Hey there, I've been really enjoying reading your blog and have been learning a lot. I'd like to ask about some claims I see being made online about that everyone needs to stop eating meat/animal products imminently to lessen climate change. Is that the full picture? Most articles I see online promote a "plant based" (read: vegan) diet, but is it feasible for everyone to even do that? Would it even help? Thanks :)
This is a very complex question, and a lot has been written on it from different perspectives, but I have to say that it definitely is not the full picture. To be honest, the question you asked could become an entire paper and/or thesis, but here are some reasons why everyone stopping eating animals immediately is neither feasible nor sustainable for people or the climate.
The fact of the matter is, we have to feed -everyone- with the land and resources we have. Climate change aside, that is the problem ag seeks to solve. So a solution is not truly sustainable unless it is capable of feeding everyone and is better for the climate than alternatives. Ok? Here we go!
So, does going animal-free work to feed everyone?
- Many people (myself included) cannot safely exist on a diet devoid of animal products. Whether it be due to celiac, soy allergies, corn allergies, other gut disorders, many people need at least some animal products to survive. I have celiac. I also cannot eat soy more than occasionally without getting very sick and risking permanent health consequences. The majority of the items on the list of foods I cannot eat without getting sick and/or putting my health at risk are plant-derived. I am far from the only one like this.
- Allergies to plant-derived foods are far more common than to animal-derived ones. Of the top 8 allergens estimated to cause >90% of allergic reactions by the Mayo Clinic, half of them are plant sources, and of the plant sources listed (peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat) those are common sources of protein for vegetarian/vegan diets. If we cut out animal-based protein, where are people with these allergies going to get protein?
Saying “everyone can eat vegan” is ableist, and denies the reality of many people, myself and many of my family members included.
Going totally vegan may actually be bad for some ecosystems
- Grasslands and rangelands need grazing to survive. These lands evolved under pressure from native herbivores, which in turn were kept in check by predators. Humans have largely eliminated those predators from a good chunk of the world, or severely reduced them (see the issue with deer overpopulation in the US due to human elimination of predators).
- Even if all the land currently grazed by herbivores was returned to wild populations, we risk herbivore overpopulation issues and long-term environmental degradation. If we just remove all grazing herbivores, we wind up with habitat degradation and in many places, increased fuel for forest fires, which causes its own problems. Removing herbivores also changes ecosystem balance for many other species that rely on herbivores to clear out excess brush, provide manure, or alter habitats.
- A totally vegan diet for humanity wastes land. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/earth/going-vegan-isnt-actually-th/) Most grazing land is unsuitable for row crops without massive inputs of fertilizer and tilling/irrigation, which themselves can have a fairly high carbon footprint, and repeated tilling can be very bad for certain kinds of soil. (http://cropwatch.unl.edu/tillage/structure)
- Have you ever seen the rangelands of California or Montana? It would be extremely difficult to grow row crops there, but we are really good at growing cattle and sheep there! Since grassland is 26% of the world’s land area, and 70% of the world’s agricultural area, any diet that doesn’t use pasture-produced animal products will be wasting a lot of land that could be feeding people. (http://www.fao.org/ag/agp/agpc/doc/grass_stats/grass-stats.htm)
- As the world population increases, pressure on existing land usage is going to increase, and so agriculture needs to rise to meet this challenge.
So I think we can make the case that a), a vegan diet will not feed everyone, and b) wastes land that could be used to feed people. So by default it’s not sustainable.
But what about livestock and climate change?
- Livestock production of all types sum up to 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/),and 24% of global greenhouse gases come from agriculture, forestry, and other land use, according to the FAO. That includes plant and animal agriculture. (source: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data)
- Of this, livestock are a major contributor, but so is soil management, which is needed for growing both human food and feed for livestock.
- By contrast, electricity/heat, industry, and transport account for 25, 21, and 14% of greenhouse gases, respectively.
- In the US, livestock account for just 4.2% of total greenhouse gas emissions. To contrast, transportation and energy production account for 27% and 31% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, respectively.
- The contribution of livestock to greenhouse gases is higher in developing countries, partially due to a lot of livestock eating poorer quality feed or needing longer to reach market, and the fact that grass-fed livestock do produce more methane than livestock fed on lower-fiber feeds.
- But as discussed above, those grass-eating livestock are necessary for producing food where other crops can’t grow, and keeping ecosystems healthy.
- So for the US and other developed countries, focusing on livestock seems a bit shortsighted compared to developing cleaner energy and transport, right? (source: http://www.afia.org/rc_files/801/livestocks_contribution_to_climate_change_facts_and_fiction.pdf Disclaimer: the author of this piece is one of my advisors)
- The US EPA here lists a lot of good ways we can improve agriculture to reduce climate change https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#land-use-and-forestry but the fact of the matter is, while ag and livestock ag in particular contribute a good amount to climate change, it’s got a big job to do - feeding everyone!
- Herbivores like cows and sheep and goats are needed to preserve native forage-based ecosystems and provide food, but at the cost of producing methane that contributes to climate change. However, if we got rid of every cow and sheep and replaced their contribution to human diets with chicken and pigs, we’d have to grow extra food for them, which means more greenhouse gases to grow those foods, and we’re back at square one
- To me, the real benefit of livestock, especially on range situations, is that they turn human-inedible plant protein into human-edible protein. That’s a significant reason why they’re so important to the human food supply.
- Livestock also eat a lot of byproducts (brewer’s mash, hulls, tomato pulp, etc) that would otherwise go to waste. This reduces the impact of their feed production and of waste disposal in other industries. We’d have a lot of reject feed/byproducts sitting around if we got rid of livestock, and those would have greenhouse gas production from their waste disposal.
For me, it amounts to priorities - we know a vegan diet won’t feed everyone and it wastes land. We don’t have enough arable land to feed everyone on a vegan diet, even if everyone could go vegan.
We have researchers like myself and my colleagues working to help farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions no matter what they farm (greenhouse gas emissions are a waste, remember, and cost farmers money). Livestock, especially in range situations and developing countries, eat a lot of stuff that would otherwise go to waste, and help keep ecosystems healthy.
So it’s not just the analytical life cycle of the animal and it’s impacts, it’s what would the effect on climate change be by a) removing livestock and b) dealing with the human food needs met by doing so?
To me, livestock earn their keep, and while it is our job to keep improving livestock systems to be more efficient and help prevent worse climate change, we also need to remember that livestock are an important part of the sustainability of existing systems.
So hope that answered your question, anon! For more info, check out this video presentation that you might find neat, as well: http://articles.extension.org/pages/28311/clearing-the-air-on-animal-ag-and-greenhouse-gases