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Vegans may be obnoxious, but on the climate crisis, they’re also right

We can make major environmental and health improvements if we substantially lower the amount of meat in our diet -- just ask my vegan daughter
Beef cattle wading in a pond on the Golan Heights. Not environmentally benign... From PikiWiki, Israel (provided by Dan Barbarian).
Beef cattle wading in a pond on the Golan Heights. Not environmentally benign... From PikiWiki, Israel (provided by Dan Barbarian).

My family vacation was not as relaxing as it should have been — especially during mealtime. Because there she was, sitting only a meter away from me at every meal. My daughter… the vegan.

Suddenly, everything on my plate was subject to her scrutiny, a furrowing of her eyebrows, her disdainful and exasperating exhaling. Then came her comments. Her endless comments. “Why not use soymilk instead of cow milk in your coffee?” “You know what that cow went through to put that cheese on your plate?” “There are non-dairy substitutes for butter, you know?” And on and on.

My daughter wasn’t always the stereotypical vegan, that one that every stand-up comedian disparages in his/her routine (“Are you a vegan? Just nod or shake your head, even though you’d like to tell us about it for the rest of the night…”). For most of her vegan life, she would just go about her dietary business — removing all meat and dairy products from her food repertoire without too much pomposity. As a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, she was happy to be given non-leather boots and vegan options in the dining hall. She didn’t preach, and the rest of the family went on with their lives.

Then, for reasons unknown, she opened the proselytizing flood gates. “Abba, just watch this video about the meat industry!” “Just consider the ethical issues in eating meat!” “Just consider the health issues!” “Just consider climate change!” “You’re such a hypocrite!” She had become that archetypical vegan — impatient, self-righteous and judgmental.

But she snagged me on the climate change issue. “As an environmental studies professor, you should know better!” She may be obnoxious, but she is also right.

As an environmental scientist, I have no recourse but to admit that all the scientific evidence points to the fact that the meat-heavy diet is a major culprit in a rogues’ gallery of environmental challenges from deforestation and excess nitrogen pollution in water bodies to soil erosion and climate change. While there are theoretical (and a few real-life) circumstances in which meat can be a sustainable part of the human diet, the modern meat industry, which feeds our voracious and growing appetites for animal-based protein, is undoubtedly degrading the planet’s capacity to support human life. Since 1961, global meat consumption has doubled, and along with it, the environmental impact.

It can’t be overstated that almost all of the planet’s resources are now appropriated by humans, and much of this appropriation has been to for our meat. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Climate and Land, 71 percent of all of the earth’s ice-free land cover is currently used for agriculture, grazing, and forestry. Recall that we humans are one of more than 30 million species on the planet, and yet we use most of the planet for our own needs. But leaving aside the ethical implications, our appetite for resource consumption is severely threatening our own well-being and prospects for long-term survival.

Livestock farming and industrialized agriculture, much of which feeds cattle, pigs and poultry, are driving many of the planet’s most pressing and intractable environmental challenges. Some examples: Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is driven by demand for land for both cattle grazing and growing fodder crops like soy for livestock feed in China. In the Gulf of Mexico, rampant algal blooms fed by nutrient inputs from industrialized agriculture, forestry and urbanization, are choking coral reefs and shrimp farms and driving away tourists from Caribbean beaches. These new blooms add to a decades’ old problem of “dead zones” around the mouth of the Mississippi River where nothing grows — a result of heavy nutrient input from agriculture in the central and southern US. Greenland’s ice sheets, Antarctic glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting at ever-accelerating rates because of rising temperatures driven by record concentrations of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere. 23% of these gasses are a product of agricultural and forestry activities (the rest coming from energy production and transportation).

Kilograms of greenhouse gasses release per serving. From the BBC, adapted from Poore and Nemecek, 2018, Science Magazine.

The direct link between meat-based diets and climate change is featured in the somewhat obscured, scientifically cautious language of the IPCC report:

“The level of risk posed by climate change depends both on the level of warming and on how population, consumption, production, technological development, and land management patterns evolve. Pathways with higher demand for food, feed, and water, more resource-intensive consumption and production, and more limited technological improvements in agriculture yields result in higher risks from water scarcity in drylands, land degradation, and food insecurity.”

Again, in their jargon-thick narrative, the IPCC writes: “Balanced  diets,  featuring  plant-based  foods,  such  as  those  based  on  coarse  grains,  legumes,  fruits  and  vegetables,  nuts  and  seeds,  and  animal-sourced  food  produced  in  resilient,  sustainable  and  low-GHG  emission  systems,  present  major  opportunities  for  adaptation  and  mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health.”

In more simple language, major damage from climate change might be avoided, and major environmental and health improvements could be made, if humans were to substantially lower the amount of meat in their diet.

People are naturally defensive when someone sticks their nose and opinions into their dinner plates, and vegan activists have earned a dubious reputation for not understanding this point. But the human-driven climate crisis demands that we consider the arguments raised not only by vegans, but by an increasing number of climate and environmental scientists, that our meat-based diet is unsustainable. For our own future and that of our children (some of whom are vegans), our meat consumption must fall and the quicker the better.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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