environment

I initially became vegan out of a concern for the environment and the future of our planet.

Like most people, I used to be unconcerned about and, frankly, willfully ignorant of the ethical implications of eating animals and using their bodies as a means to an end.

And yet, for some reason, I was more open to hearing (and accepting) the fact that, along with the burning of fossil fuels for energy, animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to global warming.

Though I’m comforted by the fact that my plant-based diet, while not perfect, is the most environmentally-friendly, 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 and perpetuate violence again animals on statistics and data. The environment was my way into veganism, but science is not the arbiter of my ethics or what I know in my heart to be right and wrong.

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.

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.

Having said that, below are some of the statistics and data I have found over the past few years evidencing the destruction animal agriculture has on our planet. 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!

However, if you find that you’re using a scientific study to justify the continuance of killing, abusing and exploiting animals, I would encourage you to not only view animal agriculture through an environmental lens but from the perspective of the animals themselves and what is right and best for them. The planet belongs to them too, and they have as much right to live in peace and free from violence and exploitation as us other animals.

A Leading Cause of Climate Change

While skepticism and denial abounds, the global scientific consensus is that animal agriculture is responsible for at least 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.

“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.”

Why Do Some Green Activists Eat Meat?

Deforestation

Animal agriculture is overwhelmingly responsible for global deforestation caused by expansion of pasture land and arable land used to grow feed crops.

As explained in this New York Times piece about the relationship between food and climate change:

“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.”

Deforestation can directly lead to biodiversity loss when animal species that live in the trees no longer have their habitat, cannot relocate, and therefore become extinct. Deforestation can lead certain tree species to permanently disappear, which affects biodiversity of plant species in an environment.

Experts point to deforestation in the name of large-scale farming as one reason for Australia’s recent bushfires, which has caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals, birds, reptiles and insects and the functional extinction of koala bears.

Alma is a poetical film on the beauty of the Amazon forest and the harsh impact of the cattle and soy industries. The film focuses on the double crime behind the cattle industry: on one hand, the deforestation to make way for pastures and on the other, the daily merciless slaughter of cows by the thousands. A reflection on the value of life, Alma reveals what lies behind products such as meat, leather, dairy foods and exotic hardwood. The film invites us to question our consumer habits, to open our eyes and hearts, and allow room for empathy.

Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species.”

David Attenborough

Water

In order to accommodate the 72 billion animals bred and slaughtered 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. Growing crops to feed animals bred and killed for food consumes 56% of water in the U.S.

477 gallons of water are required to produce 1lb. of eggs; almost 900 gallons of water are needed for 1lb. of cheese; 2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1lb. of beef.

From a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.

Animal agriculture not only consumes higher levels of water, it is also responsible for polluting and contaminating our waterways, oceans and–ultimately–ourselves.

Large-scale factory farms are not the only culprits: recently the Oregon EPA fined Organic Valley $26K for dumping milk into a storm drain that leads to tributary of a local river (they were fined in 2018 for a similar violation). Animal agriculture is inherently harmful, whether it’s a sprawling industrial operation or your local, ‘friendly’ farmer.

Agricultural runoff is the leading cause of river and stream impairment and the second leading cause of impairment in lakes, ponds and reservoirs. Runoff from both synthetic fertilizers and animal waste can poison drinking water and aquatic ecosystems, wreaking havoc on human health and wildlife.

Carbon Footprint

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 dangers of animal agriculture because a documentary cites an arguably 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.

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%.

Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming 

From an ethical perspective I have issues with a few of the 100 solutions proposed by Project Drawdown, 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 you’d like to explore further, this climate-change food calculator allows you to examine the impact of what you eat and drink on the planet. As you will see, avoiding meat and dairy products is one of the biggest ways to reduce your environmental impact. Findings show 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.

And this interactive article at The New York Times asks if what we eat can have an effect on climate change? (Spoiler Alert: Yes.)

“Meat and dairy, particularly from cows, have an outsized 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.”

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.

Environmental Racism

The more I learn about animal agriculture, the more I realize that animal abuse and exploitation is not separate from the mistreatment and exploitation of human beings. Rather, both forms of injustice are interconnected in a variety of ways and often reinforce and are dependent on each other.

Animal agriculture is a serious source of air, soil and water pollution. While none of us are immune to such pollution, the disproportionate number of industrialized farms, slaughterhouses and processing facilities in low socio-economic areas and communities of color means that poor people–and especially people of color–are exposed to and burdened with significantly more pollution than those with more money and racial privilege.

Our daily meals offer us the chance to vote with our dollars and stand in solidarity with communities against environmental racism. Environmental racism may take many forms, but when it comes to injustices directly linked to the food industry, we can do our part to not contribute to these unjust actions by choosing a vegan diet.

The Food Empowerment Project 

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 other 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.

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.

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.

I cannot say this enough: 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.