What if the whole world became vegetarian?

“Have you tried chicken yet?” I shook my head, puzzled by the question.”That’s why you’re a vegetarian.” That question takes me back to the fifth grade when I was in my french class and we were discussing food. Vegetarianism is more than not having tried “chicken”. It’s more than a diet of just salads as has been portrayed in popular television. Vegetarianism does have its health benefits, but that is not the excuse that the whole world should use to turn vegetarian. That does beg the question: should the whole world become vegetarian? As Albert Einstein once said, “vegetarian food leaves a deep impression on our nature. If the whole world adopts vegetarianism, it can change the destiny of mankind.” And I believe that it would, but not in a good way.

That being said, there are some benefits…

If the whole world became vegetarian, there would be a lot more virgin forest land. If the whole world became vegetarian, climate change would slow down. If the whole world went vegetarian, we would use less water.

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It’s a lot of water that’s being used, and one day who knows how much we’ll have left to drink?

Currently, the meat industry uses about 33 million square kilometers of land to raise animals  i.e. the size of the African continent. And the cows and other farm animals that are raised on this land emit large amounts of methane – a gas that is 25 times more planet warming than carbon dioxide gas. And finally, about 15000 liters of water are required to produce one kg of beef. So, what would a vegetarian world look like ? Imagine a world that would be have far more open spaces that are filled with green trees producing nourishing oxygen. The weather would be cooler, sea-side homes would not be at risk of rising sea levels and there would be plenty of fresh water for all of mankind.

Despite the benefits illustrated above, why is it that I believe the whole world should not wake up one day and suddenly turn vegetarian?

Research from Carnegie Mellon University seems to refute some of these claims. In the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it is suggested that they include more fruits, and vegetables, and less meat. However, researchers find that while benefitting the Americans, it has a negative effect on the environment. Following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, energy use would increase by 38%, water use would increase by 10%, and greenhouse gas emissions would increase by 6%.

Delving into the greenhouse emissions, it’s quite the opposite of what people would think. On a per calorie basis, production of lettuce, for example, emits as much greenhouse gas as the production of beef according to the Carnegie Mellon study.

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Lettuce being the green healthy vegetable is not so healthy for the environment, at least the production of lettuce isn’t.

And, when compared to the production of pork,  lettuce production results in greenhouse gas emissions that are approximately 3 times higher.

What would be the economic impact if the whole world turned vegetarian? According to the North American Meat Institute, the US meat industry employs approximately 6.2 million people directly and indirectly. That would be 6.2 million unemployed people in America alone if the jobs in the meat industry disappeared. France has 415,000 people employed in the French livestock industry (as per ilona Blanquet Interbev) and Germany has 108,000 people (as per Statista.com). The numbers in the rest of the world would be much larger given the lower levels of automation in these countries.

What would be the impact on our lifestyles if the whole world turned vegetarian?  Some of the simple things we buy at our favorite shops are actually made of animal byproducts. The handbags that women carry is made up of animal skin, and candles, makeup and even some cleaning products are made up of animal fats. In the absence of a meat industry, many of these products and their industries would cease to exist.

The main thrust of the argument is that a shift towards the whole world turning vegetarian would require a huge change in economic direction, not to mention a lot of research on alternative foods. Who is ready for such a huge change?

An anonymous SAS student who decided to become a vegetarian after a club meeting that discussed the treatment of animals spoke to me about her point of view on the world going vegetarian. “I am part of club that deals with global issues, and this one time we were focussing on the treatment of animals. We were talking about things like shark fins [used in shark fin soup]. I didn’t want to be a cause for that.”

When questioned on whether she would like the world to go vegetarian, she said that she would. “But it’s not realistic”. She quickly added. “Meat is a part of certain cultures. And it isn’t very realistic with the society because people who live in poverty mainly get their nutritional value from meat, taking that away would decrease their nutritional value.” However she did say that “people who can afford” to eat non-meat products should try.

It can easily be said that the world becoming only vegetarian or only carnivorous would not be a good thing. There has to be a point along the scale where these two meet. Cutting out meat altogether would have a drastic effect on the livestock industry. But if the meat consumption was cut down a little, the livestock industry wouldn’t suffer as much and the environment would certainly benefit. Sacrificing meat delicacies is one of the hardest things one has to do but in order to leave a better environment for our children, a little sacrifice is a small price to pay. As the saying goes, every big accomplishment starts with a little decision to try. And perhaps a starting point could be Meatless Mondays, a campaign restarted by Center for a Liveable Future in 2003 to help improve people’s health and the health of the planet.

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Let’s try to help the environment with Meatless Monday’s. One day of the week where there’s no meat. Nothing too drastic.

Do these small changes make a huge difference?  Relatively speaking, no.  Still, every opportunity to slowly observe the results of new approaches to a vegetarian existence is valuable, and such initiatives definitely get the world talking about this important and as-yet unanswered dilemna.

Author: Aditi Balasubramanian

Aditi Balasubramanian is a junior at SAS and a second year reporter for The Eye. This is her third year at SAS. She has lived in Singapore her whole life. In her free time, she enjoys writing, reading books and watching "Gilmore Girls" which may have fuelled her interest in being a journalist. She loves eating risotto, pasta and Indian food. She can be contacted at balasubram47401@sas.edu.sg.

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