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.
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.
Lead author Joseph Poore is quoted as stating:
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.
“It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he explained, which would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy,”
“impacts of the lowest-impact animal products typically exceed those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change.”
Source: Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers, Science, 2018).
- Later in that same month of January 2019 the EAT–Lancet Commission published a second report on the work of 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe, who reviewed extensive data and scientific studies in order to reach a consensus on what constitutes a healthy and sustainable diet. The report concluded that a diet that takes account of human health and climate change is based on plants.
(Source: The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change, The Lancet, January 2019)
We are now seeing fairly consistent reinforcement from international bodies and groups of experts, that we must shift to plant-based food production and consumption to avoid human destruction of the planet and for human health. We must take action individually by switching to a plant-based diet, and we must press for policy change.
Animal Agriculture & Climate Change
The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by human-made emissions into the atmosphere. Eighteen of the 19 warmest years all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998. The year 2016 ranks as the warmest on record. (Source: NASA/GISS). The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. While the earth’s climate has changed throughout history, the current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is the result of human activity since the mid-20th century and it is proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented. The planet is undergoing one of the largest climate changes in Earth’s history, and also one of the fastest in the past 65 million years.
This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) (Source: NASA).
There are several ways in which climate change occurs. The most significant is the emission of GHGs (Green House Gases) that trap heat. Current levels of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in our atmosphere are higher than at any point over the past 800,000 years. GHGs result from human activity such as burning fossil fuels for manufacturing, transport and to generate heat. The gas responsible for the most warming is carbon dioxide, or CO2. Other contributors include methane released from landfills, natural gas and petroleum industries, and agriculture (especially from the digestive systems of grazing animals); nitrous oxide from fertilizers; gases used for refrigeration and industrial processes; and the loss of forests that would otherwise store CO2.
The production of food is an under-rated contributor to the problem. Using animals for food and other purposes is a leading cause of climate change, having a greater impact on climate change than all international transport combined. The production of animal foods also uses fertilisers that increase GHG emissions, and animal agriculture is a significant driver of deforestation. In addition, animal agriculture generates enormous amounts of animal waste which emit GHGs. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of methane and nitrous oxide emissions, gases which have a shorter life than CO2 but which trap significantly more heat and are therefore very large contributors to changing temperatures. While emissions from the energy sector are predicted to rise by approximately 20% in the next few decades, the growing human population means that emissions from animal agriculture are set to rise 80% by the year 2050 unless we change to a plant based food system.
Changing how we eat is one of the easiest and most effective ways in which we, as individuals, can avert climate change right now. It is significantly easier and more feasible to change what we eat three times a day than it is to change how we heat our homes. Changing how we eat is something that each of us can do right now today. It is not expensive, in fact it can be much cheaper to live on fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds than to eat animal products. Eating a wholefoods plant diet also benefits our health and stops the unnecessary exploitation and deaths of other animals. So, changing to a plant based food system is a highly effective method of dealing with climate change.
A Harvard report published in 2019 showed that land if in the UK, currently used for farming animals and growing the crops that feed them, was instead returned to its natural forest state, not only would the UK be able to provide all its calorie and protein needs, twelve years worth of carbon emissions could be absorbed (Harwatt and Hayek, 2019, Animal Law & Policy School Programme, Harvard Law School).
It is now beyond doubt that if we do not make dramatic changes right now, on an individual and policy level, we will cause irreversible climate change that will devastate much of life on the planet. These changes must include shifting to plant-based eating, as individuals, and a plant-based food system nationally and internationally.
The precise percentage contribution of GHG by animal agriculture depends on whether we look purely at the gases created by the animals themselves or include the related ways in which using animals generates GHG: clearing land so it can be used to grow crops then fed to animals; clearing land to repurpose it for animal grazing; loss of carbon sequestration through loss of forestry; forest burning and transportation related to animal use.
Even if we look at the most conservative estimate of the impact of animal agriculture on climate change, it produces 14.5% of all global GHG which is more than the contribution of global transport, estimated at 14% by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report: see page 46.). (It is It is notable that in 2006 the same organisation had reported that animal agriculture accounted for 18% of all GHG. Between 2006 and 2013 they changed their approach to assessment of the percentage. For one analysis of this change in their position see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpmTiHjUEBU at 3:30 minutes, supported by this Op Ed piece by Robert Goodland who was an environmental advisor at the World Bank).
When we take into account the impact on GHG of land clearance, forest burning and the loss of carbon sequestration associated with animal use, we are looking at a much higher percentage contribution to climate change. A 2009 World Watch report assessed the impact of animal use more broadly and concluded that the percentage contribution to climate change was as high as 51%. One of the authors of that report, an environmental advisor to the World Bank, explained that:
“The key difference between the 18 percent and 51 percent figures is that the latter accounts for how exponential growth in livestock production (now more than 60 billion land animals per year), accompanied by large scale deforestation and forest-burning, have caused a dramatic decline in the earth’s photosynthetic capacity, along with large and accelerating increases in volatilization of soil carbon.” 
