Why I’m a vegetarian – part 2 (climate change)

Veganuary

EDIT: This post was updated Jan 10 to reflect further research into the issue; I would like to thank Jeff Anhang for pointing me in the direction of various pertinent resources.

This January I’m participating in Veganuary, a “give veganism a go in January” campaign co-founded by Matthew Glover and Jane Land. Before writing about how easy/hard it is, I’m explaining why I’m a vegetarian, and why I think other people should be too. This is the second post on that topic, the first post is here.

Why vegetarianism?

CarrotsPeople become vegetarian for a variety of reasons. I think many of them are sufficient on their own to justify a switch from a diet which includes animal flesh.

Post one discussed animal welfare; this post discusses three other reasons to become vegetarian, with the focus on climate change.

2. Climate change

Suppose you’re not convinced by the animal welfare argument. Perhaps you doubt the quality of animal experience, such that you don’t think their suffering is much to worry about (in which case you should check out the evidence on animal sentience1Great resources on animal sentience and suffering include Compassion in World Farming’s ‘Stop – Look – Listen’ summary report CIWF 2009 and section 7 of Colin Allen’s encyclopedia article on animal consciousness Allen and Trestman 2015: sect. 7.), or maybe you doubt that the suffering is that widespread (in which case one of the best places to start is Foer’s Eating Animals).

Either way, even without the welfare argument there are still powerful reasons to be a vegetarian. Climate change is one of those. Climate change is a powerful reason because it so obviously affects human wellbeing (so even if you don’t care about the environment in and of itself, this reason can’t be dismissed). The UN special report on climate change made the following points (United Nations 2014)2There is a helpful write-up of the report on one of the UN’s blogs, and a nice overview by The Guardian.:

  • No region will be free from the effects of climate change.
  • Climate change reduces crop yields, which increases prices, causing more people to go hungry (and sometimes even contributing to armed conflicts).
  • The weak and the poor are the least able to cope – something which is doubly unfair because they have done the least to contribute to climate change.

Mongolia climate change and adaptation: "dzud" - drought in summer, extreme cold in winter, leads to this land degredation.  Image and story courtesy of the Asian Development Bank (via Flickr).

Mongolia climate change and adaptation: “dzud” – drought in summer, extreme cold in winter, leads to this land degredation. Image and story courtesy of the Asian Development Bank (via Flickr).

A UNHCR report states that in 2013 alone 22 million people were displaced by natural disasters – not all of these are due to climate change, of course, but a significant number are – and that this number will only increase (UNHCR 2015). In a similar vein, the World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030 climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year (World Health Organisation 2015). While this latter figure gives some idea of the scale of the problem, it’s important to be aware that a paper published in 2012 suggests that we only have until 2020 to reduce emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic level of global warming (An article in the Smithsonian magazine provides a useful summary of the research).

Why does this mean you should go vegetarian (or even better, vegan)? Well, by any reckoning, vegetarians and vegans contribute less to climate change than meat3I use ‘meat’ throughout to refer to animal flesh that is to be eaten, rather than simply the substantial or core part of a meal, which is one meaning some dictionaries list eaters do. A study of diets in the US suggested that vegans contribute just less than half and vegetarians just over half of the amount that flesh eaters contribute to climate change.

This is significant because of just how much livestock contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. How much is that? One oft cited figure is that of 18% – that is, it’s said that 18% of all human-caused greenhouse gases come from livestock. This figure comes from a report by a specialised agency of the UN called the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) (2006: 112). (Note that a subsequent report by the FAO reduced their estimate to 14.5% (FAO 2013: xii, 15)). The figure was calculated using a Life-Cycle Analysis. That means that it includes things like:

  • The greenhouse gas emissions used in producing the feed for the livestock
  • The greenhouse gases produced when the animals are transported

One thing it didn’t accurately take account of, however, was the effect of livestock respiration on climate change.4There is a helpful article by James McWilliams in The Atlantic which discusses some of the key reports used in the climate change debate.  In addition, the 2006 FAO report undercounted both the amount of land used for livestock and the amount of methane produced by livestock (Goodland and Anhang 2009: 11). A report by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, who in contrast to the FAO are environmental specialists, and who work for other UN specialised agencies, argues that once we take account of these things the true figure is actually at least 51%. Yes, that means that over half of all human-caused greenhouse gases come from livestock production.

That’s a huge number, and it provides a compelling reason to switch to a vegetarian (or better, a vegan) diet. Why? Well, if unmanageable (and potentially catastrophic) climate change can only be averted by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it makes sense to look at those things which make the largest contribution to those emissions and make reductions there.

Now, it’s useful to note that while it is the case that if you refrain from eating meat, less animals will suffer as a result, it’s not the case that if you become a vegetarian or vegan climate change will cease. If you eat the equivalent of, say, twelve whole chickens in a year, then assuming you’ve been informed of modern farming methods, you are responsible for the suffering and death of those twelve chickens. On the other hand, if you switch to a vegetarian/vegan diet, there will (in all probability) be no parallel observable effect on the climate. Climate change is a global phenomenon and it will require a global effort to be properly addressed.

But that in no way reduces the power of climate change as a reason for going vegetarian or vegan. If you stop eating meat, then you are drastically reducing how much you are contributing to climate change, even if there is no noticeable difference because few people join you. You are removing yourself from the causes of climate change, and given the results of climate change, that is a good thing. That is why, to my mind, almost everyone5I say almost everyone because it’s conceivable that someone might have, say, a medical condition which precludes them eating anything but meat. who is apprised of the figures has an obligation to refrain from eating meat. Certainly, these figures should convince anyone who is already attempting to reduce their carbon footprint – those who, e.g., make a conscious decision to walk or cycle to work instead of driving – that the logical choice is to become vegetarian or vegan.

3. The environment

Related to climate change is the effect industrialised farming outfits have on their local (and sometimes not so local) environment. The FAO’s own 2006 report stated that:

The livestock sector … should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale… (FAO 2006: xx).

We should not agree with the FAO’s proposed solution, however, which is to (1) increase the technological sophistication of industrialised farming (including the use of specially engineered animals that would grow fatter faster, etc – see the previous post on animal welfare for more details) (FAO 2006: 278), (2) relocate industrialised farms to places which (they hope) would make waste disposal easier (FAO 2006: 279), and (3) intensify grazing systems (with the aim of improving efficiency and being able to meet the rising demand) (FAO 2006: 280). Aside from making animal welfare more difficult, these measures are unlikely to address the problem – increased efficiency won’t solve the problem if at the same time your goal is to produce more.

One environmental problem is that while some traditional farming methods provide a relatively efficient way to convert grass to various animal products, with industrialised farming the numbers are too great for this to happen – huge amounts of feed have to be bought in. In 2001, it was reported that roughly 30% of protein required for the EU’s livestock was sourced from inside the EU (Brookes 2001: 19). Some have suggested that the EU now only grows 20% of the food its farm animals need (Francione and Charlton 2013: 47). The rest comes from North and South America, principally Brazil and Argentina, and contributes to the deforrestation in those countries. So the meat produced across the EU contributes to environmental destruction elsewhere. This is one reason why a recent briefing from the United Nations Environment Programme says that the “true cost of industrial agriculture … includes stresses such as deforestation, desertification, “excretion of polluting nutrients, overuse of freshwater, inefficient use of energy, diverting food for use as feed and emission of GHGs”” (UNEP 2012).

Pollution is also a problem where the factory farms themselves are located; the huge amounts of animal waste often seep into the surrounding land and water supplies. Compassion in World Farming, a British based organisation started by a farmer who became distressed at the industrialisation of farming and the effect it was having on the animals, has a useful overview of the different kinds of pollution that industrialised farming causes.

It’s very hard, then, to disagree with Foer when he concludes that “if one cares about the environment … one must care about eating animals” (Foer 2009: 58).

4. Antibiotics and health

Industrialised farms are bad both for the health of the animals and humans. With so many animals in very close proximity, conditions are ripe for diseases to spread and even mutate into more harmful strains. The huge amounts of pesticides needed to grow the animal feed can be harmful to humans; and the volumes of antibiotics that have to be fed to farm animals just to keep them from falling ill (80% of all antibiotics used worldwide are fed to farm animals) increases the risk of a global pandemic as it contributes to the reducing efficacy of extant antibiotics. Compassion in World Farming’s page Your Health in Detail is an excellent resource providing further detail on these issues.

These reasons should prompt a serious rethinking of our default eating practices. I think reasons 1 (animal welfare) and 2 (climate change) are sufficient by themselves to obligate us to refrain from eating meat. The two other reasons mentioned, as well as those not talked about (e.g. red meat causing cancer, etc), only consolidate the case.

In the following post I will address a number of reasons often given for not becoming vegetarian (including some I myself used to give).

In the mean time I encourage you to check out the Chomping Climate Change website, and in particular this page which summarises their vision, namely, that the only practical way to address climate change is to replace livestock with better alternatives. They also have a two minute video which summarises their argument:

References

Allen, C. and Trestman, M. (2015) ‘Animal Consciousness’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015 .
Brookes, G. (2001) ‘The EU animal feed sector. Protein ingredient use and implications of the ban on use of meat and bonemeal’.
CIWF (2009) ‘Stop – look – listen: summary. A summary report recognising the Sentience of Farm Animals’ accessed 2 January 2016.
Foer, J.S. (2009) *Eating animals* 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2006) *Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options* . Rome: United Nations.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013) *Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities.* Rome: United Nations.
Francione, G.L. and Charlton, A.E. (2013) *Eat like you care: An examination of the morality of eating animals* First edition: Exempla Press.
Goodland, R., and Anhang, J. (2009) ‘Livestock and Climate Change’ accessed 7 January 2016.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2012) ‘Growing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Due to Meat Production’ accessed 10 January 2016.
UNHCR (2015) ‘Environment and Climate Change. Far-Reaching Global Implications’ accessed 1 January 2016.
United Nations (2014) *Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: From Working Group II of the IPCC* : United Nations.
World Health Organisation (2015) ‘Fact sheet N°266. Climate change and health’ accessed 1 January 2016.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Great resources on animal sentience and suffering include Compassion in World Farming’s ‘Stop – Look – Listen’ summary report CIWF 2009 and section 7 of Colin Allen’s encyclopedia article on animal consciousness Allen and Trestman 2015: sect. 7.
2. There is a helpful write-up of the report on one of the UN’s blogs, and a nice overview by The Guardian.
3. I use ‘meat’ throughout to refer to animal flesh that is to be eaten, rather than simply the substantial or core part of a meal, which is one meaning some dictionaries list
4. There is a helpful article by James McWilliams in The Atlantic which discusses some of the key reports used in the climate change debate.
5. I say almost everyone because it’s conceivable that someone might have, say, a medical condition which precludes them eating anything but meat.