Meat feeds few at the expense of many. For the sake of producing meat, grain that could feed people feeds livestock instead. According to information compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture, over ninety percent of all the grain produced in America goes to feed livestock(cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens) that wind up on dinner tables. 15 Yet the process of using grain to produce meat is incredibly wasteful. Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that for every sixteen pounds of grain fed to cattle, we get back only one pound of meat.
In Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe asks us to imagine ourselves sitting down to an eight-ounce steak. “Then imagine, the room filled with 45 to 50 people with empty bowls in front of them. For the “feed cost” of your steak, each of their bowls could be filled with a full cup of cooked cereal grains.”
Affluent nations do not only waste their own grains to feed livestock. They also use protein-rich plant foods from poor nations. Dr. Georg Borgstrom, an authority on the geography of food, estimates that one-third of Africa’s peanut crop (and peanuts give the same amount of protein as meat) ends up in the stomachs of cattle and poultry in Western Europe.
In underdeveloped countries, a person consumes an average of four hundred pounds of grain a year, most of it by eating it directly. In contrast, says world food authority Lester Brown, the average European or American goes through two thousand pounds a year, by first feeding almost ninety percent of it to animals for meat. The average European or American meat-eater, Brown says, uses five times the food resources of the average Colombian, Indian, or Nigerian.
Facts such as these have led food experts to point out that the world hunger problem is artificial. Even now, we are already producing more than enough food for everyone on the planet, but we are allocating it wastefully.
Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer estimates that bringing down meat production by only ten percent would release enough grain to feed sixty million people.
Another price we pay for meat-eating is degradation of the environment. The heavily contaminated runoff and sewage from slaughterhouses and feedlots are major sources of pollution of rivers and streams. It is fast becoming apparent that the fresh water resources of this planet are not only becoming contaminated but also depleted, and the meat industry is particularly wasteful. Georg Borgstrom says the production of livestock creates ten times more pollution than residential areas, and three times more than industry.
In their book Population, Resources, and Environment, Paul and Anne Ehrlich show that to grow one pound of wheat requires only sixty pounds of water, whereas production of one pound of meat requires anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 pounds of water.
And in 1973 the New York Post uncovered a shocking misuse of this most valuable resource, one large chicken-slaughtering plant in the United States was using one hundred million gallons of water daily, an amount that could supply a city of twenty-five thousand people.
But now let’s turn from the world geopolitical situation, and get right down to our own pocketbooks. A spot check of supermarkets in New York in January 1986 showed that sirloin steak cost around four dollars a pound, while ingredients for a delicious, substantial vegetarian meal average less than two dollars a pound. An eight ounce container of cottage cheese costing sixty cents provides sixty percent of the minimum daily requirement of protein. Becoming a vegetarian could potentially save you at least several thousand dollars a year, tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime. The savings to America’s consumers would amount to billions of dollars annually. And the same principle applies to consumers all over the world. Considering all this, it’s hard to see how anyone could afford not to become a vegetarian.