I became vegan 3 years ago, after 4 years as a vegetarian, because I care deeply for the environment and wildlife. The decision arose from a startling awareness of the need for a drastic change in my consumption habits and society’s as a whole. I realized, in the beginning, that I could make a positive impact by changing the way I consumed each day. I no longer use plastic bags, stopped purchasing products with biologically harmful chemicals, boycott products with palm oil, and gave up fast, unethical fashion. The most important change I made, however, was with food. I realized that, by giving up animal products for good, I could make a positive change, 3 times a day, 365 days a year.
Despite these personal lifestyle choices, the motivation for environmental progress on a broader scale lags sorrily behind. The little things that we, as individuals, have been doing to help mitigate global warming are simply not enough. Meatless Monday, an international campaign that encourages people to not eat meat on Mondays (1), while commendable for participants, is not enough to neutralize the massive scale of environmental damage already done. According to the UNDP, “The planet's surface temperature has increased an average of 0.85 °C from 1880-2012, and during the past year, measurements taken across the globe during various periods have reported abnormally high temperatures.” July 2016 for example, was the hottest month on record – ever (2).”
Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that usually comes to mind with regard to climate change, is not the greatest gaseous emission causing rising temperatures. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Methane is even worse for global warming than carbon dioxide is. “For example, over a 100-year time horizon, one metric ton of methane and 21 metric tons of carbon dioxide trap an equal amount of heat in the atmosphere (3).” If methane has 21 times more global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide, we need much stricter regulations on animal agricultural industries and innovative approaches, such as permaculture, to make the industry cleaner (4). Industry responds to the demands of the people, therefore, society as a whole must insist on greater change. Giving up meat once a week is not enough. To safely limit the increase in global mean temperature to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, we must commit to eating less meat every day.
Well intended agricultural practices of the past century were designed to enrich people’s lives by ensuring adequate nutrition, warmth, and a dignified living space. Such practices were expanded and widely adopted by developing countries who gladly subsidized their establishment in the name of progress. In the second half of the 20th century, however, scientists concluded that many of these same industries are major contributors to environmental destruction and contamination (5), and not the saving grace once hoped for. Industrialized animal agriculture is a prime example. “Domestic livestock such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels produce large amounts of methane as part of their normal digestive process. Also, when animals' manure is stored or managed in lagoons or holding tanks, methane is produced. Globally, the Agriculture sector is the primary source of methane emissions (6).”
Methane output, however, is not the only contributor of animal agriculture to climate change. The practice has negative impacts on our planet in many ways. Producing animal products for human consumption provides fewer calories than if we ate the feed crops ourselves [see table (7)]. Corn and soy production necessary to feed cattle, chicken, and pigs require tremendous input from fossil fuels, as well as substantial quantities of fresh water – itself a scarce commodity in drought stricken areas. “In 2011, 41 countries experienced water stress – 10 of which are close to depleting their supply of renewable freshwater and must now rely on alternative sources. By 2050, it is projected that at least one in four people will be affected by recurring water shortages (2).” Deforestation is happening on a global scale as oxygen producing, CO2 scouring trees are eradicated from the landscape to make room for crops and pasture land (8).
Sewage runoff from industrialized animal agriculture is another problem for our environment and global temperature. Leakage from Manure lagoons and holding tanks can enter fresh water systems, creating dead zones around the world, and increase acidification of our oceans. Despite being landlocked they indirectly contribute to the bleaching of our coral reefs and are making our oceans uninhabitable for marine life (9). Oceans are already over-fished. According to the WWF Living Planet Report, “Factory fishing has emptied the seas of 40 percent of sea life, and nine out of 10 fisheries in the world are either overfished or full-fished today (10). The last thing we need to is eat more fish in place of pork or beef.
The underlying cause of global warming is complex to say the least. The way our consumption choices affect the ecological balance in one part of the world, they can also affect natural systems across the globe [e.g. Greenland’s Ice Sheets (11)]. Global Warming is the largest threat to humanity and our entire planet, and we created it ourselves by doing too little or nothing at all. Of course, we were not alone. The opportunistic enthusiasm and financial backing of giant corporations operating worldwide are leading us to a future Earth that is uninhabitable for wildlife and humans alike. Our individual decisions do make a difference, and every effort to affect change counts, but we cannot tackle this battle without more far-reaching changes in our daily lives.
Meatless Monday, albeit a step in the right direction, is no longer enough. We can move beyond excessive animal product consumption with balanced diets that do not include meat at all. But we also need fast, global action from those in power to support these changes. Global Industry and agriculture must move beyond meat as the source of their profits. Individuals, once educated and driven to demand change, can only do that: demand change. Governments, united to save life as we know it, are the crucial force behind meaningful progress. Together with action from those in power we can stop this planetary disaster.
1. “Why Meatless? - Meatless Monday.” Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://www.meatlessmonday.com/about-us/why-meatless/
2. UNDP (2016). “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://www.by.undp.org/content/belarus/en/home/post-2015/sdg-overview/goal-13.html
3. IPCC/WMO/UNEP. "Climate Change 1995: Impacts, Adaptation, and Mitigation of Climate Change: Scientific-Technical Analyses." Prepared by IPCC Working Group II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
4. Holmgren, David (1997). "Weeds or Wild Nature" (PDF). Permaculture International Journal. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
5. Contaminants in the Environment. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/observations/contam/
6. EPA (2010). Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Natural Sources. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
7. ASN, J. S. (2014). Sustainability of plant-based diets: Back to the future. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/100/Supplement_1/476S.full
8. Mongabay. (2016). Amazon Destruction: direct drivers of deforestation in Amazon countries. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_destruction.html
9. Garling, B. (2015, February 12). What’s the role of factory farming in ocean degradation? Retrieved November 01, 2016, from https://www.mission-blue.org/2015/02/whats-the-role-of-mass-animal-agriculture-in-ocean-degradation/
10. 60 percent of global wildlife species wiped out. (2016, October 28). Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/60-percent-global-wildlife-species-wiped-161027151043413.html
11. Milman, O. (2016, March 04). Greenland's ice melt accelerating as surface darkens, raising sea levels. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/03/greenland-ice-sheet-melting-global-warming-feedback-loop