Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why Vegan? part two - for the earth

When people talk about food, it’s called “having a conversation.”  Unless you’re vegan ... then you may be accused of promoting a cult, or labelled “radical” or “holier-than-thou.”  But don’t let that curb your enthusiasm … you’re in good company!
Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man [sic] with wind and self-righteousness.        ~ Robert Hutchison, to the British Medical Association, 1930
In March I offered evidence to prove that a plant-based lifestyle is a much healthier option for each human’s health. This month I want to explain how being vegan is the best option for the planet, offering solutions to the global hunger and climate crises.

In 2006 a report titled Livestocks’ Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options was published in Rome by the Livestock, Environment and Development (Lead) Initiative.  This is not a group of radical leftist activists hippies, it includes the World Bank, the European Union, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Development Agency, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (among others). Their final analysis:
The livestock sector has such deep and wide-ranging environmental impacts that it should rank as one of the leading focuses for environmental policy … ”
In 2007, 300 climate experts at the 2007 UN conference in Bali stated: “If we lose the forests, we lose the fight against climate change.”
Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet, and also plays a significant role in deforestation, especially in Latin America where 70% of tropical rainforest (cut at a rate of 17 million hectares annually) is now occupied by pastures.  
A meat based diet requires 7 times more land than a plant based diet.  One hectare of land can produce enough potatoes to feed 22 people for a year, or enough rice to support 19 people for a year.  The same area of land can produce only enough lamb for 2 people, or enough beef for only one person.
Loss of Biodiversity and Damage to Ecosystems 
Deforestation of tropical forests for meat production is responsible for mass extinctions, with 306 of the 825 identified terrestrial ecoregions now threatened as a result of livestock production.
Commercial fishing destroys marine ecosystems, heavily pollutes the oceans, and contributes to the 200+ “dead zones” around the world (oxygen-deficient coastal areas created by fertilizer runoff, sewage, marine litter, or the burning of fossil fuels numbering 150 in 2004, 200 in 2006, 415 in 2008).  Large trawling nets endanger underwater forests, and capture entire schools of fish along with turtles, dolphins, whales, sharks, seals, birds, and others as “collateral damage.” Coral reefs and mangroves (aka “underwater forests”) are decimated by “rape and run” shrimp farming which exploits and pollutes coastal communities and then abandons them.  
Fish Farms are no solution, they often over-fish wild fish for feed, contribute to disease of fish and marine animals, and add to de-oxygenation of the water by releasing antibiotics, hormones, chemicals, and genetically-engineered additives.  
Topsoil Erosion
In the USA, more than ¾ of the top layer of biologically rich soil that makes most plant life possible (topsoil) has been eroded.  They lose about 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of cropland every year.  Every pound (.45 kg) of hamburger results in the loss of 5 pounds (2 kg) of topsoil. Overgrazing, compaction, and erosion contribute to infertile land and desertification.  
The livestock industry is the largest sectoral water polluter, with animal waste, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, and pesticides used on feed crops playing a major role in polluting rivers and streams.
In the late ‘90s over 2 billion tons of animal manure was produced, and about 100 million tons of nitrogen added to our water systems.  The 2006 FAO report adds that the livestock industry is “among the most damaging sectors to the Earth’s scarce water resources.”
While over a billion people worldwide are unable to access clean water, and 2 billion do not have proper sanitation, a 2008 report reveals that agriculture uses 70% of fresh water globally, with industry (20%) and household use (10%) accounting for the rest.
The ratio of water to meat and dairy is approximately 10 times that of grains and vegetables (except in the USA where each kg of animal protein requires 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein).  For example, on average each kg of beef requires 5,000 - 20,000 litres of water whereas each kg of wheat requires only 500 - 2,000 litres of water.  
Greenhouse Gases (GHG) and Energy Consumption
Carbon dioxide and methane are the two most significant GHGs contributing to global climate change.  The livestock industry is responsible for 9% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, and 65% of Nitrous Oxide (the third most important GHG).  Methane is the most potent GHG in a shorter timescale, with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period, and 72 times GWP over 20 years.  And the livestock industry is the single largest producer of methane, at about 37%.
Overall, livestock production contributes to 18 percent of the global warming effect - more than the emissions from every single car, train, and plane on the planet.  Each calorie of animal protein requires at least 10 times more fossil fuels than each calorie of plant protein, and over 2/3rds of that energy is used to produce and transport the animals’ feed.  
Omnivores contribute about 6.5 tonnes more CO2 per year than their vegan cousins.  Adopting a meat-free diet for just one day a week, in a country like the UK (with 63 million people) would save about 13 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions - a greater carbon savings than removing 5 million cars off their roads.  
World Hunger
Although Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to food, an estimated 963 million people do not have enough on a daily basis.  While 760 million tons of grain are fed to animals every year, approximately 25,000 people (17,000 of them children) die every day from hunger.  In 2007-2008, 36% of the global grain supply was fed to animals (with 47% fed to humans and 5% used for bio-fuel).  And animals ate 70% of global soya production, only 16% was consumed by humans.
Cows require 10 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef.  Pigs require 4-5.5 kg of grain for each kg of pork, chickens need 2.1-3 kgs of grain for 1 kg of poultry meat.  And cattle excrete 40 kg of manure for every kg of edible beef their bodies produce.  Doesn’t it make more sense to simply feed those nutritious grains directly to humans?
Being a Locavore is cool, isn’t it?  
Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.  ~Samuel Butler, 1912
Each farm and pasture was once a natural ecosystem of forest, wetlands or grassland.  Free grazing animals require enormous amounts of grain and water. And the need to deal with predator species (coyotes, wolves, bears, foxes, bobcats) increases when we make their food readily available. 
In Canada, farm animals outnumber people by four to one with approximately 14.6 million beef and dairy cattle, 13 million pigs, 8 million turkeys, 96 million chickens. 
Global meat consumption is 5 times higher than it was during the ‘50s. Dr. Joan Sabaté warns that “we have to radically change our eating patterns …given that the supply of available farmland, water, fish and fossil fuels is finite, current eating patterns are clearly not sustainable.”
Still not sure why vegans are so enthusiastic about our lifestyle choice? Next month I’ll focus on the compassion component - animal rights. 

Livestocks’ Long Shadow:
Meat and the Environment:
Mitigating Climate Change Through Food Policy:
Eco-Eating: Eating as if the Earth Matters (it does!):
Another Look at “Sustainable” Animal Farming: