The believers, those who realize the actuality and severity of the environmental crisis, are now thankfully very much the majority. But how many of us are willing to practice what we preach? Minimizing our carbon footprints and contributions to climate change is often limited to shorter showers, driving less and switching off the lights. Every little helps. But beyond these limited changes, there is a general feeling that mitigation of the environmental crises is beyond our control, and lies in governments controlling industry. The industry at the centre of this lobbying for change is energy, and rightly so, for the energy crisis is severe and greenhouse gas emissions from a continuing and accelerating era of coal are shocking. But for all of the hype on the issues of the energy industry, there is equal and opposite silence on another huge polluter: animal agriculture. We need to tackle animal product consumption to mitigate the climate crisis, and it is something that we individuals have the power to do.
The environmental and social flaws of animal agriculture are simple. Energy is lost at each stage of the food chain so meat is an inherently inefficient way of producing food. On a finite earth animal production often translates to environmental and social poverty, with deforestation for grazing land, and food for human subsistence diverted to animal fattening. Meat thus starves the many to stuff the few whilst damaging the environment. My awareness of the meat problem was slow to build, though I remember when researching biofuels, I was told that energy industry farming was far more regulated than food industry farming. One interviewee said the food industry was “untouchable” and could “get away with anything”. As I was researching biofuels at the time, I largely ignored this issue of meat-fuels. More recently, the release of the UK’s Global Calculator shocked me and many others by illuminating the importance of animal agriculture. The tool allows the user to change parameters of human resource consumption to reach the “safe” 2°C limit, and the vegan society had achieved this, and simultaneously eliminated starvation and malnutrition, simply by limiting global meat intake.
This huge and unsung significance of the animal agriculture industry to the climate change crisis has been highlighted and explained by the 2014 documentary The Cowspiracy. The producer, Kip Anderson, like many others, was motivated by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to change his lifestyle and reduce his consumption in whatever way he could. Again like many of us, that meant savings on energy, water and travelling. However his understanding of the necessary lifestyle changes was dramatically altered when he read a 2006 UN paper that claimed animal agriculture is worse for the climate than the entire transport sector. Delving deeper into the issue, he finds many similar claims that the real consumption problem is meat, including Worldwatch’s argument that agriculture contributes 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions making it the leading cause of climate change. In his enlightening assessment of these claims, he reveals the sickening reality of the meat industry.
In the oceans, 75% of fisheries are over exploited and under severe threat. Untargeted species are suffering as for every 1lb of fish caught, there is up to an additional 5lb of unintended bi-kill such as dolphins, sharks, turtles and whales. This is a huge number considering 90 million tones of fish are removed from the ocean annually, a quantity many environmental organizations madly claim to be ‘sustainable’. But the oceans are also suffering from terrestrial agriculture, with huge volumes of animal waste flowing into them resulting in 95,000 square miles of marine dead zones. Terrestrial agriculture is also responsible for 91% of deforestation; with an estimated acre of carbon sequesting rainforest lost each second, and a consequential loss of 100 species by the end of each destructive day. In fact the animal agriculture industry’s demands on the planet are huge, occupying 45% of land on Earth and consuming 1/3rd of the fresh water resources required by humanity. But further to these environmental issues, the methane produced by cows is a greenhouse gas 25 to 100 times more destructive than CO2, making agriculture’s contribution to climate issues severe. Animal agriculture is thus a leading cause of so many interrelated threats to society, species, resources and the climate which are key concerns to so many of us.
However perhaps more sickening than the issues themselves was the silence on them that he not only discovered but was almost forced into. None of the high-profile environmental groups he studied promoted the issue of meat on their websites. In interviews, many of these groups were unaware of, played down or even denied the issue of meat. Greenpeace refused to be interviewed, Rainforest Action Network said, “I don’t know what the biggest issue is”, Sierra Club focused on fossil fuels saying of agriculture “well what about it?” and Animal Agriculture Alliance said “I don’t want to comment”. The only confession was from Amazon Watch who admitted, “you’re barking some good questions”. So why weren’t they talking about it? The environmental author Micheal Pollan explains it is better for their membership to maintain a victim and perpetrator plot line and ensure they don’t villainize their supporters by asking them to make any real sacrifice. But the documentary also highlights the issues of fear and funding from the meat industry; in the same way big oil funds skeptics, big meat funds silence. According to Howard Lyman, a farmer who was previously sued for speaking out, it is now illegal to say anything in the USA that could disrupt the profits of the animal industry under the Patriot Act. Failing that, silence is also being achieved through violence; 1,100 anti-meat activists were killed in 2010 in Brazil alone. Kip himself experienced the power of this silencing force, as his funding was pulled because of the film’s increasing “controversial nature” and he was warned that by speaking out he was “putting [his] neck on the chopping board”.
But he decided not to stop. On realizing the severity of the issues lying behind the silence, he argues he could not sit silently while the planet is eaten alive. Instead he finishes his voyage of discovery and makes some enlightening conclusions. He finds food insecurity is not about human population; we make enough food today to feed 12-15 billion people, but are currently giving half of it to animals. This means that we do not have enough food for our 7 billion and around 1 billion live with insufficient food. As well as insecurity and hunger animal agriculture also contributes to huge strains on the planet, through deforestation, water consumption, marine dead zones, overexploited oceans and a worsening global warming crisis. He resolves that the current consumption of meat, which in America is 9lbs a day, is not sustainable and recommends either significant cut downs, substitution with alternatives, or straight veganism. Dr Michael Klapper confirms it is possible to be fully healthy on a vegan diet whilst avoiding contributing to an unhealthy environment and Lyman says it is necessary as “you cannot call yourself an environmentalist and eat meat and dairy”.
Now it is not the purpose of this piece to say if you are not a vegan you are as bad as the oil companies. It is not as simple as us and them, the goodies and the badies. Vegetarianism and veganism are touchy issues and ones that are not available to everyone (including myself with an adversity to nuts and low blood iron). But we certainly need to be aware of a huge hypocrisy and selectivity in how we discuss the issues of climate change. We continuously centre the discourse on fossil fuels, the lack of international targets and Malthusian population predictions. We consistently ignore – or are heedless of – how much our own animal consumption is contributing to the problems we all wish to solve. The meat industry globally has been a major contributor to many environmental and social injustices on this planet. It is not an industry which should continue in silence but exposed for what it is; a huge threat. Fortunately the severity of the issue is increasingly being realized and it is now time to separate the men and women from the boys and girls and see who is actually willing to take individual action to mitigate their carbon hoof-prints.