The Ethical Imperative of A Collective Human Adoption of Vegetarianism

An essay, by Emma Hitchens

           As inhabitants of Earth, humans have an ethical duty to care and help sustain the environment to ensure the capability of future use. Earth’s atmosphere and natural resources are in jeopardy due to the actions and lifestyles of the human population. Humans are the only moral agents on this planet and are thus charged with the procurement of environmental welfare and sustainability. To fulfill this moral obligation that humans have to the planet as the only known rational thinkers, it is imperative that a collective human action takes place, which is the adoption of the vegetarian diet. Both natural resource overconsumption and pollution are consequences of meat production and affect the planet in more ways than one. Natural resources such as water, land, and the energy in the food system are directly affected by the side effects of meat production. Pollutants such as manure, methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide are contaminating oceans, other water sources, and the air. To remedy the devastation to the environment through depletion of natural resources and pollution directly caused by meat production, a collective adoption of vegetarianism is necessary and will remedy the Earth’s current environmental state.

            The collective adoption of ethical vegetarianism is not a call to end the agony caused by slaughterhouses or to end the painful practices used by meat producers worldwide. Instead, ethical vegetarianism must be adopted collectively because of the human obligation to protect and preserve the environment. The benefit of giving livestock the same moral value given to other human beings is a positive ethical outcome from this crucial collective action. Ethical vegetarianism is “to live without killing animals or causing them any suffering.”[1] The ethical vegetarian does not consume any dead animals and, in some cases, will not consume milk, eggs, or honey. Throughout history, moral, health, and religious teachers have advocated various forms of ethical vegetarianism. In earlier European cultures, vegetarian diets were seen as the purest of lifestyles.[2] Some religions still hold these beliefs and require followers to refrain from consuming specific kinds of livestock. However, some “vegetarians have been viewed as outside the boundaries of normal or respectable society” in the past.[3] This stigma is still sometimes held today, but vegetarianism is an environmental option that, if it were to become more commonly accepted, would benefit the human population immensely. There are moral questions that attempt to discern the moral obligation that humans have to animals and thus the obligation to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. Ethical philosophers have long discussed if animals are equal to humans. The arguments for a moral obligation to animals lie with the fact that humans are the only rational beings and, for those who believe in certain spiritualities and religions, have souls.[4] Regardless of the argument for the moral obligation to animals facing slaughter, humans do have a moral obligation to the Earth. This is true because, in order to provide a livable environment for future generations, humans must maintain the Earth’s biodiversity and natural resources. Without the security of these resources, future generations will not be able to be sustained, thus endangering the life of billions of humans yet to be born.

According to a national survey conducted by The Vegetarian Resource Group, only 3.4% of adults responded stating that they were vegetarian.[5] Although 36% adults reported eating one or more vegetarian meals per week, it is necessary that there be a collection human vegetarian diet adoption to make a lasting and meaningful impact on the environment.[6] It is imperative because the current condition of industrial agriculture is unsustainable. Natural resource depletion and pollution are making the land, air, and water less viable for future agriculture each year. The vegetarian diet, if collectively adopted, would decrease the amount of natural resource depletion and pollution that the environment is currently facing.

            The term food system involves all the processes used to create food for our planet’s occupants. Agricultural production, capture, processing, preparation, consumption, and waste disposal are all involved in the food system. To first produce agriculture, which includes crops and livestock, land must be utilized. To meet the food demands of the Earth’s increasing population, land must be exploited and industrial agriculture must be utilized. Local farms alone can not support the demands for food that the 7 billion people on this planet require. As of 2015, 38% of the Earth’s surface was used for agricultural processing while the United States used 45% of their land resources.[7] Nearly half of our country’s land is being used for food and about thirteen million hectares of forest are cleared for agriculture each year.[8] Agriculture is the largest contributor to biodiversity loss due to this destruction, diminishing natural resources such as lumber as well as oxygen production. Rainforests, the largest contributors to oxygen production on the planet, have faced “continuous destruction in Central and South America.”[9] The destruction of forests for agriculture results in less carbon dioxide being converted into oxygen. Less oxygen production as well as land and topsoil loss is a major environmental issue that must be fixed so that future generations can grow crops. Without oxygen security and viable land for farming, the Earth will not be able to feed the increasing population. This means a lack of natural resources and populations of hungry individuals across the globe.

