Destroying Our Shared Environment
The world’s human population of 7.7 billion represents only 0.01% of all living things including animal and plant life. Yet, despite this tiny number, humans have impacted the world in such a dramatic and destructive way that a new era has been suggested. Referred to as The Anthropocene, this era is defined by human caused catastrophic destruction of the delicate balance of nature upon which all of life depends for its existence.
A World on the Precipice of Disaster
We have entered the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on earth, causing a biological annihilation of wildlife. Climate catastrophe is imminent. Every day another news item reminds us that the earth we took for granted, believing that it could sustain life indefinitely, is crumbling because of human activity. The media that for so long ignored the major causes of environmental destruction and climate change, is suddenly revealing the horrifying effects of Western World living and calling for a change in our behaviour, including food production and dietary change. Children all over the Western World have begun to strike from school attendance in an effort to shock the adult world out of complacency and take action before it is too late.
How has this happened?
In a relatively short period of time, since we domesticated other animals around 12,000 years ago, and especially since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, humans have rapidly occupied an increasing amount of the planet’s surface. In doing so, we have displaced other species and destroyed their ecosystems. We have rampantly exploited the earth’s finite resources of land, water and clean air, without regard for the needs of others and without concern for the future. Overconsumption and unhindered capitalism with its focus on individual gain and the accumulation of wealth, have fuelled this destruction with the human demand for animal products being one of the most significant drivers of destruction.
That this individualistic exploitation of earth’s resources and of other living beings could only end in catastrophe was clear to some many years ago, but it is only very recently that international organisations such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation have acknowledged that we are systematically destroying the environment upon which we all depend and if we do not take bold, unified action to reverse what we have done, catastrophe is imminent.
Can we avert disaster?
Despite the dire warnings, when each of us looks around us, life appears to go on much as usual. Unless there is a natural disaster that is attributed to climate change or a drastic shortage and/or severe price increase in the products and practices that we engage in every day, most of us don’t experience the effects of these problems. Therefore, we ignore them and keep supporting the very industries and lifestyles that are responsible for them. The problem is exacerbated because the people in those countries that contribute the most to environmental destruction and climate change, are impacted least by their effects.
Farmers in the Western World who have experienced the effects of climate extremes at first hand, have been on the verge of closing down several times in the last few years due to lack of animal food and water. Yet when conditions recover sufficiently, they go back to business as usual, without any consideration of the bigger picture. Those with a vested interest in the major causes of climate change and environment destruction continue to deny their contribution to the problem and defend their continuation. The rest of us continue as normal, creating a demand for the very products that are proving so disastrous. Although the issues are being discussed in the media and at government level, remediation is paltry and insufficient.
The Vegan Solution
One of the critical changes we must make as a species if we are to have any hope of addressing our destruction of this planet, is to stop using and killing other animals. In terms of greenhouse gases and climate change, the misuse of our limited land and water, destruction of biospheres and ecosystems, human-caused species extinction and waste, animal use is such a key contributor that it is becoming clear that we cannot prevent the irreversible destruction of the planet unless we stop using and killing animals and shift to a plant based food system, globally.
As individuals we can take action and it is vital that change occurs at an individual level as well as at a policy level in the countries that are contributing most to the problems. So what changes can you make? As we explain in the following sections, going vegan, including changing our diet from one that includes animal products to a fully plant based diet, is the easiest, most effective way, that individuals can take immediate action to avert environmental disaster and catastrophic climate change.
The Animal Agricultural Problem
Most people are still not aware of the link between climate change, environmental destruction and diet. While most individual attempts to reduce our environmental footprint target the amount of water we use for washing or watering the garden, and our transport needs, of far greater significance is how we eat.
Why is Animal Agriculture so harmful?
When people talk about food waste they are usually referring to the Western World practice of growing, purchasing and then throwing away food that is not eaten. However, the greatest waste of all takes place in animal agriculture because of over-production of animal products that are subsidised even when they are disposed of, and because of the amount of resources it takes to produce animal foods versus plant foods.
