International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo 35th World Vegetarian Congress
'Food for all our futures'

Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland
July 8-14, 2002
Hosted by

The Vegetarian Society
of the United Kingdom

Why environmentalists aren’t vegetarian

by David Pye, IVU Treasurer, VSUK Trustee
Thursday, plenary session.

First of all I want to say that the subject of this talk is not intended to alienate environmentalists but rather to look at the reasons why such dedicated folks turn a blind eye to what must seem to this audience to be a natural progression for anyone concerned about the future of this planet and its descendents.

So why is it that vegetarianism causes the environmentalists blinkers to be applied? Well I have been in the environmental movement for over 15 years now spending a lot of time in the early years with the UK Green party, standing as a candidate in many local elections and helping to form policy. I first became acutely aware of these blinkers back in the late 1980s at a Green party conference in Wolverhampton. A group of us had gone to a nearby coffee shop and were discussing green politics and environmental issues. I was chatting away to a party activist when the subject of vegetarianism came up and I mentioned that I was a vegetarian. My acquaintance immediately announced that although he thought it was a good idea in principle he stated.

I haven’t got time to be a vegetarian, I am far to busy saving the planet’.

Well I have no doubt that he was very busy saving the planet and has probably advanced the environmental cause but at the expense of ignoring one of the most fundamental and simple ways that a person can make a positive effect on the environment. This is a good example of how the ‘eco blinkers’ can be applied and justified.

Another reason I have come across that busy environmentalists use to justify their meat eating is too state that ‘I am not really interested in food I only eat because I have too!’ Such a singular lack of interest in food except as bodily sustenance is used as an excuse to ignore the arguments for vegetarianism.

This whole issue came home to me quite recently. I am a Trustee of an environmental charity and the charity is looking to merge with another environmental organisation. I am negotiating along with two other trustees to agree a common set of aims with representatives of the other organisation. My charity has a charter which includes a very general clause ‘to protect both wild and domesticated animals from abuse and exploitation’. To my amazement I was asked by the other organisation to consider removing this clause as it could be seen as protecting farm animals and this might be problematic for their members!

So here again the eco blinkers are up and the total failure to see the ‘bigger’ picture emerges once more. The plight of animals and their exploitation is conveniently forgotten. Well needless to say there is no way that my charity is giving up its modest clause on animal protection.

One anti-vegetarian argument that crops up again and again with environmentalists is the ‘organic’ one. ‘I only eat organically produced meat’ you will here them cry. The logic being that it is perfectly alright to exploit, abuse and slaughter animals so long as those animals are fed on an organic diet free of chemicals and drugs.

There is a companion argument to this which is based on ‘self-sufficiency’ and goes something along the lines of . ‘I want to be organically self-sufficient, grow my own vegetables, rear my own farm animals, look after them well and go on to slaughter, cook and eat them.’ Well there are a very small minority of people who have achieved this aim but for most people who expound this argument it is an ideal which they can never achieve and is used as a excuse to carry on eating meat until they can realise their dream in some far off fantasy future. Such people may well purchase the occasional organic hunk of dead animal that has been nurtured on a chemical free diet but the majority of their meat products will still come from the supermarket shelves along with the rest of the UK population.

So how do we as vegetarians counter these arguments? Well actually it is not too difficult as those important issues both global and local which are so dear to the environmentalists heart all form part of the argument for vegetarianism. So let us have a look at these issues and the ways in which we can gently introduce the environmental benefits of becoming vegetarian.

Protection of the natural environment.

Most important here is the effect that farming has on the natural environment through over fertilisation through excessive use of nitrates and of course the effluent and transport problems caused by factory farming. The UK has over 200 million farm animals (that’s poultry, pigs, cattle and sheep). The majority of these animals are kept in intensive or semi-intensive production units. These animals are fed high nutrient food to achieve high productivity. As a result of this demand for animal feed over three quarters of UK agricultural land is given over to animal feed production or grazing. The effluent produced by these animals in the relatively small area of land that they occupy become pollutants in the general environment. There is a direct link between the demand for high productivity meat production and environmental pollution.

Third world economies.

EU production and consumption of selected protein-rich raw materials for animal feed 1995/96 (1000 tonnes of protein). Source: European Parliament, 1999

raw material

protein production

protein consumption

% consumption grown in Europe

soya (seed+cake)





















Looking at the slide we see the amount of home produce protein (2nd Column) Actual consumption (3rd Column) and in the third column the % actually grown in Europe.

The European parliament has stated that ‘Europe can feed its people but not its animals’. Europe imports 70% of its protein for animal feed this is on top of using large proportions of its own arable land. Much of these imported feedstuffs come from countries suffering from poverty or environmental degradation. 95% of world soyabean production is used for animal feed. In the UK, 39% of our wheat, 51% of our barley and 75% of our total agricultural land is used to feed animals. Worldwide one third of grain production is used for animal feed.

A report for Friends of the Earth has estimated that in 1995 the UK alone made use of over 4,000 square kilometers of land abroad for growing the soyabeans we imported, over half of them in Brazil. Brazilian smallholders have been displaced to make way for the soyabean plantations and have often moved to the North East of the country, where they may become involved in rainforest destruction.

The EU statistical office showed that in 1997 European Union countries were provided with nearly 90,000 tonnes of sunflower seed and cake by the countries of central and eastern Europe. Senegal and Argentina provided 34,000 tonnes and 81,000 tonnes of groundnut cake respectively. Thailand and Indonesia provided 2.6 million tonnes of cassava (a cereal substitute). Indonesia and the Philippines provided over 300,000 tonnes of coconut cake and nearly a million tonnes of palmnut residue was provided by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand together.

