fewer tons of carbon dioxide a year, roughly the same impact as switching from a Chevrolet Suburban to a Toyota Camry. If milk and eggs are removed from the vegetarian diet, the energy savings are even greater.

Overall, livestock is said to result in a larger contribution to global climate change than transportation, producing an astounding 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Methane, anyone?

In addition to cow farts and belching to clog the air, enormous amounts of water are consumed to raise livestock. Compared to people that stick to a vegetarian diet, the average carnivore's diet requires fifteen times more water.

Geesh! I thought watering plants was resource-intensive....

And yet, there are two sides to every argument. In some areas of the world, it may actually be more environmentally-sound to raise chickens or cattle where the soil quality is poor, rather than grow crops.

Nonetheless, I'm betting that those regions are not serving up bacon double-cheeseburgers to their residents!

Eating Green Can be a Real Pleasure!

Suddenly, chicken doesn't seem like a healthy food choice
Suddenly, chicken doesn't seem like a healthy food choice

Just How Much of a Difference Can a Vegetarian Diet Make?

Given the average carbon footprint of raising meat for consumption, its not too difficult to see how your diet can make a global difference.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund:

If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains, for example, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads. And speaking of cars, it takes fuel to transport food, so buying from local farmers and ranchers cuts emissions even if you don’t cut out any meat.

If that estimate is not impressive enough, consider this:

If every American had one meat-free meal per week, it would be the same as taking more than 5 million cars off our roads. Having one meat-free day per week would be the same as taking 8 million cars off American roads.

These figures are based on the University of Chicago's "Diet, Energy and Global Warming" research paper, cited above.

The deplorable conditions of factory farms
The deplorable conditions of factory farms

Soy What?

If you are considering, or already live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, you are in great company.

A recent Harris Interactive Inc. survey for Vegetarian Times magazine estimates that 7.3 million Americans older than 18 are vegetarian, and more than a million are vegan -- 3.2 percent, and 0.5 percent of the population, respectively.

In part due to the growth of the vegan/vegetarian population - and also probably in an effort to encourage people to live a greener lifestyle - many grocery stores now carry impressive selections of soy-based products, meat alternatives and other inventories. You can find a great selection at Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's in the U.S.

According to the president of the American Vegan Society, Freya Dinshah, its much easier to live a vegan lifestyle today than it was 40-50 years ago. In the United Kingdom, as well, it is estimated that the market for meatless foods will grow 22% in the period between 2006-2011.

What can we do about our Fast Food Nation?

How Green Can you Go?

No matter your reasons for considering a vegetarian diet, you can be certain that it will be a green decision!

Even if you are merely cutting down on meat consumption, it can have a big difference- not only on the global community, but also on the green in your wallet.

What about Fish?

Fish has omega-3 acids and is much healthier than red meat or poultry, right? In theory, yes, but today's fish farming practices also have a negative impact on the environment.

Farmed fish may escape from pens and breed with wild fish, diluting stock and raising the incidents of illness and disease. In addition, some fish farms allow fish waste, uneaten food and chemicals to pass into surrounding waters, harming eco-systems and negatively affecting water quality. In other areas, wildlife that enjoy dining on seafood (seals, sea lions, birds) are harassed to keep them away, which can have an adverse impact, as well.

Be a wise consumer and research the source of your seafood and aquaculture practices employed.

© 2010 Stephanie Hicks


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    • Astralrose profile image

      Rham Dhel 

      4 years ago from India

      Just recently my husband and I watched a few documentaries about factory farms and it just so disheartening to be a participant in such horrendous practices. I mean, males chicks are macerated or suffocated because they don't have value for the industry. Others are debeaked, and couldn't walk because they have no room to walk around. Calves are taken away from their mothers right after they're born so milk can be collected for humans. Some milk might even have pus with it because most of these mother cows are having mastitis. I mean, if we have to look for an evil person, we just need to point out ourselves because by consuming their products we are paying somebody else to torture, abuse, kill these sentient beings who, as I observed, love their freedom to live just like I love my freedom to live.

