WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE SAHARA FOREST?

No, the title is not an error, and yes, the Sahara was once a forest. In fact, it had lakes and streams, wildlife, grasslands, and forests. But the greatest driving force known, turned it into a desert: the quest for food. The trees were cut to grow grain and the land was overgrazed by livestock. It was used and abused and ultimately destroyed. Interestingly, most of the world's deserts were formally forests or woodlands. Many great civilizations including Egypt, Greece and Rome, fell due in part to ecological considerations. Prior to their collapse wars were fought not for wealth or ideology, but for control of arable land and essential resources.

Over the last decade concerned naturalists and researchers have helped bring to millions of people's attention the fragile state of our environment. Our trees, air, water, land and energy resources are in peril. As it has happened throughout the world, areas of the United States are now turning to desert. In fact, there are places within the United States that are undergoing the phenomenon of "desertification" that are worse than Africa's. And as was the case with the Sahara, it is happening due to the quest for food. Something we all have to do every day is eat. What precious few people realize, probably less than one percent of the population, is that what we eat, and how we obtain what we eat are two of the most potent forces contributing to the environmental problems we are presently experiencing.

Over the years, Americans have been subjected to a relentless barrage of pressure to consume protein. Not just any kind of protein, but specifically protein from animal products (meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy). This is in spite of the fact that there are more studies than you can read which indicate that the more animal products one eats the greater the likelihood of developing what are referred to as the "diseases of affluence": heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity.

We Americans consume 16 million animals, 11 million pounds of fish, 165 million eggs and 350 million pounds of dairy, EVERY SINGLE DAY! The saturated fat and cholesterol contained in this mind-boggling amount of animal products is precisely why over the last several years we have been beseeched by the Surgeon General of the United States, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association to reduce our consumption of animal products in order to lower the #1 and #2 causes of death in the United States: cardiovascular disease, which kills almost one million people a year and cancer which kills over a half a million people a year.

In spite of the fact that we are already eating far more protein than we should, there are those that thumb their noses at these facts and go on diets that are practically all animal protein in order to lose weight. How tragically sad it is that people are so desperate to lose weight at any cost, even if it compromises their health, that they will actually dramatically increase their likelihood of developing heart disease or cancer in order to do so.

It is ironic that the protein foods responsible for so much death and disease amongst are people is the very factor that is putting our environment at risk. That is because the chain of events that unfolds from the time an animal is born until it, or some product derived from it, winds up on your dinner plate is one that appears to be designed specifically for the purpose of squandering our natural resources. Nowhere does such inconceivable waste occur in the bringing forth of a product as is the case with animal products.

In order to produce the food necessary to feed the over a quarter of a billion people who live in the United States there are certain resources that must be present. Namely, land on which to grow the food, water to irrigate crops, and fuel to perform all the processes attendant with food production and delivery. When you see how recklessly these three resources are treated in order to bring animal products to your table, you can't help but be astounded.

First, fuel. The energy requirements necessary for the production, feeding, growing, slaughtering, and transporting to market of 16 million animals every single day is staggering. And the process used to accomplish this most formidable task is abysmally inefficient, especially when compared to the process used to obtain non-animal foods. The protein we derive from beef takes at least 25 times more energy to produce than a comparable amount of protein from plant foods. In order to obtain one calorie of protein from feedlot beef (the source of over 80% of the beef consumed in the U.S.), an astonishing 78 calories of fossil fuel must be spent. Yet, one calorie of protein from non-animal protein sources can be produced at the cost of only 3 calories of fossil fuel.

Between the fleets of farm equipment, trucks and tractors performing the day-to-day activities of running thousands of farms, the thousands of trucks and trains criss-crossing the country transporting livestock from farm to auction to slaughter, the fuel to supply electricity to work the pumps that irrigate hundreds of millions of acres of land, and fuel to heat in the winter, and cool in the summer, thousands of gigantic structures housing millions of animals, the prodigious amount of energy to supply the refrigeration and freezing for millions of tons of various animal parts, to the actual slaughtering, processing, packaging delivering and cooking of billions of animals, the energy requirements of the animal products industry represents a titanic, unrelenting drain on our country's energy resources.

Water. A Louis Harris and Gallop poll indicated that the #1 environmental concern of over 70% of Americans, greater than air pollution, deforestation, or toxic wastes, is the availability and quality of water. That being the case, what is happening to our water in this country to supply us with our meat-based diet is going to be a real shocker for those of you not aware of the astronomical abuse of this precious resource.

It takes 100 times more water to produce a pound of meat than to produce a pound of wheat. Enough water goes into the production of one steer to float a U.S. Naval destroyer! More water is consumed by the industry supplying us with animal products than all other uses combined! In fact, so much water is required by the animal products industry that it has to be very heavily subsidized with our tax dollars. If it weren't, the least expensive cut of beef would be around $35 a pound. This subsidized water winds up being 2000 times less expensive to the industry than sand! As if this were not startling enough, the animal products industry is also responsible for more water pollution than all other human activities combined. This is due to the trillions of pounds of excrement produced by livestock of which there is no sewer system and the over one billion pounds of pesticides in their feed which ultimately find their way from the land into our waterways. Here is one industry responsible for the consumption of over half the water in the country and the pollution of over half of what's left. Ouch!