Farming animals so that they can be exploited and killed for food happens on an enormous scale. It uses more of the earth’s land than any other human use. It also monopolises the earth’s resources of fossil fuel and water, causes land, air and water pollution, and contributes significantly to global warming.
Given the scale of animal agriculture and the resources that are poured into it, it is not only an unjust use of the lives and bodies of sentient animals, it is also a highly inefficient and unsustainable method of food production. Despite the enormous environmental impact of animal agriculture, it produces only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calorie requirements.
We are finally seeing recognition of the contribution of animal agriculture to planetary destruction by groups of experts funded by non-profits and by United Nations bodies. In recent years a series of reports have been issued, each confirming in turn that we must stop using animals for food if we are to have any hope of avoiding environmental catastrophe. Notably, the Anthropocene is characterised by our exploitation of the world’s most eaten land animal: the 60 billion individual chickens killed worldwide annually for food showing how overconsumption and injustice are at the root of our current problems.
Many reports linking animal agriculture to environmental destruction and climate change ignore the contribution of fishing. Trillions of fishes are killed every year for animal feed and human consumption, and many other sea animals are injured and killed in the process. Fishing relies on fossil fuels, consuming 40 billion litres of fuel in 2011 and generating a total of 179 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent GHGs (4% of global food production) (Parker et al, 2018). Fishing and pollution threaten sea life and alter marine biodiversity. We need resilient and healthy marine ecosystems to absorb our carbon dioxide emissions.
Of course, in many of the more exploited countries of the world the majority of humans already eat an exclusively or predominantly plant-based diet and always have done. It is for the most part the so called Western nations where most animals and animal products are consumed, and so it is these countries that must lead this change of focus to a plant-based food system, and stop their exploitative, capitalist efforts to encourage people in countries where consumption of animal products has been low to consume more in the interests of profit.
Animal Agriculture is Unsustainable
Every year we kill trillions of animals to feed the human population of 7.6 billion. A significant percentage (about 10%) of the global population is malnourished or hungry meaning that they suffer chronic food shortage, a lack of food, and/or lack the necessary calories and protein for key bodily functioning (in other words this is a lethal form of malnutrition). Let’s have a look at the numbers of individuals who are bred into existence and killed every year for approximately 6 billion of us:
Numbers of individual animals killed every year to feed approximately 6 billion humans
Using animals as food consumes significantly more resources than a comparable plant diet. When we eat a plant or vegan diet, we consume plants directly. When we eat animal foods (flesh, fish, dairy and eggs), we consume plants indirectly. Vast amounts of resources in terms of land, water, fertiliser and fossil fuels are required to grow plants that are then fed to animals. While they are alive, the animals take up space on the land for grazing and living, and they consume vast amounts of water. A lot of the resources they consume are used for their basic bodily functions. Therefore when they are used as food, the yield in terms of calories, protein and nutrients is extremely low in comparison to the input required to produce them.
Animal Agriculture uses 83% of the world’s agricultural land, but delivers only 18% of our calories (Poore et al, Science, 2018). Using cows for their flesh (“beef”) uses 60% of the world’s agricultural land but accounts for less than 2% of the calories and 5% of the protein consumed worldwide. (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists). As the following comparison between dairy and plant milks shows, animal foods are significantly more resource intensive than plant food equivalents.
- In 2010 Agriculture and food consumption are identified as one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, water use and toxic emissions. (Source: Assessing the environmental impacts of consumption and production, UNEP (2010).
- In 2016, the Oxford Martin Institute compared the impact of standard and plant-based diets. The report showed that the less animal products we consume the better. If a 100% plant diet were adopted by the year 2050, it could save 8 million human lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (US). (Source: Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change, PNAS, 2016).
- In June 2018, another report analysed the environmental impacts of 38,000 farms producing 40 different agricultural products around the world. It concluded that animal agriculture contributes significantly more GHG emissions than transport and recommended transferring subsidies to plant agriculture and taxing meat and dairy production.