I initially became vegan out of a concern for the environment.
Like many people, I used to be defensive and, frankly, disinterested in the moral implications of eating animals and using their bodies in ways that cause them to suffer and die.
And yet, for some reason, I was also accepting of (or at least open to hearing) the fact that, along with the burning of fossil fuels for energy, animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to global warming.
Increasingly, the environment is somewhat irrelevant to my decision to remain vegan.
I believe in and value science, but I can’t base my decision to exploit animals on statistics and data.
I’m not a scientist. I’m an ordinary person who doesn’t have the time, expertise or, frankly, the inclination to pore over scientific abstracts or compare peer-reviewed literature.
It’s confusing, it’s technical, it’s overwhelming, and it’s often inaccessible behind an academic paywall.
What’s more, for every scientist who emphasizes the effects of animal agriculture on the planet there is another who minimizes the impact and says, “no no, it’s actually this other thing over here.” It’s exhausting and beyond the ability of most people to engage with on a rigorous and sustained level.
I believe in and value science, but I can’t base my decision to exploit animals on statistics and data.
Having said that, here are some of the statistics and data I have found over the past few years. I encourage everyone to do their own independent research on this issue. If you find something that contradicts a particular article or study, that’s perfectly fine and to be expected! Like I say, the environment was my way into veganism, but science is not the arbiter of my ethics or what I personally feel is right or wrong.
A Leading Cause of Climate Change
While skepticism and denial abounds (and though some animal rights advocates have a tendency to inflate these statistics), the global scientific consensus is that animal agriculture is responsible for 13-18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is a leading cause of climate change after oil and coal.
Animal agriculture puts a heavy strain on many of the Earth’s finite land, water and energy resources. Morals and ethics aside, animal agriculture is undeniably irrational and simply unsustainable.
Animal agriculture is responsible for global deforestation caused by expansion of pasture land and arable land used to grow feed crops. 90% of Amazon rainforest deforestation is a result of animal agriculture. Close to 70% of the planet’s agricultural land is used for animal pasture, and another 10% is used to grow grains and legumes to feed animals who are then slaughtered to feed us.
“When forests are cleared to make room for farms and livestock — this happens on a daily basis in some parts of the world — large stores of carbon are released into the atmosphere, which heats up the planet. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they burp up methane, another potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Animal manure and rice paddies are also big methane sources. Finally, fossil fuels are used to operate farm machinery, make fertilizer and ship food around the globe, all of which generate emissions.” – NY Times
In order to accommodate the 70 billion animals raised annually for human consumption, a third of the planet’s ice-free land surface, as well as nearly 16% of global freshwater, is devoted to growing ‘livestock.’
Meat production consumes an enormous amount of water. Agriculture uses about 70% of the world’s available freshwater, and 1/3 of that is used to grow the grain to feed the animals that, again, are then slaughtered to feed us.
From a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.
A third of worldwide grain production is used to feed the animals we eat.
Cattle are by far the biggest source of emissions from animal agriculture, with one recent study showing that in an average American diet, beef consumption creates 1,984 pounds of CO2 annually.
Replacing beef with plants would reduce that figure 96%, bringing it down to just 73 pounds of CO2. A plant-based diet cuts your carbon footprint by 50%.
A plant-based diet cuts your carbon footprint by 50%.
Experts typically attribute about 15% of the world’s carbon emissions to livestock, but the Worldwatch Institute audited that number in 2009 and found uncounted emissions that bring the livestock contribution to 51%.
Obviously there’s a huge difference between 15% and 51%, and this higher number has been criticized and contested, but I personally think that’s beside the point. The science around meat and dairy is clear and, despite differences in degrees and percentages, pretty unequivocal.
Denying or dismissing the environmental harm of animal agriculture because a documentary cites an incorrect statistic does little to help the planet. Quibbling about precise CO2 percentages does nothing to help the billions of animals who are statistically, objectively suffering and dying at this very moment.
The Inconvenient Truth
These are just some of the facts, but they’re admittedly hard to swallow. As Al Gore said, the role of animal agriculture in climate change is the real inconvenient truth, because it forces us to change a part of our life that we really like and we really enjoy and we really don’t want to change and we would really prefer not to think about.
“The role of animal agriculture in climate change is the real inconvenient truth”-Al Gore
For people who care about the environment and are fearful for the future of our planet, it’s easy to make fun of, or be bewildered and angered by, climate change deniers and those who don’t seem to know or care about facts and proof.
It’s easy to take to the streets and march for science, to call our legislators and express our very rightful outrage at the appointment of cabinet members who are hostile to evidence and established facts.
It’s far more difficult to change the personal habits of a lifetime and make different and better choices, for the animals and for our planet. It’s far more difficult to accept the fact that, at least three times a day, we are directly responsible for and engaged with a violent and harmful practice that is propelling us towards disaster and oblivion at frightening speed.
It’s easy to take to the streets and march for science. It’s far more difficult to change the habits of a lifetime and make different and better choices, for the animals and for our planet.
Recently, my husband and I met with one of our state legislators who argued against anti-dirty diesel bills and the green jobs bill because Oregon doesn’t contribute that much to emissions relative to other states or countries like China. Oregon doesn’t need to do anything about climate change because we contribute such a tiny percentage to the problem, and so on and so on.
Ridiculous. Enraging. Mind blowing. Mind numbing.
And yet we do the very same when it comes to the science around animal agriculture.
