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The environmental benefits of vegetarianism

Meat production is not only cruel, but it also brings with it a host of threats to China’s – and the world’s – fragile ecology. If you want to go green, go veggie, writes Jiang Jingsong.

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There is no need to recount the litany of China’s environmental disasters; catastrophes such as the blue-green algae that choked Taihu Lake appear daily on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Protecting our environment may today be the biggest challenge that faces humanity.

Many will turn to science for a solution. But reality demonstrates that relying on science alone will not lead to success. Unless we change our lifestyles, scientific advances will only accelerate damage to the environment.

It would take a day to fell a large tree in the past, and it would be months or even years before that tree was turned into processed wood and used to construct buildings in a far-off city. But now the lumber industry can flatten entire forests in very little time, and have the wood converted into floors and furniture in a matter of days. We do not have the respect and awe for nature that, in other times, held what little industrial capacity there was in check. The loss of this “superstition”, combined with the driving force of capitalism, has meant nothing now restrains us from using our technology to squeeze every last drop of profit from nature.


In certain respects, vegetarianism is a higher moral choice. It avoids the killing and enslavement of animals, and it helps protect the environment. The converting of fodder to meat involves massive waste – any given area of land can support 20 times as many vegetarians as meat-eaters. South America’s tropical rainforests are being felled to provide pasture for livestock – and even these pastures are not used in a sustainable manner and are quickly abandoned. Every hamburger results in the loss of around 6.25 cubic metres of forest.


But industrialised farming doesn’t only cause suffering to animals – it also creates massive amounts of pollution. Figures show that every kilogram of beef requires 10,000 litres of water and produces 40 kilograms of excrement. More dung is produced than the environment can cope with, and since it cannot all be used as fertiliser it ends up in the natural world.


Industrial farming is a burden for an already fragile ecology; it has increased the numbers of cattle and the methane they produce, which is a significant contributor to global warming. It has led to the accumulation of harmful chemicals in ever-longer food chains; the appearance of pharmaceutical additives in animal fodder; and the loss of topsoil due to over-grazing.


History shows that our current lifestyles and values are not conducive to solving these environmental issues. Yet if we adjusted our ways, this could be done. Vegetarians, simply by resisting the temptations of meat, can avoid contributing to these problems.


Giving up meat may seem like a grim prospect to many, but really it is not so bad. Vegetarians are more healthy and vigorous than their meat-eating counterparts. Ten-time Olympic medal winner Carl Lewis is a vegetarian, along with many successful athletes in fields where endurance is key, such as cycling, long-distance running and swimming. In many western countries, vegetarianism is common among those who take care of their health, and it is a fashionable choice for the young.


Many people in China today misunderstand vegetarianism; they confuse the conscious decision to refuse meat – for the sake of the environment and animal welfare – with the enforced vegetarianism of poverty. The latter diet is, of course, unhealthy. However, this is due the inadequate, monotonous and unbalanced diet that poverty brings, rather than the lack of meat in itself. Vegetarianism as a choice, with an adequate and balanced nutritional intake, is a perfectly healthy option.


However, many people still find it an unpalatable option, and feel the diet cannot satisfy their taste for meat. Generations of Chinese cuisine have made meat-eating a strong part of our culture, and a vegetarian diet seems like an inferior choice. But pay a bit more attention to the culinary arts, and the flavour of vegetarian cooking is in no way second-rate. First-time diners at vegetarian restaurants are often surprised at how good a meat-free meal can taste. Vegetarian restaurants in China have a long history of producing meals designed to mimic the taste and texture of meat – a godsend for those recent converts who still lust for that meaty taste. And there is no need to be strictly vegetarian all the time; you can choose the degree and duration of your commitment as it suits your lifestyle.


China’s tradition of Buddhism means vegetarianism once had a strong following. But today we have a lower percentage of vegetarians than western countries. There are many reasons for this, one being the low-level of education about the environmental benefits of meat-free living, another being the general lack of ecological awareness. However, Peking University founded its Vegetarian Society in 2000, and a number of leading universities now have groups advocating the rejection of meat. Vegetarianism is an up-and-coming youth movement in China, promoted by those with a sense of social and environmental responsibility. It has a bright future, and people who care about the environment should pay attention – and maybe even join us.

Homepage photo by mac_vegetarian


Jiang Jingsong, Doctor of Philosophy, Tsinghua University Institute of Science, Technology and Society.