Currently, there are approximately 56 billion land animals produced on 38% of Earth’s surface each year, which indicates overexploitation of agricultural lands.[10] The land that is currently used to produce meat must increase due to the increase of meat consumption in first-world countries and the increase in population trends. The already unsustainable amount of land being used for meat production must increase which will result in more of the Earth’s viable land being used for meat production. Currently, 25% of land that is used for food production is degraded “due to such things as topsoil loss, microbial diminishment, and nutrient depletion.”[11] The percentage of land that is currently being used for crops and livestock production will soon be no longer viable for farming and meat factories. This will leave the human population without viable land and not a supportable amount of food.

The loss of viable land is a direct result of meat production. About 56 million acres in the United States alone are used to feed livestock. Conversely, only 4 million acres are used to grow crops for humans to consume (PETA).[12] Crops currently used to feed livestock are diminishing available crops for the human population. In fact, vegetarians use 20 times less land than the average meat-consumer, proving that vegetarians live a more Earth-friendly and eco-sustainable lifestyle.[13] A diet that includes meat wastes land resources now and assists the destruction of viable topsoil for future generations by overusing our current land resources.

            The Earth’s water resources are also becoming more and more diminished each year due to agriculture production. In the United States, 80% of freshwater is used for agriculture while 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture worldwide.[14] Due to the high demand for meat production, crucial freshwater sources, such as North America’s Ogalla Aquifier, are being depleted at such high rates that they cannot be replenished.[15] It is not possible for the Earth to sustain 7 billion people’s eating habits without using an excessive amount of water and land, however, livestock’s overuse of this water supply limit the amount of water, 30% worldwide, that is left for humans to use. Livestock needs water and consumes crops that require water. Decreasing livestock consumption decreases the percentage of water that is not consumed directly by humans. The 786 million people on this planet that lack access to safe drinking water would benefit from a decrease in the amount of freshwater used for meat production because more water would be available for direct human consumption.[16]

The massive quantities of animal waste are polluting and seeping into lakes, rivers, and oceans. This, often toxic, manure kills wildlife and pollutes not only the water, but also the air. For example, a typical pig factory produces “7.2 million pounds of manure annually” and a typical cattle feedlot will produce 344 million pounds of manure annually.[17] Manure from livestock created each year is about 130 times more that of humans. A conservative estimate by the Environmental Protective Agency indicated that livestock excrement has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states.[18] Pollution and water depletion are shrinking viable resources of water for future generations’ agricultural production. This pollution also directly affects the amount of water that is drinkable for the current population. With such a high population of humans without safe drinking water, it is a moral requirement to help those individuals by making water more readily available. A collective adoption of vegetarianism would not only save animal lives but would save human lives through water preservation.

The massive quantity of waste does not only pollute the water through runoff and septic rivers and lakes but also, it affects the air immensely. Manure releases high quantities of gasses into the atmosphere, which affects global warming and air toxicity. Typical factory farms for pigs found that manure contains ammonia, methane, phosphorous, cyanide, nitrates and carbon monoxide.[19] Gasses like phosphorous and nitrogen are partly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture is responsible for 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions which, along with deforestation for agriculture, makes agriculture the number one contributor to greenhouse gasses.[20] The immense amount of greenhouse gasses produced from agriculture is a direct cause of biodiversity loss and the pollution of air and water. Adopting a “non-meat diet would significantly reduce the ecological impacts of our diet” because the detrimental environmental impacts of agriculture would be greatly reduced.[21] Humans are morally responsible for these impacts thus it is imperative that humans collectively adopt the vegetarian diet.

            Those who eat meat but understand the ecological effect of their diet may argue that the “organic” and “locally” raised meat products remedy their meat diet instead of supporting a collective human adoption of vegetarianism. Although the health benefits of eating organically may prove significant, “organic” and “local” meat products do not eliminate the effects of the meat industry on our planet. In fact, “local” meat may even prove to be worse for the environment than it is perceived to be. Currently, the United States only has 0.7% of its cropland certified as organic.[22] According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), they do not have a definition for the term “organic” on food labels and is not defined by law or regulations that the FDA enforces. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines specific organic standards and has regulations in place for organic labeling. Standards include not administering medications in the absence of illness and not using synthetic internal parasiticides on a regular basis.[23] Therefore, organic meat production results in less toxic manure entering our water.

