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Is Vegetarianism Essential for Green Living?

If your goal is to live lightly on the planet and embrace an eco-friendly lifestyle, at some point, you need to decide whether that means cutting meat out of your diet. People become vegetarians, meaning that they don’t eat meat, and even vegans, meaning that they don’t consume meat, dairy, or other animal byproducts, for health reasons, philosophical reasons, or both.

When you ask people why they choose to be vegetarians, they often tell you that they’re protesting against the meat industry’s production methods and treatment of animals. Others give up meat in favor of vegetarianism because they’re alarmed by health issues. Still others are concerned about the resources that go into the production of meat. Grain-feeding animals in a factory farm uses up a lot of resources — power for lighting and machinery and water to flush away effluent. Even though many farmers keep their cattle and sheep out in the fields, the animals’ diets often are supplemented with grain.

Researchers now use the word foodprint to indicate the amount of land that various diets require to sustain them; the idea is linked closely with the idea of a person’s ecological footprint. The bottom line is that a more sustainable diet requires less land per person. The popular notion is that a meat-free diet uses the least land and is thus the greenest, most sustainable way of eating. This is in part because animals consume feed grown on land that could otherwise grow crops for humans.

However, researchers at Cornell University recently added a new twist to this argument when they explained that, depending on the specific type of land that surrounds you, a diet that contains a small amount of meat and dairy actually can be more efficient than a straight vegetarian diet. That’s because vegetarian crops require higher quality land than the pasture land that animals need. So if your geographic area and climate offer more pasture land than crop land, it can be more efficient to eat a small amount of meat. (The Cornell researchers suggested an annual meat and egg intake that averaged out to approximately 2 cooked ounces per day.)

This argument over the greenest use of land for food, which is particularly applicable given the current emphasis on eating local food in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, demonstrates why green issues are rarely black and white and why one solution doesn’t necessarily fit all situations. So if you lust for a lamb shank and pine for a pork chop, you can still pursue a green eating strategy. Meat can be, and is, produced in the same organic and sustainable way that many fruits and vegetables are farmed. You can cut down your impact on the planet’s resources by reducing the amount of meat you eat and choosing meat from sustainably raised and humanely treated animals.

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