Another great documentary to watch:
A few years ago, I was talking with Al Gore (yes, I’m name dropping). I asked him a very simple and pointed question: “Animal agriculture contributes about 18 percent of the gases that cause climate change. Why didn’t you mention this in your book or movie?”
His answer was disconcertingly honest. I’m paraphrasing, but he said: “For most people, the role of animal agriculture in climate change is too inconvenient of a truth.”
We like our animal products.
Well, you like your animal products. I’ve been a vegan for 28 years, so to be honest I don’t even remember what they taste like.
But collectively, as a species, we seem to like animal products. A lot.
To wit: Each year, the U.S. grows and kills about 10 billion livestock animals. Globally, we’re raising and slaughtering about 56 billion animals animal agriculture each year. If you do the math, that means we’re killing 1,776 animals for food every second of every day. That doesn’t even include fish and other seafood.
But even though I’m a vegan for ethical reasons, I don’t want to write about the animal ethics of animal agriculture. I want to write about the ways in which animal agriculture is killing us and ruining our planet.
I know, that sounds like left wing hyperbole. “It’s killing our planet!” But sometimes hyperbole isn’t hyperbole. Sometimes hyperbole is just the clear-eyed truth. I’ll start with climate change.
The U.N. released a conservative report wherein they stated that animal agriculture causes about 18 percent of current greenhouse gas emissions.
To put it in perspective: animal agriculture is responsible for producing more climate change gases than every car, boat, bus, truck, motorcycle and airplane on the planet. Combined.
But we like our animals — or at least growing and eating them. So we make the trade-off: animal products for climate change.
Climate is complicated. And climate change is complicated. But the role of animal agriculture in climate change is simple.
And how about famine? There are over 7,000,000,000 people on the planet, and many of them are very, very hungry. Article after article and book after book ask the question: “How will we feed a planet of 7 or 8 or 9 or 10 billion people?” The discussions turn to fertilizer and GMOs and arable land.
But here’s a painfully simple idea: stop feeding human food to livestock.
It takes around 15 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef – which can feed a couple people for a few hours. In comparison, 13 pounds of grain fed to humans directly can feed 13 people for most of the day.
“We’re killing 1,776 animals for food every second of every day.”
Globally, we don’t have a famine problem; we have a livestock problem. Feeding food to animals and then eating the animals is kind of like heating your house during the winter by burning wood outside.
Speaking of winters: a few years ago, tired of cold winters in New York, I moved to California. Last year in L.A., we had around 362 beautiful days of sunshine. It was 80 degrees on Christmas, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Which is great, apart from the fact that California and most of the West are now experiencing the worst drought in recorded history.
As Californians, we’ve been asked to take shorter showers and use less water on our lawns. Both are good ideas. But let’s put it in perspective: a long shower uses around 40 gallons of water. Whereas it takes 4,000 to 18,000 gallons of water to create a 1/3 lb hamburger.
But other agriculture is egregiously water intensive – including rice and cotton, but especially animal agriculture. Each pound of chicken requires about 500 gallons of water, and pork requires about 576 gallons of water.
“Personally, I’d like to make a deal with California. I’ll take much shorter showers if you stop subsidizing water use for livestock.”
Personally, I’d like to make a deal with California. I’ll take much shorter showers if you stop subsidizing water use for livestock. If I just jumped in the shower and bathed quickly, I could even get it down to five gallons of water per shower. And after 132 showers, I would’ve used as much water as is needed to create one pound of beef.
So we’ve established that having an estimated 56,000,000,000 livestock animals on the planet uses a lot of water and grain and creates a lot of methane and carbon dioxide.
But these billions of animals also make waste. The really disgusting waste, not just invisible climate warming gases.
Let’s put this in perspective: the good people of Philadelphia create roughly1,000,000 tons of urine and feces per year. And one, only one, large pig farm will produce roughly 1,600,000 tons of urine and feces per year.
“One large pig farm annually creates 600,000 tons more urine and feces than the city of Philadelphia.”
Our lakes and rivers are being fouled with algae blooms. Our groundwater is being polluted. And the main culprit is livestock.The 56 billion livestock animals on the planet are making tons and tons of feces and urine every year — three times as much as humans.
And, in addition to fouling our water supplies, it’s also fouling our homes. A University of Arizona study found more residual feces and waste in the average omnivores kitchen than in their toilet bowl. Largely due to meat into the home.