Although these regulations prevent animals ingesting bacteria and pesticides that result in toxic manure, the same amount of manure is being produced. Thus, an immense amount of methane, phosphorous, and nitrous oxide are still being produced and are entering the atmosphere. Greenhouse gasses are still being generated and negatively impact the Earth’s atmosphere, biodiversity, and water resources. Also, regulations are not very severe for misusing the organic label. According to the USDA, any person who sells or labels their products as organic knowingly “shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $10,000.”[24] Minor regulations that are not strict can result in misuse of the organic label on foods that use pesticides and antibiotics.[25] Without severe penalties and ability to misuse the organic label, industrial agriculture can use pesticides and unethical farming practices unbeknownst to consumers.

Locally raised meat products are another alternative that is proposed as a way to help the environment’s current condition while retaining meat consumption. However, locally grown food is not as ecologically friendly as it is friendly to local economies. According to the USDA, there is no generally accepted definition of “local” food. However, the total distance a product may travel and still be considered as locally produced is less than 400 miles from its origin or within the state in which it was produced. The average American meal travels approximately 1,500 miles from farm to plate.[26] Meat products are able to travel a maximum of six hours on a truck and still be considered local, although they can be worse for the environment. Smaller transportation vehicles carrying smaller amounts of meat produces more pollution by vehicles. Just as riding the local bus with many individuals is better for the environment than driving your own vehicle by yourself, food that travels in large quantities by train can have a smaller carbon footprint than food transported in smaller quantities by truck over a shorter distance.[27] Therefore, the local food consumer may be harming the environment even though local economies may prosper.

Locally produced food does not mean that the food is produced without pesticides or maltreatment of the animals. In fact, local farms tend to be small or medium-sized farms that lack clear rules that mean, “growers must determine which regulations apply to their situation and who is responsible for developing and enforcing regulations.”[28] These uncertainties are also related to food safety, processing, on-farm production, and post handling practices. These vague regulations make it possible for farms to cut corners by cutting costs and using non-ecological practices by using pesticides and antibiotics. Also, with the current practices of United States consumers, it is nearly impossible for an individual to only ingest locally grown and pesticide-free meat products. Almost 99% of all farm animals in the United States are produced in factory farms, which indicates that locally grown farms hardly make a difference.[29] Almost all meat consumers will purchase and consume meat originating on factory farms and thus it is unethical to consume meat because of the “overconsumption of natural resources” “methane and nitrous oxide, two examples of greenhouse gasses,” and “manure, which contaminates water when poorly managed.”[30] Locally produced and organically produced meat will not reverse these effects but vegetarianism on a global scale can reduce both pollution and depletion of natural resources.

            Supporters of a meat diet may also argue that the poor and the starving do not have the option to adopt a vegetarian diet. Others may argue that meat feeds the hungry and that meat offers needed calories and sustenance. In reality, if the vegetarian diet were more adopted worldwide, there would be more energy traveling from food to humans. Animal agriculture, although it uses such massive quantities of natural resources, is very inefficient. Herbivorous animals “convert only about 10% of the plant matter they metabolize into their own body parts”.[31] This means that only one-tenth of the energy animal consumption intended crops produced go to an animal’s body parts. Furthermore, only parts of certain animals are commonly consumed, further limiting the energy transferred to humans. If the land used for livestock were made to produce crops, more energy would enter the food system. This would result in shrinking amounts of exploited natural resources and increasing amounts of energy available for human consumption.

            Agriculture uses approximately “756 million tons of grain and corn per year” to produce meat products.[32] This staggering amount of grain and corn that could be used to feed the starving human populations does not include the 255 million tons of soy crops that are fed to farmed animals.[33] Soy is a great source of protein that could be used to sustain humans but yet hundreds of millions of tons are being fed to livestock. The caloric benefits of animals are also misunderstood to be more sustainable for the human population. In reality, the inefficiency of a diet containing animal products is beyond staggering. Every “ten calories fed to cattle results in only one calorie consumed by people,” which means 90% of calories are lost in this process (food ethics, 88). This also means that ten times more crop agriculture, land, and water is required to be used to get the same amount of calories from beef than if the calories from crops were consumed directly. This is excluding the amount of water and land cattle uses to drink and graze. A collective adoption of vegetarianism is not elitist because it would result in more food energy, calories, and protein being available for the starving human populations. If the amount of grain used to produce agriculture was exported to the rest of the developing world where there are poor and hungry human populations, humans could also “export these food systems and their environmental consequences.”[34] Therefore vegetarianism on a global scale not only is an ethical obligation to the environment but and ethical obligation to the human population.

