In a Vegetarian World, What Happens to the Cows?

A ridiculous question, you might say, yet it's one I get asked all the time. As if we're doing cows a favor by eating them.

Come on now. The world's 1.5 billion cattle didn't appear by their own doing, and most don't roam free enough to decide to reproduce on their own. The factory farms that produce most of our meat and dairy depend on unnatural reproduction and growth rates, employing tactics like artificial insemination (classes available!) and injections of growth hormones that are making even humans develop faster.

In addition to the health effects of such chemicals on the cows and the people who eat them is the impact that the whole system of production has on the environment. The chemicals work their way into our water supply, the hormones into our own bodies, and then there's the methane emissions -- tons and tons of a gas 25 times worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Kind of a problem. Some efforts are being made to harness that methane as an energy source instead of a pollutant, but a much better situation for the earth is if we turn to a plant-based, or at least plant-dominated, diet.

A vegetarian world?

If the world went vegetarian tomorrow, methane emissions wouldn't come to an instantaneous halt, but reproduction of the current generation of cows, for the most part, would. Methane would follow suit, and slow down in a matter of months. We would have some serious cleanup to do of our waterways, air, and, well, all the poop. We'd also have a lot of animals on our hands, but without forced reproduction, we would need only a temporary solution (albeit a damn good one).

Fortunately, plenty of sanctuaries already exist that could provide guidance on how to care for abused and overworked animals that will gain more weight, when they're allowed to live out a full life, than their bodies can comfortably bear. (That's part of what the hormones are designed to do -- grow animals faster than normal, to achieve maximum weight gain before they are sent to slaughter.) Once we dealt with the immediate situation, cow populations could return to healthier, more natural levels and to a grazing, self-sustaining lifestyle.

There are as many cows (and pigs, chickens, etc.) as there are today because we demand that there be. So what would happen if the world stopped consuming them? I don't know for sure, but for the sake of the planet, the cows, and ourselves, I sure would like to find out.

Vegetarian Awareness Month seems a great time to start.

Green your diet

Why not show the cows (and pigs, goats, chickens) some love by not eating them. If you're not ready to go full-time veg, start with one consistent meal: try eating a veg meal for lunch, or go vegan, say, two days a week. Set a realistic goal you can feel good about achieving.

Give some new vegetarian and vegan recipes a shot -- Emeril has a few tofu recipes to try, until you're comfortable experimenting on your own.

Or, take meat recipes you already know and love, and just try a soy- or seitan-based substitute: there's all kinds of faux meat products out these days, you'll never need to miss the 'real' thing.

Find substitutes for dairy as well -- more people are lactose-intolerant than realize it anyway, and soy is a great alternative. So is rice milk, though my favorite is probably hemp milk. And in the vegan cheese category, Follow Your Heart is unbeatable, though it's also worth trying to make your own.

And, it's never a bad time to adopt a farm animal or, if you live near a sanctuary, visit the critters in person. Say the world does go vegetarian tomorrow -- you'll help the cow saviors be one (tiny) step ahead of the game.

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