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ISSUE 120 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/13/2006

Meat costs environment, Caf

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, October 13, 2006

While it is no longer the "Year of Sustainability," St. Olaf is still in the process of greening. With the wind turbine and the new science complex completed and underway, it seems time to re-examine our eating habits through an environmental lens.

Bon Appétit has taken some initiative with the "Eat Local Challenge," which offers food from local vendors, reducing the environmental impacts of consumption. But there is a lurking environmental foe that remains: Meat, when consumed at the rate of the average American, is terrible for the environment.

The consumption of large quantities of meat is unsustainable on several fronts. First is land use. Eighty-seven percent of all agricultural land is used to raise livestock. That means that less than 13 percent of agricultural lands (some of the crops grown in the United States go to alternative fuels as well) can be used to produce foods that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says should compose the bulk of our diet, such as breads, fruits and vegetables.

It might seem unbelievable, but when the needs of livestock are considered, it makes perfect sense. For example, it takes 8.4 pounds of corn to produce every one pound of pork raised. According to Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer, decreasing U.S. meat consumption by 10 percent would free up enough grain to feed 60 million people.

Meat consumption also impacts water supplies. Growing wheat consumes one five-hundredth to one-thousandth of the water used to raise one pound of meat, with animals such as chicken on the low end and beef on the high end of consumption. Granted, corn and other crops consume lots of water, but the cost is still lower than the cost of meat because more people can be fed with the product.

The waste produced by large-scale farming is also astronomical. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, each household produces 20 tons of livestock manure per year. Cows alone produce 40 pounds of manure for every one pound of edible beef. And, unfortunately, the manure doesn’t end up as fertilizer. Much of it is simply dumped into the surrounding rivers and lands. The Environmental Protection Agency signed a deal letting thousands of factory-farming operations off the hook for such practices, even though this pollution contaminates drinking water with dangerous levels of waste.

We can’t keep this up, either. The production of crops to feed animals causes massive soil erosion and depletion of soil quality. Over-farming land increases the stripping of nutrients from the soil, making it less usable in the future.

Bringing fossil fuels into the picture only makes it grimmer. To produce one hamburger, an amount of fossil fuel equivalent to driving 20 miles in a compact car is used. One third of the fossil fuel in America is used by animal agriculture. The kind of energy savings created by not eating meat would significantly ease the fuel crisis America finds itself in today.

The picture I’m painting isn’t ugly enough yet. I’ll finish with fertilizer use. Nitrogen fertilizers are some of the worst offenders with regard to environmental and human health. Every pound of nitrogen fertilizer puts out 3.7 pounds of carbon dioxide during production. Runoff from farms often gets into water, causing sickness in surrounding communities. These emissions can be hard to track, especially when farms are located close together.

In light of this information, it seems just plain stupid to keep eating meat. And it should make both the students and the school weigh the benefits of continuing this destructive practice.

Unfortunately, most students won’t remove meat from their diets on their own. After all, meat tastes good; it’s worth our children and grandchildren living in a polluted environment with poor drinking water and unusable soil. St. Olaf should step in and give students a boost by refusing to make the product available.

In all fairness, Bon Appétit has done a very good job handling the issue by buying hormone-free meat and line-caught salmon and attempting to buy locally. Still, it isn’t enough. To remove a large portion, if not all, of the meat from our diets would considerably decrease demand for the product, and create an immense change in the local environment for the better.

Variety Editor April Wright is a sophomore from Eagan, Minn. She majors in biology and in English.

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