            The moral obligation that humans have to future human generations, and thus to the environment, are irrefutable. The current state of the environment prompts the human population to change consumption practices so that future natural resources will be viable to help sustain generations to come. The collective adoption of vegetarianism is an ethical imperative that will result in alleviating the devastation that is currently spoiling our environment. Not only will the adoption of vegetarianism improve the environment, it also has the capability to feed starving populations of humans in current years. Natural resource depletion and pollution have the ability destroy human life by removing all viable food manufacturing resources. Therefore, a collective adoption of vegetarianism by the human population is necessary.


[1] George, Kathryn Paxton. Animal, Vegetable, or Woman?: A Feminist Critique of Ethical Vegetarianism. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 2.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Kraig, Bruce. “Colin Spencer. The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England. 1995. Pp. Xiii, 402. $29.95.” The American Historical Review 102, no. 1 (1997): 86.

[4] Paxton, Animal, Vegetable, or Woman?, 23.

[5] The VRG Blog Editor. “The Vegetarian Resource Group.” The VRG. May 29, 2015. Accessed April 12, 2016.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sandler, Ronald L. Food Ethics: The Basics. (NY: Routledge, 2015), 7.

[8] Ibid., 23.

[9] Paxton, Animal, Vegetable, or Woman?, 13.

[10] Sandler, Food Ethics: The Basics, 74.

[11] Ibid., 47.

[12] PETA. “Meat and the Environment.” PETA. 2016. Accessed April 12, 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Sandler, Food Ethics: The Basics, 87.

[15] Ibid., 47.

[16] Ibid., 29.

[17] Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 174.

[18] Ibid., 179.

[19] Ibid., 174.

[20] Sandler, Food Ethics: The Basics, 87.

[21] Ibid., 89.

[22] Ibid., 38.

[23] H.R. Doc. No. 7 USC Ch. 94: Organic Certification From Title 7—Agriculture-‘Organic Foods Production Act of 1990’ (1990).

[24] Ibid.

[25] S. Rep. No. Local Food Systems Concepts, Impacts, and Issues-Advanced Economic Research

Report Number 97 (2010).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Sandler, Food Ethics: The Basics, 37.

[28] S. Rep. No. Advanced Economic Research Report Number 97.

[29] Sapontzis, S. F. Food for Thought: The Debate Over Eating Meat. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), 58.

[30] Bramble, Ben, and Bob Fischer. The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 38.

[31] Ibid., 59.

[32] Foer, Eating Animals, 211.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Sapontzis, Food for Thought: The Debate Over Eating Meat, 269.



H.R. Doc. No. 7 USC Ch. 94: Organic Certification From Title 7—Agriculture-‘Organic

Foods Production Act of 1990′ (1990).

Rep. No. Local Food Systems Concepts, Impacts, and Issues-Advanced Economic Research

Report Number 97 (2010).

Bramble, Ben, and Bob Fischer. The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat. NY: Oxford

University Press, 2016.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

George, Kathryn Paxton. Animal, Vegetable, or Woman?: A Feminist Critique of Ethical Vegetarianism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Kraig, Bruce. “Colin Spencer. The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism. Hanover,


University Press of New England. 1995. Pp. Xiii, 402. $29.95.” The American Historical

Review 102, no. 1 (1997): 85-86.

PETA. “Meat and the Environment.” PETA. 2016. Accessed April 12, 2016.

Sandler, Ronald L. Food Ethics: The Basics. NY: Routledge, 2015.

Sapontzis, S. F. Food for Thought: The Debate Over Eating Meat. Amherst, NY: Prometheus

Books, 2004.

The VRG Blog Editor. “The Vegetarian Resource Group.” The VRG. May 29, 2015. Accessed

April 12, 2016.