      So, although my husband were vegetarian for 21 years, and I for 7 years, we immediately gave up our dairy a few days ago. I really hope Animal Liberation would come so soon!

    • read2rescue profile image


      7 years ago

      I love it! Thanks!

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Great work Wiebke! I'll bet your husband is happy about the vegetarian diet too :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Really nice post Steph! I've been a vegetarian for 18 years now and I feel good contributing to the reduction of emissions. Due to me being the cook in our household my husband is now meat-free 5-6 days a week. Makes me extra-proud :)

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks Amy! Its like a lot of efforts to go green - I believe that people should simply do as much as they can, considering their lifestyles and other constraints. Any little bit helps! Giving up meat completely may not work for some people, but preparing and enjoying vegetarian meals a bit more often can make a big difference. :)

    • amy jane profile image

      amy jane 

      9 years ago from Connecticut

      I love the way you have brought all the facts together here! As vegetarian (can't call myself a vegan at the moment) I completely agree with you. I know how tough it can be to give up meat altogether. I think it would make a big difference if people substituted just a few meat meals per week with veggies.

    • profile image

      how to invest in share market  

      9 years ago

      I am totally agree with you stephhicks.I am purely vegetarian and i always suggest other to be vegetarian.I am really loved all the points which you have taken in your article.Thanks for sharing this interesting article with us.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi cameciob, I am 100% with you. I am not a vegetarian, though I have cut waaay back in recent years, both because of green issue and also to manage my Type 1 diabetes. I love mushrooms, and my favorite (used to be side, now main) dish is steamed broccoli with caramelized onions. yum!

    • cameciob profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi Steph, I'm not a vegetarian and I don't think I'll ever be (though one more hub like this and I'm getting closer). But your suggestion with skiping one day the meat meal is great and I'll try to implement it. It should be easy if I plan it, maybe replace it with mushrooms. Thanks for great information.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Roberta - I hoped you would weigh in! Excellent points about being a wise consumer overall. Not all veggies are created equal :)

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      9 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Well, I saw Food Inc too and have read the Ominivore's dilemma and totally agree about factory farming, as you well know-- but don't think that going veggie solves the whole thing.... MOnsanto and big agribiz are closing in on flora as well as fauna-- chemical fertilizers and GMO's are not a pretty pictue and the energy used to cultivate and grow afield of soybeans is pretty intense--stuff that used to be done by people is now mechanized and uses petroleum-- irrigation and fertilization are energy intensive etc etc.

      The bottom line is whether carnivore or herbavore we need to be more conscious and connected to what we eat and how it is grown, cared for and harvested.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thanks for the great comment - I agree that there the videos should be seen, to help illustrate the issues at hand. Given the "green" topic of this hub, I thought it best to save the ethical animal treatment for a follow-up (with sufficient warning to younger kids and/or the faint of heart). Kudos to you for living a vegan lifestyle! Stephanie

    • theherbivorehippi profile image


      9 years ago from Holly, MI

      Fabulous hub! Obviously, being a vegan I agree with you 100% and I know what videos you are referring to in your comment above and I think that if more people actually witnessed how these animals are treated what kind of product they are consuming, including the anxiety, fear and heartbreak that the animals feel, I think more people would make more of an effort. Shame on people for thinking it's OK to keep a pig in a stall so small it can't even turn around....these are active animals or pumping chickens with garbage so they can't walk and don't even get me started on dairy cows. Animals are not ours to treat so inhumanely, abuse and torture. Thanks for the hub!

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Thank you Kerry - I totally agree. When I first started researching the issue almost 20 years ago, I was astonished. There are many disturbing videos and photographs of factory farming practices out there, but I just couldn't bring myself to include them in this hub. Just focused on green this time - ethical considerations more in the future....

    • kerryg profile image


      9 years ago from USA

      This is a really great overview of the environmental benefits of going vegetarian. I don't think the human race is capable of giving up meat entirely, but I think as more and more people learn about the horrible conditions and environmental consequences of factory farming that we'll see a lot more people going vegetarian or switching to sustainably raised, grassfed meat and animal products.


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