NOTE: This set of posts first appeared in Earth Island Journal and because of its tone and content, we share them with you, too. You will find the second post, Animals Are Essential to Sustainable Food, here.
If we care about the environment and believe that kindness is a virtue – as we all say that we do – a vegan diet is the only sensible option. The question becomes: Why eat animals at all?
Animals are made of flesh, bone, and blood, just as you and I are. They form friendships, feel pain and joy, grieve for lost loved ones, and are afraid to die. One cannot profess to care about animals while tearing them away from their friends and families and cutting their throats – or paying someone else to do it – simply to satisfy a fleeting taste for flesh.
What does it say about us that we’re willing to give animals a safe pasture and freedom from suffering only to betray them by killing and eating them in the end? Nicolette Hahn Niman argues in her recent book that it’s acceptable to raise animals for food as long as they are treated humanely and killed quickly. But we wouldn’t extend that philosophy to dogs, cats, or children. The inconsistency means that eating animals simply cannot be justified.
Ms. Niman assures consumers that the animals at the ranch that she manages with her husband, Bill Niman, have a “good life and an easy death.” This likely conjures up images of pigs frolicking together, getting belly rubs and playing in mud puddles while turkeys strut about, gobbling along to music and eating fresh corncobs, melons, and grapes until they’re peacefully euthanized at a ripe old age. Think again. While the animals at BN Ranch may have a better life and may face an easier death than the animals killed for Smithfield or Butterball, “good” is not an accurate description. What kind of good life ends at age 12, which is the human equivalent of the oldest non-breeding animals on farms such as hers? Niman’s arguments are similar to those of slaveholders who advocated treating slaves more kindly but did not actually want to abolish slavery.
Ultimately, it’s not our farming practices that need to change – it’s our diets. As Niman knows, we cannot use only pastureland to produce the amount of meat that is currently consumed in this country. Approximately 10 billion cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are killed for food each year in the United States alone. The sheer number of animals killed to satisfy people’s taste for flesh makes it impossible to raise and slaughter them all on small family farms.
PETA photoEveryone agrees: Industrial livestock operations, where cattle live amid their own manure, are horrible.
Claiming that meat eating can be ethical or eco-friendly tends to pacify people who want to feel as if they are doing the right thing but don’t want to stop eating meat. Yet raising and killing animals is neither moral nor green. As Niman knows, meat production is resource-intensive and plays a role in nearly every major environmental problem, including climate change.
Animal agriculture is one of the world’s largest sources of CO2 and the largest source of methane, which is more than 23 times more powerful than CO2 when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Research by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, the authors of Livestock and Climate Change, indicates that raising animals for food produces 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. Of course, animals on feedlots produce more greenhouse gasses than pasture-raised animals, but all farmed animals produce methane while digesting food, and their feces also emit methane.
One of the world’s leading authorities on climate change – Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and himself a vegetarian – believes that everyone in the developed world should consume a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons. According to Pachauri, “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it clearly is the most attractive opportunity.” The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency has reported that climate change mitigation costs could be reduced by 80 percent if everyone around the globe went vegan.
Meat consumption is also a major contributor to food shortages. There would be more food to go around if more people went vegan because many staple crops are fed to farmed animals instead of to hungry people. This is especially wasteful considering that animals can only turn a small fraction of that food into flesh. It takes about 700 calories worth of feed to produce just one piece of 100-calorie beef.
More food can be grown on a given parcel of land when we aren’t funneling crops through animals. Vegfam, which funds sustainable plant-food projects, estimates that a 10-acre farm can support 60 people by growing soy, 24 people by growing wheat, or 10 people by growing corn – but only two by raising cattle photo courtesy bn ranchHappy cows? Rajt argues that sustainable ranching is like “treating slaves
more kindly” without actually abolishing slavery.
The United Nations’ special envoy on food says that it’s a “crime against humanity” to funnel 100 million tons of grain and corn into ethanol while nearly 1 billion people are starving. So how much more of a crime is it to divert 756 million tons of grain and corn per year – plus 98 percent of the 225-million-ton global soy crop – to farmed animals? With 1.4 billion people living in dire poverty, reserving these harvests for animal forage is tantamount to stealing food out of people’s mouths.
Meat production is inefficiency at its worst. When you factor in all the water squandered on animal agriculture and all the fossil fuels needed to operate slaughterhouses and processing plants and to transport meat from the plants to the stores – not to mention the air and water pollution that results from it all – you’ll understand why it just makes sense not to eat animals. As Ms. Niman – who herself has been a vegetarian for years – can tell you, one can live quite healthily and happily without eating animals.
A vegetarian since her teenage years, Lindsay Rajt manages grassroots campaigns at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Rajt has coordinated campaigns targeting KFC’s “torture” of chickens as well as the treatment of horses at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
by Lindsay Rajt