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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
A vegan diet offers an incredibly effective way to protect animals, the environment, and your health.
If you don’t want your food dollar to support animal slaughter, a vegan diet is really the only way to go. That’s because there are no retirement homes for dairy cows and egg-laying hens. They all go to slaughter, typically before they’ve reached even half their natural life expectancy.
Apart from animal slaughter, there are intractable ethical problems associated with dairy products and eggs. One of the key objections to the dairy industry is that, in order to maximize milk yields, dairy cows are typically kept pregnant nine months out of every year. And as a result, the dairy industry is awash with unwanted calves. And since male dairy calves are obviously unable to produce milk, and aren’t the correct breed to be raised as beef, they are generally raised for veal or slaughtered at birth. The male counterparts of egg-laying hens don’t fare any better; most of these animals are eithersmothered or ground up alive immediately after hatching. In the United States alone, about 200 million male chicks are discarded in this manner each year.
Leaving aside the fact that nearly all dairy cows and layer hens go to slaughter, these animals are often subjected to even greater cruelties than those who are bred for meat. You can become acquainted with the ethical problems of the dairy and egg industries by watching the short video Farm to Fridge or by reading books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals or Mark Hawthorne’s Bleating Hearts.
From an environmental point of view, a vegan diet likewise makes enormous sense. There’s no doubt that raising crops directly for food requires fewer resources, and generates less waste, than feeding crops to animals. What’s more, scientists are unanimous that the methane production associated with livestock is one of the key factors in global warming—quite possibly exceeding the impact of all greenhouse gases generated by cars, airplanes, trains, and ships.
The health advantages of a vegan diet aren’t as pronounced as many animal advocates contend, and it’s certainly possible to eat an extremely healthful diet that contains some animal products. That said, a vegan diet will automatically eliminate many of the the most unhealthful foods that people regularly eat: hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, fried chicken, ice cream, and so forth. When you replace these foods with more healthful vegan choices, it’s likely that you’ll feel better while simultaneously reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.
What Mylan Engel remembers most about his grandfather’s hog farm is when he was about 8 years old and he first saw piglets being castrated.
“It was horrifying,” Engel said. “My cousins were castrating those pigs like they were peeling carrots.”
Engel, a philosophy professor at Northern Illinois University, presented his reasons for following a vegan diet based on ethical principles and health reasons Thursday in the Doudna Fine Arts Center Lecture Hall.
Engel explained his advocacy for veganism by outlining HASK practices, or practices that knowingly harm, inflict suffering on or kill conscious sentient animals “for no good reason.”
He said in situations where no other resources are available, killing animals for food is acceptable, but in most situations, plant-based diets are viable options.
However, Engel did not always follow these guidelines; he himself was a hunter until the age of 20.
While in graduate school in 1984, Engel participated in competitive long distance running with a friend who was vegetarian.
He said he became convinced he could meet all his nutritional needs with a vegetarian diet when he realized his friend was the fittest person he had ever met.
“This guy could run circles around me, so I switched to a vegetarian diet,” Engel said.
Engel did not become vegan until 1996 when he attended the World Congress for Animals in Washington, D.C. and met animal rights leaders.
“Listening to them talk and seeing how healthy and vibrant all these vegans were around me, I realized that the only way I could be consistent with my own values was to give it all up,” Engel said.
Engel defended his premises by citing data that suggested humans’ nutritional needs could be met with a plant-based diet.
According to his presentation, the American Dietetic Association and the Dieticians of Canada share the position that vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and can prevent and treat certain diseases, and well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets are appropriate for all ages.
One audience member asked about individual sustainable farming, citing that there were simple, efficient ways to kill animals that are quick and relatively painless.
Engel responded that killing animals when other options are available is still wrong because it is depriving the animal of half or more of its life.
“If in the middle of the night tonight when you’re sound asleep, I slit your throat and kill you painlessly, would I have harmed you?” Engel asked.
Engel also pointed out that vegan diets offer plenty of variety, contrary to what some might think.
“But this privilege of having a wide variety of choices, it’s ethically constrained,” Engel said. “The privilege stops once there’s a victim.”
Another audience member asked why eating eggs or milk was ethically wrong if those products were not sentient beings.
Engel said 900 million male chicks are grinded alive each year because they are considered byproducts of egg production, and similarly, bull calves are sold for veal and calves in general are taken from their mothers, causing them to grieve.
“We’re led to believe by the dairy council that milk, it’s a natural, it does a body good,” Engel said. “But human beings are the only mammalian species that drinks milk past the age of weaning.”
Another point of his lecture was that eating fish is unethical as well because studies indicate their intelligence and ability to feel pain, whether they are crushed by the weight of other fish in giant nets, suffocated on the surface, destroyed by the rapid changes in pressure, or kept in bad conditions on fish farms.
“Fish typically experience extremely painful deaths at our hands,” he said. “Treating fish in these ways harms them, causes them to suffer and kills them.”
Warning at 1:27 – 1:36 (some graphic footage)
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.