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匿名 | Anonymous



Consume less Meat for your health

I agree with your article that vegetarianism is very humane, and could help to reduce energy consumption greatly and help out the environment. I have recently reduced the amount of meat that I consume, and I only eat meat about once a week now, and I feel good about it.
I think that China as a developing country needs to go through a cycle before its people reaches the state that they start to think in terms of the world at large as a whole instead of putting their own welfare first. This is evident in many ways they behave in public. As part of the population is becoming very wealthy, most of these people are first going to fulfill their personal desires first. Some of these includes consuming rare and exotic foods they or their parents could not afford previously, and unfortunately some of these foods even include endangered animal species. So it will be a slow process to get people to consume less meat for the sake of the environment. However, if you promote health as the reason to eat less meat, with scientific evidence from highly reputable experts, people are more likely to listen because they would be directly affected by the outcome.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Interesting - I agree entirely

At my Western University, practical skills are not rewarded apart from following instructions. I am advised to eat well and focus on books. In reality, the planet demands that I grow my own food and find ways of consuming less. Just like the previous comment pointed to unnecessary production, I agree that I can be happy without buying lots of meat.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




It is good to advocate healthy food; eating meat less can bring many benefits. - Reader

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



China needs more vegetarians

I can't agree more with Mr. Jiang. What's more, I've been a vegetarian practitioner myself for more than two years. If you ever experience being a long-term vegetarian, you will know that the dependence on meat is in fact: 1)unnecessary, you won't find meat tasty anymore; 2)beneficial to not only the environment, but your own health. Therefore, the vegetarian lifestyle should be highly recommended. When we refer to corruption, wining and dining, and what some monks do in the temples, I think they are completely different from the promotion of vegetarian. We shouldn't mix them up. Being a vegetarian is a lifestyle, which is related to the future of the planet Earth, to environmental protection, to our own health, and to the peace and stability in the long term.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



To reduce meat-eating is indeed equivalent to reduce suffering

Vegetarianism or to reduce meat-eating are actually very much helpful in reducing the pain of animals during slaughtering process. This can be done by every one of us, not necessary to wait until it has been implemented by government. In fact, if we pay attention to reduction of meat-eating and suffering of those animals, eating and dining using public fund will be despised by the public. Moreover, we can protect our ecosystem by reducing meat-eating, do you think the government sector still be comfortable to persist in their way? The change of society will lead to the change of government behavior; good citizens definitely will have good government. Professor Jiang's encouraging vegetarianism or reduction of meat-eating is a good idea indeed. Wind of hungriness

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



We are a meat eating species

And have been for millions of years. Additionally, how much vegetation would it take to supply 7 billion people with the calories, protein and nutrients provided by smaller portions of meat? Some posters have pointed out rice as a "miracle food" and how Asians consuming rice is superior to Westerners consuming meat, but is that rice the dry kind or the kind that requires flooded rice paddies? Also, vegetables like corn and sugar require large amounts of water to grow and a lot of energy to harvest.

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匿名 | Anonymous





No direct connection in between being vegetarian and environmental protection

If creophagism is consider as a cruel attitude, being vegetarian is the same. In China, perhaps resources consumed by vegetarians are more than that consumed being creophagy! Despite, one must highlight that animal protein cannot be completely substituted, hence, we shouldn’t widely promote practicing vegetarian. Non-vegetarian.

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匿名 | Anonymous



encouraging but not forcing

I have been a vegetarian for nearly 3 years. I think it may be beneficial to the environment,or maybe harm will outweigh benefit,but one thing is for sure: to some people, being a vegetarian is really good to their health. My weight has been reduced form 96KG three years ago to 87KG, and the process is pain-free. Since I have been a vegetarian, I can think better and suffer much less from neurosis. In addition, I changed my habits and lifestyle unnoticeable. In the past, I had to spend time in thinking about where and what to eat , but now I am more care-free when it comes to food. Personally speaking, I think being a vegetarian costs less and ask for less from the environment.

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匿名 | Anonymous



My feeling of being a vegetarian for 10 years

I have been a vegetarian for 10 years. I chose vegetarianism for the following 3 reasons: Firstly, health. Since I have been a vegetarian, I feel refreshed and relaxed. Many people have this misconception that vegetarianism will lead to malnutrition; however, my weigh has increased from less than 60KG to 80KG, and I am really healthy. If the diet is balanced, malnutrition can be avoided! Secondly, circumcise the mind. Stay merciful and sensitive to the pain of others and animals. Stick to the principle of mutual help/care and peaceful coexistence. Against mistreatment of animals. Thirdly, people breed animals to meet the need of meat consumption. This leads to the ecological unbalance and exacerbation of desertification, and excretion of animals will increase the emission of green house gases, pollute water resource and cause all sorts of environmental problems.

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匿名 | Anonymous




The difference between vegetarian diet and non-vegitarian diet

1. The way of producing and cooking vegetarian food is very easy and the whole process costs very limited energy. 2. As meat vulnerable to be rotten must be frozen in refrigerators, it's easy to imagine how much electricity it will consume in the process. 3. The reak of meat is harmful to health. In addition, it will cause high-blood diseases if people have too much meat. 4. In the modern animal feeding, growth hormone and other kinds of medicines are often used, which will harm people's health if the meat is eaten. 5. Vegetables contaminated by pestcide are less harmful than polluted meat and it's easier to prevent the contamination of vegetables than that of meat. 6. The plague infected to human from eating meat is hard to cure. 7. The safety and sanitation problems in the food prodution process are still too serious to be ignored on China's mainland. 8. In a country with a large population of meat eaters like China, we are still facing problems concerning animal rights and interpersonal relations. The phenomena such as maltreating animals are common, which implies that the animal rights aren't widely knowledged and respected. Meanwhile, people are lack of the least mutual confidence and cares, which signfies the indifferent interpersonal relations in our society.