In addition to plant-based materials, in 1998 the UK imported 92% of its fishmeal, mostly from non-EU countries such as Iceland, Norway, Peru and Chile.

Water Shortage

Much of the water used for agriculture is not recoverable, because it passes through the plants and evaporates from the leaves and stem. Large amounts of water are consumed per hectare of crop. Estimates show that 1 hectare of maize (or corn) requires 4 million litres of water in the growing season while another 2 million litres of water evaporates from the soil. Soyabeans need 4.6 million litres of water per hectare and wheat needs 2.4 million litres per hectare. (Slide 9)

Slide 9: Quantities of water needed to produce one kg of crop. (Source: Pimentel, 1997)


Litres water/kg of crop





Maize (corn)






What effect does this have on animal production? Well if we take into account the large amounts of feed that highly productive animals need to eat, it has been calculated that 1 kg of animal protein typically takes 100 times as much water to produce as 1 kg of plant protein. To take the example of beef, the production of 1 kg of beef would need 100 kg of forage and 4 kg of grain. This means that the production of 1 kg of beef takes between 100,000 and 200,000 litres of water, depending on the growing conditions. 87% of the fresh water consumed worldwide is used for agriculture. Clearly meat production is a very inefficient use of water

Global warming.

The global warming or ‘greenhouse effect’ is a natural process in which gases in our atmosphere absorb heat radiated from the earth and re-radiate it, preventing the earth from losing all its heat back into space. It is not clear how much global warming is due to emissions of human-generated greenhouse gases (typically carbon dioxide) which increases the natural greenhouse effect but it is certain that we are generating large quantities of greenhouse gases from intensive animal farming.

Animal production involves the emission of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuel energy, nitrous oxide emissions from the use of inorganic fertiliser and methane emission from cattle digestion and manure.

All farm animals produce carbon dioxide by normal respiration. The amounts emitted by one animal per year are about 4,000 kg for cattle, 400 kg for sheep and 450 kg for pigs. This compares with about 300 kg for a human being and 5,500 kg for a typical passenger car.

Lists the major pollutants and there effects and the % from agriculture

Agriculture and pollution

Source: Carter et al., 1999


environmental impact

% from agriculture


acid deposition, nitrate



nitrous oxide

climate change and damage to ozone layer


nitric oxide

acid deposition



greenhouse gas



eutrophication of fresh

waters and salt waters,

groundwater contamination,



Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although its concentration in the atmosphere is relatively small. It is increasing by almost 1 percent per year. Farm animals and animal manure contribute about 87 million tonnes a year, about 15% of all methane production worldwide.

Nitrous oxide also contributes to the greenhouse effect as well as depleting the ozone layer. A 1994 report estimated that 80% of the current annual increase in nitrous oxide production is due to agriculture. Oxides of nitrogen are also one of the major causes of ‘Acid Rain’.

Ammonia gas is also produced by farming and is responsible for 80% of the total 350 million tonnes released each year in the UK. Ammonia cause nitrate leaching and acid rain.

Over Fishing

Aquaculture (Fish farming) is the fastest growing sector of the world food economy, increasing by 11 percent a year. This growth was expected to relieve pressure on ocean fish stocks, most of which are now fished beyond capacity, and to provide a reliable source of food to a world population that adds 78 million people each year.

Paradoxically, new studies show that the increasing trend toward farming carnivorous fish means that many types of aquaculture are contributing to a worldwide collapse of wild fisheries.

Production of a single pound of fish eating species such as shrimp, salmon, tuna or cod demands two to five pounds of wild caught fish that is processed into meal and oil for feeds.

A new study has discovered that traditional aquaculture – which is farming fish that eat plants and bottom muck - is being replaced by modern intensive farming of large, carnivorous fish because overfishing has decimated these fish in the wild. Even in Asia, the ancient home of aquaculture, vegetarian fish like tilapia and carp are now being fed fishmeal and fish oil for faster weight gain and marketability.

So here we have the crazy situation, we are catching fish to feed to fish. So fish farming instead of alleviating over fishing is actually making it much worse.


A quote from a passage out of the excellent 1999 CIWF report on Factory Farming and the Environment.

"Animal farming is the most environmentally costly way of feeding the world. The production of animal protein is a highly inefficient use of land and water resources. Farm animals convert plant protein to animal protein with a low efficiency - typically around 30 - 40 % and only 8% in the case of beef production. Four kg of grain fed to a pig produces one kg of pork. An estimate from Cornell University is that the water requirement for beef production is over 50 times as much as for rice production and 100 times as much as for wheat production. The United States Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that halving the average US household’s meat consumption would reduce food-related land use by 30% and water pollution by 24%. Compassion in World Farming Trust’s recent book, The Meat Business, argues that global factory farming could lead to environmental and social devastation. In the next two decades the problem of how to feed at least 8 billion people while protecting our natural resources of land, water, air and wild species will become increasingly urgent. The spread of intensive animal farming throughout the world cannot be seen as a sustainable solution."

So here we have it, how can the environmentalist answer these arguments? We have only touched on a few of the reasons why vegetarianism is the natural way forward for anyone concerned with saving the environment. There are many more reasons we could look at and for those who are interested there is a session on Friday to explore this topic further.

So in conclusion, please don’t blame the environmentalists for not being vegetarian, they are doing a good job. It is unfortunate that so many of them are meat eaters but lets keep this in perspective.

So go easy on the environmentalist, introduce your vegetarian reasoning and the environmental argument in a gentle way. Show them that reducing meat consumption or taking up a vegetarian diet is the only certain way of halting the environmental destruction caused by modern animal farming. All the facts are in the vegetarians favour this is one argument we can’t fail to loose.