As great as the waste of fuel and water is, it pales in comparison to the astounding waste of what is literally our country's greatest and most valuable resource: the land. Few of us are aware that the single greatest threat to the population of our country is not nuclear proliferation, drugs or AIDS, but rather loss of topsoil. No soil, no food. And we have already learned that wars have been fought and forests turned to deserts for arable land on which to grow food. The only thing standing between you and your children's starvation is our soil. Once it's gone, that's it. Two hundred years ago there was an average of 21 inches of topsoil on our land. Today there is six. We're losing another inch every 20 years, but it takes Mother Nature an average of 350 years to replace that one inch. This mindless, inefficient exploitation is seemingly designed to waste rather than to conserve this most crucial element of life as if it were not the finite recourse that it is. A staggering 85% of the loss of our valuable topsoil is a direct result of animal agriculture.

It takes 500 times more land to obtain a pound of beef than to obtain a pound of plant food. Thirty pounds of vegetation are required to produce that one pound of beef. The same acre of land that yields 165 pounds of meat can yield 20,000 pounds of potatoes. Our topsoil is being used and depleted to feed animals, not people. Approximately 1.25 billion acres of land is used to grow food of some kind. That is about two-thirds of the contiguous United States. Of that 1.25 billion acres, only 5% is used to grow food for people, 95% is devoted to grow food for animals. But we obtain two-thirds of our nutrition from the 5% of the land and only one-third from the other 95%. The largest crop grown in the United States is corn. Of all corn eaten, 90% is eaten by animals, only 10% by humans. Most of the oats, rye, barley, alfalfa, sorghum, and soy- beans grown are also eaten by animals. Ironically, when this plant food is fed to animals, we lose 90% of its protein value and 100% of its fiber and carbohydrate value. Consider that right here in this great and glorious country of ours; the second largest food producer behind China, which has to feed 1.3 billion people, we have hungry children. I'm not talking about Ethiopia or Bangladesh, but right here in the good ole' U.S. of A., we have children going to bed at night with empty stomachs. This is while, all over the country, livestock is being gorged to the bursting point on the very crops that could be feeding these children. Livestock consume enough grain and soybeans to feed over five times the entire human population of this country, and yet…we have hungry children. Where is the logic in this?

Let's not forget about trees. When you behold the exquisite nature of our interrelationship with trees, you can't help but stand in awe of the remarkable wisdom that underlies the connectedness of all living things. When we breathe in a lungful of life-giving air, our bodies extract the oxygen needed, and with every exhalation we release carbon dioxide. Trees take up the carbon dioxide, use it in their own life processes, and give off oxygen. Since arriving in this country, over a quarter of a billion acres of highly productive forest land has been lost to agriculture. The vast majority of this forest land was cleared to graze livestock or grow livestock feed. For every acre of trees cleared to make room for parking lots, roads, houses, shopping centers, etc., seven acres were cut down to grow feed for livestock or to graze cattle.

There are many ironies in life, some great, some small. What has to be the most mind-numbing irony in the universe is that because of our meat-based diet, we are cutting down trees, using up and polluting water, fouling the air, decimating the land, using massive amounts of fossil fuel energy, subsidizing the entire process with our tax dollars, and it's all for the purpose of supplying ourselves with a product that has been scientifically and medically proven to be a leading contributor to the #1 and #2 causes of death in our country. Who came up with this, the devil?

What kind of legacy for our children would it be to turn over the reins of an environment incapable of sustaining them? Is there anything you and I can do to turn this situation around? You bet there is! And the solution is surprisingly simple. It requires practically no effort on your part, saves you energy and money, improves your personal health, and you can start making a difference at your very next meal. Since the destruction and waste described above is precipitated by the eating of animal products, all we have to do is eat less of them. In fact, if we, as a population, would eat merely 10% less animal products, that's only one non-animal product day a week, results would be truly impressive.

Aside from lessening your own chances of developing some form of cardiovascular disease or cancer, we would save an equivalent of 2.3 billion gallons of fossil fuel a year, or six million gallons a day; we would save one and half trillion gallons of water, or three million gallons every minute; approximately a half a trillion pounds of animal excrement and 100 million pounds of pesticides would not be dumped into our waterways; we would save 700 million tons of topsoil; 120 million acres of land would be freed up for more judicious use (i.e. tree farms); millions of trees would be left standing; and 12 million tons of grain would be freed up, which is far more than enough to feed every one of the 20 million people who will die of starvation and related diseases each year. This is the result of Americans not eating animal products only one day a week. A rather small commitment considering the repercussions of doing nothing.

Some of you may think that one person's effort is so little compared to the task of what has to be accomplished, that it's futile to try. To paraphrase the words of Edmond Burke, "There is no greater mistake in life than doing nothing because you could only do a little." A lot of us doing a little is a lot. A lot of us doing nothing is nothing. The seemingly simple act of one non-animal product day a week may appear to be a modest effort, but how else could an individual simultaneously improve the condition of the forest, air, water, land and fossil fuel reserves all with one simple act?

One day our children and grandchildren will look back to when we had the chance to make a difference and do our part to help save our suffering planet. Will they be able to look back with pride and gratitude for the foresight we had and the action we took? Or will they be forced to look back in frustration and bewilderment at what we had but allowed to be lost forever? When we look back in our later years, reviewing the accomplishments of our lives, won't it be nice to know that we did what we had to do when we had to do it, to prevent turning any more forests into deserts?

By Harvey Diamond.

Copyright © 2002
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