Originally from the UK, Sami is creative director of The Change Creation, a brand strategy and design outfit working exclusively for entities that make the world better. He is a contributing author to TreeHugger, where he writes about compost, permaculture, clean energy and all things toilet-related. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, two daughters, a smattering of chickens and a big fat ginger cat. He believes the invention of pizza (vegan or otherwise) was mankind’s proudest moment so far.
Food writer Michael Pollan once famously wrote that the trick to sustainable eating is pretty simple: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
This advice has been catching on. Terms like “flexitarian” and “weekday vegetarian” have become common place, and many of us are finding that the easiest way to eat sustainably — even more so than buying local or organic — is to focus on ingredients lower in the food chain. Even Anthony Bourdain — who once compared vegans to Hezbollah — has conceded that we’d be better off if we ate less meat.
In other words, the meat-eating world is opening up to the benefits of animal-free cuisine.
Vegan Diets and the Environment
From the land needed to grow animal feed to the issue of nitrogen run-off from dairy farms, there is no shortage of “eco-crimes” that are attributable to meat and dairy. But ultimately much of the argument comes down to the basic laws of thermodynamics, as permaculture pioneer Patrick Whitefield explains:
“When an animal eats plant food, around 10% of the energy in the food goes towards growth and repair of the animal’s body, some 10% goes to fuel the animal’s activity, and as much as 80% is lost as waste heat. If another animal, such as a human being, then eats that animal, it consumes only 10% of the food value that was present in the original plant food.”
Al Gore may have conveniently omitted this topic from An Inconvenient Truth, but the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has found that animal agriculture as it is currently practiced is one of the leading causes of global climate change – coming second only to the energy used in our buildings.
Nevertheless, the benefits of a vegan diet should not be overstated.
By eliminating a leading cause of global warming from their diets, vegans can rightly claim to be reducing their “carbon foodprint,” but the common vegan refrain that “you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist” is a dangerous meme that serves only to divide an already fractious movement.
Individual Lifestyle Choice vs. Universal Model
So far we have focused on diets as individual lifestyle choices, but what happens when those lifestyle choices become cultural trends? Many – but by no means all — vegans argue that we should all be going vegan. And if that is the case, it becomes necessary to question what a vegan world would look like.
The answer to that question remains a significant unknown.
We’ve already seen that the average vegan eats more sustainably than the average omnivore, yet studies have also shown that on a societal scale, a diet that includes some meat and dairy can actually sustain more people than a purely vegan diet alone. The reasons for this are simple: humans don’t eat grass, and plants tend to thrive on poop. In other words, integrated animal husbandry can provide an efficient way to cycle nutrients back to farm fields, and it can produce food on poorer soils than vegetable production alone.
There are farms claiming to practice “veganic agriculture” free of all animal inputs, but those farms are few and far between, and the viability of a broader animal-free farming system should not be taken for granted.
I respect the fact that, for some people, all killing of animals is wrong, and meat will always be murder. For these folks, discussing the relative carbon footprints of different diets must feel a little like arguing over the environmental impact of a drive-by shooting. But it’s also important for vegans to recognize that the vast majority of the world does not see the killing of animals as an ethical problem. In fact, there is significant evidence to suggest that the relationship between domesticated animals and humans was at least as much about co-evolution as it was exploitation.
Author Steven Kotler has described domestication as a process of “outsourcing survival needs,” where common farm animal species trade sustenance and/or work services in exchange for shelter, food and protection from the wild. For individuals within that species, the result is ultimately death. But from the perspective of the species itself, it has proven to be a wildly successful survival strategy – as witnessed by the vast number of chickens, pigs and cows alive today.
Vegans Are Part of a Larger Movement
Ultimately, I would hope that this post does not descend into a vegan vs. meat-eater shouting match. As my colleague Mat McDermott has argued, bringing an end to factory farming requires abandoning dietary fundamentalism. Vegans, vegetarians and conscious meat eaters can and will continue to debate the ethics of meat-eating and the farming of animals, and that is all to the good. But we must also learn to work together. We must build alliances among ourselves. In fact we must look beyond the “happy meat from happy animals” crowd too.
Ask your average consumer – no matter what their diet – whether farm animals deserve to be treated humanely, and you may be surprised at the answers. Just because someone buys factory-farmed foods does not mean they can’t be opposed to factory farming. It just means, like most humans, that they are a walking contradiction and that the grocery store is not the same as the ballot box.
Systemic problems require systemic fixes. If we can force the meat and dairy industry to pay for externalized costs, then meat and dairy will inevitably become more expensive. And as meat gets more expensive, people start eating more plants instead.
Our individual dietary choices can move the needle toward a more compassionate society, and they can help reduce our impact on the planet. But to reach their full potential, they cannot be seen as an end in themselves.
It is in combining our personal choices with political strategies and corporate activism that we can build a movement for real, lasting change. That movement must be inviting to everyone, no matter what they are having for dinner.