Improving the Environment through Vegetarianism

There are many strategies for dealing with environmental issues, such as using renewable energy sources, reducing industrial and motor vehicle pollution, and so on, but another one that has perhaps received less publicity is the damaging effects of meat production. Reducing the consumption of meat and encouraging vegetarianism are measures for protecting the environment that would not only make economic sense, but would also receive the support of most of the world religions.

In most societies, both developed and developing ones, meat consumption is considered a sign of affluence. One of the first aspirations that people tend to have when they rise out of poverty is to be able to eat meat. Although a diet rich in meat protein helps raise the nutrition level of undernourished people, nevertheless medical science has discovered that over-consumption of meat is detrimental to health. This is because it increases the chance of heart disease and some forms of cancer. From an economic point of view, although industrialized meat production gives employment to a large number of people, the long-term detrimental effects on the economy and on the environment outweigh those benefits.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production, namely from the urine and excrement of animals raised for food. Worldwide, just pigs and chickens alone produce a half million kilograms of excrement every second. That is sixty times more than the entire human population produces. The greenhouse gas emissions from this animal waste is 40% more than the emissions that come from all the motor vehicles, including airplanes and ships, of the entire world. Further, almost two-thirds of the ammonia emissions responsible for acid rain come from animal wastes.

If we look at the figures for everything involved in raising animals for food, the numbers are even more staggering. According to this United Nations report, 70% of all agricultural land and in fact 30% of all land on the surface of the planet are used to raise feed for animals, whereas only 8% is employed to raise food for human consumption; the rest is utilized for raising bio-fuels. Moreover, 28.4 million liters of water per second are used for farmed animals and for irrigating the crops raised to feed them. Soil erosion due to clearing forest land for growing this quantity of feed amounts to 40 billion tons of soil per year. If one calculates the fossil fuel consumption needed for raising animal feed, transporting it to feed mills and operating the mills, transporting the milled feed to factory farms and operating those farms, trucking the animals to slaughterhouses and operating those houses, transporting the meat to processing plants and operating those plants, and transporting the processed meat to stores and keeping it refrigerated, eleven times more fossil fuel is needed to produce one calorie from animal protein as compared to one calorie from plant protein.

These statistics clearly indicate the enormous cost to the environment and the global economy of meat production and consumption. And if the current trend continues, even more meat will be produced and more damage to the environment will ensue as a result. Such a trend is unsustainable and can only end in disaster. There is not enough land and not enough water to raise enough crops to feed the number of animals needed if everyone in the world ate as much meat as, for instance, people in the United States or even here in Hong Kong consume each year. The urgent question, then, is how to reverse this trend.

For those who follow no religion, common sense tells them that vegetarianism or at least reducing their meat consumption is the only logical course to take. This is especially the case if such people think about the consequences that their children and grandchildren will face if they do not improve their own short-sighted habits. For those who are only materialistically concerned, economics in addition tells them that the long-term negative impact of the current trend of ever-increasing meat consumption far outweigh the short-term benefits of profit from the meat industry.

For those who follow a religion or world philosophy, however, each of these systems of belief offers support for vegetarianism from their teachings. Buddhism emphasizes compassion for all living beings. Since all beings can be reborn in any life form, then the animals we raise for food and eat could very well have been our ancestors in their previous lives, and we and our ancestors could be reborn as animals in future lives as well. We would then think about the sufferings of these animals, for instance the life of chickens raised industrially in what some Buddhist teachers have characterized as chicken prisons. These poor chickens must spend their entire lives in cages that are twenty centimeters by twenty centimeters large and are never allowed to walk free. How would we like it if we or our ancestors had to live like that, only to end up as dog food or as chicken nuggets at McDonalds, fed to a child, half left over and thrown in the garbage?

Buddhist scriptural support for vegetarianism is found in the Brahmajala Sutra (The Brahma Net Sutra), translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva as Fanwang Jing ((梵網經). Abstaining from eating meat is one of the forty-eight additional precepts listed there as adjunct to the ten major bodhisattva vows. Based on compassion, then, Mahayana Buddhists in the East Asian traditions would stop eating meat as part of their bodhisattva vows. Saicho, the founder of the Tendai sect in Japan, in fact added this version of the bodhisattva vows and precepts as part of the monastic ordination.

Vegetarianism based on compassion for animals, although not explicitly mentioned in the Confucian teachings of Mengzi (Mencius), nevertheless are the logical conclusion one may draw from them. In a discussion with King Hui of Liang (梁惠王), Mengzi mentioned that he had heard that the king, when seeing an ox being led to slaughter for its blood to be used to consecrate a bell, had ordered its life to be spared and a sheep to be sacrificed instead. Mengzi instructed him, 

This was without fault; it was an act of love (仁術). It is how a gentleman (君子) is in regard to animals. Seeing them alive, he cannot bear to see them die; hearing their cry, he cannot bear to eat their flesh. Thus a gentleman distances himself from slaughterhouses and meat kitchens.

Mengzi was not advocating, however, that it was all right to eat meat so long as you do not see or hear the live animals. Instead, he used this example to advise the king to extend to all his people the same mercy (恩) that he showed to the animals. Although his advice was not to stop eating meat, this is the implicit message in his advice to show equal mercy to all men and all animals.

There are other spiritually supported reasons for not eating meat. In general, all Hindus honor the injunction in the Rg Veda not to eat the flesh of cattle or horses. In addition, those Hindus who venerate Vishnu and Krishna follow a vegetarian diet, as prescribed in the Yajur Veda. The texts give three main reasons for this. First is the importance of nonviolence, applied in this case toward animals. Secondly, the Ayurveda system of medicine warns that eating meat is detrimental for the mind and for one’s spiritual development. Thirdly, meat is considered impure and only pure food can be offered to the gods and then eaten afterwards as prasad, a gift from the gods.

The Jains are even more strictly vegetarian than any other religion. Vegetarianism is, in fact, mandatory for followers of this ancient Indian religion. This restriction is in accord with the great emphasis Jainism places on nonviolence and on purity in all aspects of life. Meat is considered completely impure.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam teach in common that God created animals for humans to use, however none of them teach that God created them for humans to abuse. Although according to Judaism and Islam, God forbade the eating of unclean creatures such as pigs, there are other scriptural indications of God’s intentions. Verse 15:20 of the Qur’an states, 

And we have made for you therein (meaning in the world God created) means of living and those (namely animals) for whom you are not providers for it (for their livelihood). 

This implies that God created other types of animals fit to be eaten, such as sheep, goats, and cattle, but it is not mankind’s responsibility to feed them, such as by growing special feed. In other words, God intended for them to graze freely for their sustenance and not to be industrially raised for mass consumption.

In short, most of the major world religions and philosophies give moral support to the conclusion drawn from economics, logic and common-sense, namely that the world needs to drastically reduce its consumption of meat, with as many people as possible following a vegetarian diet. But just because medical science, religion, philosophy, and common-sense tell us to stop eating meat or at least to cut down on the quantity and frequency of our consumption; nevertheless, unless people actually modify their behavior, they will gain no benefit.

Many people think that to follow a religion means just to pray, or for some, just to offer incense sticks. Transformation, however, is an internal process. No matter what external measures we take to protect the environment, the real work is changing our ways of thinking and behaving, based on understanding and accepting the reality of the damage mankind is doing to this planet. Such work can only take place on the individual level. It is each of our responsibilities to act intelligently and compassionately.