The animals spend their lives in their own feces and urine, and when they’re killed and packaged, they bring their feces and urine with them. Into your home. They also bring pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, cholesterol and saturated fat.
To that end: if we collectively stopped eating animals and animal products tomorrow, studies suggest we’d see a drop in obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
“We don’t have a global health epidemic; we have a global livestock epidemic. “
We don’t have a global health epidemic; we have a global livestock epidemic. Toomuch of the western world health care budgets go to curing people of diseases caused by the consumption of animal products.
And I’m not going to toot the vegan horn too much, but vegans have significantly lower rates of obesity, diabetes and some cancers.
When I talk to people about animal agriculture and meat eating, people often say, “But meat is inexpensive.” And it is. But only because it’s so heavily subsidized by our tax dollars. In the United States, we spend billions of dollars every year in direct and indirect subsidies to the meat and dairy industries. Billions of dollars in our tax dollars, subsidizing a product that ruins our environment and decimates our health.
We subsidize the grain that’s fed to livestock. We subsidize the water that’s used in livestock production. We, the taxpayers, subsidize animal agriculture.
And what do we get? We get climate change gases. And we get trillions of pounds of animal waste that fouls our lakes and rivers and reservoirs. We get an end product that causes cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
And, saving the best for last, we also get zoonotic diseases.
“Zoonotic” is a fun and fancy sounding word. It sort of sounds like a very erudite part of a zoo, where the animals read books and live on boats. But zoonotic diseases are not fun or fancy. Some zoonotic diseases you might be familiar with: E.coli, Salmonella, SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola and even some old standards like smallpox and the common cold.
Luckily, thus far, we’ve been able to treat most zoonotic diseases with antibiotics. But here’s the rub: animals on factory farms are so sick, and in such bad shape, that antibiotics are all that’s keeping them from dying before they’re slaughtered. The animals are fed obscene amounts of antibiotics while they’re alive, and these antibiotics are then found in their milk and their eggs and their meat.
When you’re eating an animal, you’re eating the fat and the muscle but you’re also eating all of the antibiotics the animal has been fed during its life.
The double whammy of zoonotic diseases coming from animal agriculture: animals are the source of the zoonotic diseases but they’re also the source of antibiotic resistance. So the zoonotic diseases can kill us, especially as animal agriculture has created superbugs who don’t respond to conventional antibiotics.
That’s the fun world of animal agriculture.
A simple re-cap:
Uses tons of grain that could be fed directly to people
Uses tons of fresh water that could be used to grow healthy food
Creates tons of urine and feces that ruin our lakes, rivers and drinking water
Creates about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions
Contributes to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer
Causes epidemic zoonotic diseases
Contributes to the creation of antibiotic resistant “super bugs”
And is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars.
As a species, we are faced with complicated and seemingly intractable problems. And then we’re faced with animal agriculture.
So rather than focus on the hard, intractable problems (like curing baldness) let’s simply focus on something easy with phenomenal benefit: ending animal agriculture.
All we have to do is stop subsidizing it and stop buying animal products. Simple. And climate change gases are reduced by about 18 percent.
Famine could end. Fresh water could become clean and more abundant. Deaths from cancer and heart disease and diabetes and obesity could be reduced. And zoonotic diseases could be largely reduced.
It really is that simple.
We’ve done hard things in the past. We’ve ended slavery. We’ve given everyone the right to vote. We’ve passed legislation prohibiting children from working in factories. We’re even moving towards a time when cigarette smoking will be seen as a foul, distant memory.
We can do this. We have to. Our reliance on animal agriculture is literally killing us and ruining our climate and our planet.
I’ll end by quoting Albert Einstein:
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” -Albert Einstein
News & Opinion
Wearing t-shirts with slogans like “Climate Justice Starts Here,” hundreds, if not thousands, of Climate March participants in NYC lined up at food trucks at the street fair after the parade to buy meat, fish and dairy products, demonstrating either a lack of awareness or disregard for what the United Nations says is, by far, the number one contributor of climate change and the planet’s biggest polluter, animal agriculture.
How can the nation’s leading enviromental groups expect the general public to make eco-friendly choices if their own members engage in the most environmentally destructive activity — and if they themselves don’t promote a plant-based diet? Can we really expect world leaders at this week’s United Nations’ Climate Summit to take drastic measures to reverse climate change if “environmentalists” can’t take the most basic one?