A number of other reports indicate that the contribution of animal use to GHG is much higher than the 2013 FAO estimate, citing the figure at approximately one quarter of total GHG emissions (Source: Climate Change and Food Systems, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2012). Furthermore, they warn that if we continue on this path the sector stands to contribute as much as 80% of all GHG as the population increase to a predicted 10 billion in the next thirty years.
Whichever way it is assessed, animal use is a significant contributor to human caused climate catastrophe and must be addressed.
We are already seeing the impact of our actions, with aberrant climate disasters becoming more and more frequent, mostly in exploited nations, where the pillaging of people, land, natural resources and minerals, along with white supremacist policies, has left countries, people and other animals, much more vulnerable. There is a failure, particularly in Western World countries, to see beyond their own borders and their own local economies, to the impact of their actions on more vulnerable nations.
Why the focus on transport instead of the food system?
So why is there so much focus on reduction of GHG in transport and so little on promoting a food system based on plants, not animals? As animal rights activists have stated for decades, and many of the recent scientific reports have corroborated, industries with a vested interest in profiting from the lives of animals in the food industry, have influenced public educational and government policy making to such as extent that their destructive influence on planetary health has remained hidden.
Case Study: Ireland
Using Ireland as an example, a recent publication from Eurostat shows that 30.7% of all greenhouse gases emitted in Ireland come from the agricultural sector, making it the highest percentage of any EU country. Yet, government policy supports plans to expand the production of animal foods and denies and defends current policy and fails to take steps in favour of planetary health such as vegan education, taxing animal products, and changing subsidies away from animal agriculture to support farmers to engage in plant alternatives.
Despite acknowledgement of the seriousness of this by the Irish Prime Minister, he recently announced his intention to ‘eat less meat’. This shows a gross underestimation of the radical change in dietary behaviour that is required if we are to halt climate change. In fact, given that Irish emissions from dairy are three times greater than those from animal flesh, Leo Varadkar’s effort to ‘eat less meat’ is not only an insufficient ‘baby step’ but shows a lack of understanding or acknowledgement at the highest levels of government policy making in Ireland. But even this paltry suggestion was met with a backlash from the farming industry in Ireland, as happened when the former president and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson suggested a few years previously that a transition to a plant diet is a necessary part of climate justice.
What you can do.
The easiest, most effective action we can take right now to avert climate change and environmental destruction, is to be vegan. Vegans eat a 100% plant diet. This is one of the most important forms of action we can take to protect the planet.
We owe it to the planet, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to other humans, particularly those who are experiencing the greatest impact of climate change and environmental destruction, we owe it to our children, and we owe it to the billions of other lifeforms who exist alongside us and who have as much right to be here as we do.
Download our guide to being vegan here.
The best film resource to date on the link between animal agriculture and destruction of the natural environment is Cowspiracy, released in 2015. There is an accompanying book The Sustainability Secret. Cowspiracy is available to download or to watch on Netflix.
The best book source is Dr Richard Oppenlander’s Food Choice and Sustainability. It covers all aspects of global depletion related to animal agriculture, offers unique perspectives on the disconnect that causes such unnecessary devastation including the state of our oceans and sea life, world hunger, permaculture/land use inefficiencies, fresh water scarcity, fallacies with food movements, detailed discussions on climate change, and insights into loss of biodiversity.
Another excellent reference is source Dr Oppenlander’s first book and the accompanying website Comfortably Unaware.
A Well Fed World
Plant Based Solutions to Global Hunger & Climate Change
Truth or Drought
An Taisce (contains interesting reports on Ireland)
Think or Swim: John Gibbons
Check out our section on veganic farming and alternatives to animal agriculture with links to other excellent sites such as The Vegan Society’s Grow Green reports and Veganic Food Production.
 ICCP report October 2018 https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock: www.fao.org/3/a-i3437e.pdf It is notable that in 2006 the same organisation had reported that animal agriculture accounted for 18% of all GHG. Between 2006 and 2013 they changed their approach to assessment of the percentage. For one analysis of this change in their position see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpmTiHjUEBU at 3:30 minutes, supported by this Op Ed piece by Robert Goodland who was an environmental advisor at the World Bank: https://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/fao-yields-to-meat-industry-pressure-on-climate-change/
 Goodland & Anhang, World Watch: Livestock and Climate Change, 2009: http://templatelab.com/livestock-and-climate-change/
 Vermeulen, SJ, Campbell, BM, Ingram, JSI (2012) Climate Change and Food Systems, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 2012 37:1, 195-222.