Vegan for the Planet

Vegan For the Planet

Everyone knows that nature is in trouble, and humans are the main culprit. Since at least some of us recognize this truism, we so often hear messages about fighting climate change, followed by recommendations for pretty obvious lifestyle changes: drive less, use CFL bulbs, recycle, turn down our thermostats, buy local foods, and so on. While important, these common recommendations often miss something crucial. No matter what else you do, if you are still eating animal products, then you are having a big—and ultimately unnecessary—impact on the planet in a variety of ways.

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.

Suggested Reading

– Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow:
– Humane Society of the United States, Farm Animal Protection documents:
– Farm Sanctuary, Factory Farming documents:

– James E. McWilliams, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”: (Also see his blog,

The Iowa Dirge

The Iowa Dirge

I hear so many screams
Bestial cries
Of terror and pain
Cut off
choked out
shocked into silence.
And death.

Death in obscurity and shadows
Produced on an assembly line
Manufactured in factories,
of flesh, blood, feather, bone
Clipped beaks
Docked tails
And pools of blood and feces
To bathe in on every square inch
Of the cold hard concrete floors.

The whir of the machines
The pneumatic jab of the bolt gun
The buzz and sizzle of electrical water,
All things hardwired into the machine.

Cogs spin
Gears scream
Teeth clench and lock and whirl
Wheel within wheel
Of satanic mills whirling
Vortexes sucking in flesh
Ground up
Choice cuts separated
And the rest shipped overseas
But worth something
Sold or rendered
To minimize waste
For better returns on the dollar.

What is the price
Of each life severed?
Where does that figure
Into corporate projections
Shareholder dividends
And stock-market ratings?

Are the costs of those lives
Written off
As the necessary costs
inevitable evils
Of the machine at work,
The assembly line running
From field to table
from seed to fork
from soil to stomach?

Show me.
I want to see them.
Show me the balance sheets.
Show me the assembly line.
Let me hear their cogwheels whirling.
Let me hear the teeth, the gun, the steely screams.
Let me know how your fortified food factory
the Earth
Runs like a well-oiled
Under the iron fist of your
Assembly line.

The doors of your factory are locked.
The windows, like mistakes on the factory walls,
Are barred, locked, sealed, covered.
There is barbwire atop the chain-link fences.
The security guard is armed and refusing access.
(And are those snipers on the rooftop?)
But all I want is
To see
to hear
to smell
to know.

The grocery-store packages, boxes, cans
Are dumb witnesses
Speaking nothing
Silent like the guards outside your factories—
I know because I have asked them,
Inquired in vain
For you have them well trained,
Like the people shuffling down the aisles,
And narrativized
Through the PR department
In which life becomes a widget
And then becomes a trope,
Farm to machine to idyll,
Built atop a humming machine.

The farmers
Are now all clocked in
Standing in their places
Along the line, day to day,
With no overtime, awful wages,
And sure as hell no benefits.
For they too are expendable,
A commodity
An expense
Wheel within wheel
Object upon object
Along the line, day to day.

I can hear the screams
Of the wheels, of the widgets,
Standing here beyond the arc lights
Outside of your fortified factory farm.
Let me in
let me see
let me hear.
Let me know.

For I am not a part of your machine.

[Author’s note: This poem was written shortly after the passage into law of Iowa’s “ag-gag” bill, making it a criminal act to take photos or video inside of animal agriculture operations. Other states have passed similar laws, all within the umbrella of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.]

Image credit: Thomas Bjørkan, from Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons License.