At Climate Change marches around the world, plant-based/vegan participants displayed compelling posters and distributed information about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, and their efforts will assuredly effect some change. However, as evidenced in the groundbreaking documentary film Cowspiracy, animal agriculture must be eliminated altogether in order to reverse climate change and save the planet.
The meat industry in the United States is big business: The vast majority of Americans eat meat, and we eat a lot of it–roughly 200 pounds per person every single year (in animals, that’s about 30 chickens, 1 turkey, one-third of a pig, one-tenth of a cow, and dozens of fin fish).
And although per capita consumption has fallen in recent years, we’re still eating far more than our parents and grandparents–including six times as many chickens per capita as were consumed in the 1930’s.
Now, for the first time, we know how much our national meat habit is costing us: Roughly 414 billion dollars annually in external health, environmental, and animal welfare costs, according to a superbly researched new book, Meatonomics, by California attorney David Robinson Simon.
If those costs were incorporated into the price, according to Simon’s analysis, animal products would cost almost three times as much as they do today. With the true costs included, consumption levels would plummet.
Simon stresses that his figures are conservative: Because his estimates are limited to those supported by published research, he necessarily omitted some costs that have gone unmeasured in the scientific and economic literature. For example, Simon’s numbers on health care assign only a fraction of the heart disease tally to meat, even though we know that a low fat vegan diet will reverse the disease for almost everyone who has it.
His numbers on the environment look at lost property values due factory farms destroying local environments and carbon offsets, but of course, the external effects of warming are far greater than the value of the offsets, and property values can’t capture the fact that these industrial farms destroy communities and ruin lives.
Finally, his quantification of the cruelty meted out by these industries discusses just five meat industry abuses–such as cramming pigs and chickens into tiny crates where they never spread their limbs or go outside–and relies on consumer willingness to pay to get rid of them. It’s an impressive analysis, based on work published by Oxford University Press and carried out by agricultural economists from Oklahoma State University, but of course these are the sorts of things that defy valuation.
The fact that $414 billion is conservative is in no way a problem with the book, of course–the real figures are incalculable, and conservative figures are more than adequate to accomplish Simon’s task of explaining that the USDA’s promotion of meat, and the lack of inclusion of external costs, mean that Americans consume vastly more of the stuff than we would if we were paying the true costs.
Simon’s solution comes in three parts: An excise tax on all products that contain animal ingredients, a tax credit for every American (basically giving back most of the tax revenues), and a reformulation of the USDA’s mission away from promoting the consumption of animal products to instead promote the public health.
The tax and subsidies are proposals that should be supported by all sides of the political spectrum: Progressives should love them for their positive impact on human health, the environment, and animals. Conservatives should love the consumption focus, as well as the tax relief and reward of responsible behavior.
Though enacting Simon’s proposals will require a steep climb, Simon makes his case persuasively: The meat industry is harming our health, destroying our environment, and abusing billions of animals annually. As he notes in discussing prospects for his plans: “Change does happen, often in swift and surprising ways.”
Meatonomics deserves a prime spot in the library of everyone who cares about the politics of food.
I am absolutely grateful for people who make these documentaries, it is very important and needs to be seen and hopefully one day we will realize what we are doing to ourselves, the animals and our environment.
The Association of American Feed Control (AAFCO), the authority concerned with determining what it is that goes in to your pet’s food has been said to include the annual gross of the nation’s euthanized pets. They have gone on record clearly indicating that, yes, in fact the USA’s annual yield of euthanized cats, dogs, guinea pigs, et cetera, go into the ‘meat and bone meal’ portion of the feed bag’s content listing.
“There’s really no way to tell what is inside the ingredients of pet food,” says Hershel Pendell, former president of the AAFCO. This happens because many of the controlling interests of the AAFCO are also ‘top dogs’ in various pet food companies. While including the nation’s former pets, the people who are responsible for constituting what goes in to pet chow see the animals to be just another source of cheap protein.
The more concerned of today’s pet owners are now apt to buy the more expensive available varieties of pet food. Pet food’s where the ingredients are fully listed and can be easily read. Better foods are now being fed to the pets of people whom actually care whether or not their deceased just prior former pet is a part of the chow’s makeup.
“Crucially, the researchers found that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. Rates of cancer and death also did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbohydrate or fat consumption, suggesting that animal protein is the main culprit.”
That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette. In a new study that tracked a large sample of adults for nearly two decades, researchers have found that eating a diet rich in animal proteins during middle age makes you four times more likely to die of cancer than someone with a low-protein diet — a mortality risk factor comparable to smoking.