We cherry-pick the facts to suit our existing worldview, we embrace some facts but close our eyes and hearts to others. We focus all our attention on fossil fuels, and tell ourselves that we don’t need to do anything because animal agriculture doesn’t contribute that much harm relative to XYZ.
When it comes to the environmental effects of eating animal products, we’re not so different from climate change deniers.
When it comes to social justice issues, we believe that individual actions are materially and symbolically important and do have an impact, even if that impact isn’t immediately tangible. But when it comes to the environment, we tell ourselves that our personal choices, behaviors and habits don’t matter.
When it comes to the environmental effects of eating animal products, we’re not so different from people who say “climate change is natural,” “the climate has always changed and it always will,” “there’s no consensus or real evidence,” “it can’t be stopped,” “it’s someone else’s problem,” and “nothing I do will really make a difference anyway…”
Meanwhile, the other inconvenient truth is that change is coming whether we like it or not, and the atrocity that is animal agriculture is something we’ll have to reckon with one way or another. If not for the animals, then for ourselves.
Eating The Thing I Was Trying to Protect
One of my many aha moments came when I became interested in the ‘zero waste’ movement. Over the past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to become a more conscious consumer and send as little as humanly, practically possible to the landfill.
I cried in grief and horror at photographs of the Pacific Garbage Patch, and told myself I was doing my part by carrying my own water bottle and reusable coffee cup and refusing plastic straws.
At the same time, while my heart would break at images of dead seabirds with stomachs full of plastic or seals and turtles entangled and struggling in plastic nets, I didn’t make the connection between those fishing nets and my personal habits and choices.
I was eating the very lives I was trying so hard to protect and save.
I continued to eat fish for months after becoming a so-called vegetarian, despite learning that “fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash, with the majority of the rest composed of other fishing industry gear, including ropes, oyster spacers, eel traps, crates and plastics.”
It took me a while but, eventually, I came to see that I was eating the very lives I was trying so hard to protect and save, and that my decision to eat fish was a direct contributor to the deaths, suffering and destruction of all marine and coastal life.
For every 1 pound of fish caught, 5 pounds of unintended marine species are caught and discarded as by-kill. When I sat down to a fillet of salmon or a small plate of sushi, I no longer saw a single fish. Instead, I saw a half dozen, along with the turtles and dolphins that were dragged up in the same nets as my lunch or dinner.
In hindsight, I look back and cannot fathom my lack of logic or consistency. At times, I’m embarrassed by my blatant hypocrisy. But there’s a large chasm between knowing and doing, and the line isn’t straight between understanding facts and internalizing those facts as deeper truths that transform into action.
Solidifying My Values
Though a concern for the environment and our increasingly precarious planet was my way into veganism, I ultimately became vegan for the animals. Regardless of the effect of animal agriculture on the environment, I’m vegan for keeps.
Even if humanity reverses course on climate collapse and restores our planet to a healthy and habitable home for future generations, I still won’t want to take the life of a living being when bountiful other options are available to feed, clothe and sustain me.
Regardless of the effect of animal agriculture on the environment, I’m vegan for keeps.
In the meantime, I am very much vegan for the planet, and believe that eating a plant-based diet is one of the best things individuals can do to play their part in fighting climate collapse.
Further Reading & Listening
This is a short clip from the section on the impacts of animal agriculture on the planet in the feature-length documentary, Cowspiracy (aka, the film both animal industrialists and environmentalists don’t want you to see).
Cowspiracy has attracted a degree of criticism, some of which is addressed here.
- Why Do Some Green Activists Eat Meat?, Scientific American
“Somewhere in our reasoning about climate change, logic ends. If you do decide to avoid meat, you will have made progress in logical consistency. You will be able to back your claims of environmental awareness with a level of action.”
- Can You Be a Non-Vegan Environmentalist?
In this videocast, vegan activist, Earthling Ed, and environmental activist, Jack Harries, discuss the potential hypocrisy within the environmental movement.
From an ethical perspective I have issues with a few of the 100 solutions proposed in this nonetheless amazing book, but again the data is clear: plant-rich diets reduce emissions and being vegan is one of the best things individuals can do to play their part in fighting climate collapse:
If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The authors note that it is also critical to end the practice of price-distorting government subsidies.
I also love that educating girls ranks in the Top 10 things we can do to combat global warming–a much better and more equitable solution than feeding dairy cows seafood pellets (seriously, what the hell?).
“If cattle and dairy cows were a country, they would have more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire EU 28,” said former Energy Secretary, Steven Chu.
“Chu described the unnatural effects of industrial agriculture: what he called “oversexed corn” that devotes all its life energy to making giant kernels, pigs that gain 280 pounds in a matter of months, turkeys so breast-heavy they can’t mate and must be artificially inseminated—a planet dominated by animals modified and raised and slaughtered to feed humans.”
“Avoiding meat and dairy products is one of the biggest ways to reduce your environmental impact, according to recent scientific studies….
….findings showed that meat and other animal products are responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, despite providing only a fifth of the calories we eat and drink.”
- Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered, The New York Times
Can what you eat have an effect on climate change? (Spoiler Alert: Yes.)
“The world’s food system is responsible for about one-quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse gases that humans generate each year. If you eat food, you’re part of this system.”
“Meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have an outsize impact, with livestock accounting for around 14.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases each year. That’s roughly the same amount as the emissions from all the cars, trucks, airplanes and ships combined in the world today.”
Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species.”David Attenborough