Notice I said vegan, not vegetarian. Besides continuing some of the most awful forms of animal exploitation through dairy and eggs, vegetarianism simply is not enough. Not even close. Dairy cows and egg-laying hens create plenty of environmental problems, besides their own serious ethical problems.
We know that transportation and inefficient buildings contribute massive amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And, unless you watch too much Fox News, you also know that all those greenhouse gases are warming our planet and having many weird, worrisome, and ultimately destructive consequences. But animal agriculture is a huge player in the greenhouse-gas game as well.
A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization from 2006 laid out some disturbing facts. The report, ominously titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, stated that livestock contributed 18% of total greenhouse gases, putting it above transportation as a net contributor. That 18% of total annual human-caused pollutants consisted of 9% of carbon dioxide, 37% of methane (which is about 20 times as potent as CO2), and 65% of nitrous oxide (which is 300 times as potent as CO2). So that 18% may look pretty benign…but when you break it down, it is kind of terrifying.
I know that these specific numbers can be controversial, so I will not dwell on them…or ask you to be convinced entirely by them. But let me give you a few very real examples of how animal agriculture affects animals, humans, and the planet.
The reasons for the urgency of going vegan to fight climate change are numerous but fall into a few general categories.
In factory farms, which are modern industrial farms with lots of animals generally in confined spaces, animals frequently suffer from respiratory infections and other illnesses due to the poor air quality. Not to mention that the human workers suffer along with them, with approximately 70% of factory-farm workers contracting acute bronchitis.
Just as animal agriculture breeds hot, toxic air, so too does it harm water quality—and quantity. Farmed animals account for as much as half of water used in the U.S., and the Environmental Protection Agency has reported that waste from factory farms pollutes more water sources than any other industries combined. The toxins from animal waste are in part responsible for the dead zone where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, just to name one example.
All those animals worsen the air, worsen and slurp up the water, and also “consume” vast amounts of land. The USDA says that farmed animals use up 80% of agricultural land in this country; worldwide, they take up 30% of the Earth’s surface and 33% of its farmable land. Equally alarming, millions of acres of rainforest are burned to open up pasture for livestock—seven football-fields worth of land every minute. So in order to raise more livestock, we cut down trees and strip away nutrient-dense soil, making the land virtually worthless in short order.
Those billions of animals also have to eat. And eat they do…but in alarming ways. See, in our modern industrial version of husbandry, we feed roughly 70% of the grains grown here (including corn, soy, wheat, and rice) to livestock. Listen to that number again: 70%. Of plant foods that could be eaten by humans. But humans can eat farmed animals, so no need to worry, right? Think again. Animals are horribly inefficient protein sources. For every pound of flesh or secretion, three to ten pounds of grain are fed to farmed animals. So we are practically throwing away tons and tons of perfectly nutritious food. We would do better just to eat the grains ourselves—and send the excess (which there would be lots of) to starving populations around the globe, who are also going to be the biggest losers in the climate-change game. I have heard that the current amount of food grown in the world could feed as many as 10 billion people, if not diverted to farm animals and if we were better about waste.
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Sure, industrialized factory farming is bad. I get that. No problem. But I always buy grass-fed beef, and cage-free eggs, so all the animals who give me food are happy and healthy, not eco-terrors.” This sort of thinking is widespread today, especially with the rise of locavorism, the foodie movement, and prominent “humane” animal-farmers, like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms to name the most famous.
Unfortunately, it is wrong. Yes, animals raised on small-scale family farms have different experiences than those raised in factory farms. But these“humanely raised” animals also still harm the environment in a variety of ways. Most significantly, those grass-fed cattle may be more “natural,” but they also produce around twice as much greenhouse gas as their grain-fed counterparts and require much more land. And just because an animal product is local does not make it better for the environment. Because the production of animal foods, not their transportation, consumes the most fossil fuels and creates the most greenhouse gases, you do better for the environment by going vegan than by eating a 100-mile (or less) diet. And, of course, these “happy” farmed animals still suffer from most of the same practices you find on factory farms.
The saddest part of all is that this comes down to human choice. We are not, whatever Dr. Atkins and Paula Deen and the time-travelers from the Paleolithic Era might have told you, required to eat meat or any other animal product. Not a one. Millions of years of evolution left us as omnivores, not obligate carnivores. We can live perfectly healthy, happy, active lives without ever consuming a single ounce of animal protein. People have been doing it for years. I have been vegan for over 14 years, and I am a newbie compared to some other prominent vegans, who did it before the movement became a trend and before you could find vegan-friendly foods in your local grocery store. You can choose what you eat. Yes, you can.
And if you really care about the Earth, you must. You can bike, you can recycle, you can light up your life with CFLs, but unless you go vegan you are not doing enough.
Not only is it about the statistics, and the data, and the science. Those are readily available and overwhelmingly damning of animal agriculture. But it is also about the vision and model that we who care about the planet want to set for our global society, and for our local community as well. I believe that we humans cannot be stewards or saviors, but instead must recognize our place with all the other creatures in the biosphere. We must recognize and celebrate our interconnections and interdependencies, not try to master nature with our technologies and our hubris. That, as our wisest myths and stories tell us, is always a recipe for disaster. And the Earth is showing it to us right now.
– James E. McWilliams, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html?ref=opinion. (Also see his blog, http://eatingplantsdotorg.wordpress.com/.)