“There’s a misconception that because we all eat, understanding nutrition is simple. But the question is not whether a certain diet allows you to do well for three days, but can it help you survive to be 100?” said corresponding author Valter Longo, the Edna M. Jones Professor of Biogerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute.
Not only is excessive protein consumption linked to a dramatic rise in cancer mortality, but middle-aged people who eat lots of proteins from animal sources — including meat, milk and cheese — are also more susceptible to early death in general, reveals the study to be published March 4 in Cell Metabolism. Protein-lovers were 74 percent more likely to die of any cause within the study period than their more low-protein counterparts. They were also several times more likely to die of DIABETES.
But how much protein we should eat has long been a controversial topic — muddled by the popularity of protein-heavy DIETS such as Paleo and Atkins. Before this study, researchers had never shown a definitive correlation between high protein consumption and mortality risk.
Rather than look at adulthood as one monolithic phase of life, as other researchers have done, the latest study considers how biology changes as we age, and how decisions in middle life may play out across the human lifespan.
In other words, what’s good for you at one age may be damaging at another. Protein controls the growth hormone IGF-I, which helps our bodies grow but has been linked to cancer susceptibility. Levels of IGF-I drop off dramatically after age 65, leading to potential frailty and muscle loss. The study shows that while high protein intake during middle age is very harmful, it is protective for older adults: those over 65 who ate a moderate- or HIGH-PROTEIN diet were less susceptible to disease.
The latest paper draws from Longo’s past research on IGF-I, including on an Ecuadorian cohort that seemed to have little cancer or DIABETES susceptibility because of a genetic mutation that lowered levels of IGF-I; the members of the cohort were all less than five-feet tall.
“The research shows that a low-protein diet in middle age is useful for preventing cancer and overall mortality, through a process that involves regulating IGF-I and possibly insulin levels,” said co-author Eileen Crimmins, the AARP Chair in Gerontology at USC. “However, we also propose that at older ages, it may be important to avoid a low-protein diet to allow the maintenance of healthy weight and protection from frailty.”
Crucially, the researchers found that plant-based proteins, such as those from beans, did not seem to have the same mortality effects as animal proteins. Rates of cancer and death also did not seem to be affected by controlling for carbohydrate or fat consumption, suggesting that animal protein is the main culprit.
“The majority of Americans are eating about twice as much proteins as they should, and it seems that the best change would be to lower the daily intake of all proteins but especially animal-derived proteins,” Longo said. “But don’t get extreme in cutting out protein; you can go from protected to malnourished very quickly.”
Longo’s findings support recommendations from several leading health agencies to consume about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day in middle age. For example, a 130-pound person should eat about 45-50 grams of protein a day, with preference for those derived from plants such as legumes, Longo explains.
The researchers define a “HIGH-PROTEIN” diet as deriving at least 20 percent of CALORIES from protein, including both plant-based and animal-based protein. A “moderate” protein diet includes 10-19 percent of calories from protein, and a “low-protein” diet includes less than 10 percent protein.
Even moderate amounts of protein had detrimental effects during middle age, the researchers found. Across all 6,318 adults over the age of 50 in the study, average protein intake was about 16 percent of total daily calories with about two-thirds from animal protein — corresponding to data about national protein consumption. The study sample was representative across ethnicity, education and health background.
People who ate a moderate amount of protein were still three times more likely to die of cancer than those who ate a low-protein DIET in middle age, the study shows. Overall, even the small change of decreasing protein intake from moderate levels to low levels reduced likelihood of early death by 21 percent.
For a randomly selected smaller portion of the sample – 2,253 people – levels of the growth hormone IGF-I were recorded directly. The results show that for every 10 ng/ml increase in IGF-I, those on a HIGH-PROTEIN diet were 9 percent more likely to die from cancer than those on a low-protein diet, in line with past research associating IGF-I levels to cancer risk.
The researchers also extended their findings about HIGH-PROTEIN diets and mortality risk, looking at causality in mice and cellular models. In a study of tumor rates and progression among mice, the researchers show lower cancer incidence and 45 percent smaller average tumor size among mice on a low-protein diet than those on a high-protein diet by the end of the two-month experiment.
“Almost everyone is going to have a cancer cell or pre-cancer cell in them at some point. The question is: Does it progress?” Longo said. “Turns out one of the major factors in determining if it does is is protein intake.”