Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Screen-shot image of Greta Thunberg courtesy Mercy For Animals 2021 video documentary
Greta Thunberg has stated she is vegan for ethical reasons and environmental and climate reasons.
By Alfred Robert Hogan
One key, easy, simple way to help our imperiled climate is to go vegan—following the sterling example set by Fridays For Future founder Greta Thunberg, among others. What we all choose to eat has myriad effects on such varied environmental criteria as emissions, deforestation and land misusage, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, and air pollution. This should be a central issue dealt with at UN COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, UK in November 2021—yet unfortunately, only 40 percent of meals served there were vegan.
“Our relationship with nature is broken,” Ms. Thunberg narrated, during a recent five-minute video Now Earth documentary, released online in May 2021. “If we keep making food the way we do, we will destroy the habitats of wild plants and animals, driving countless species to extinction…If we change toward a plant-based diet, we can save up to 8 billion tons of CO2 each year. We can feed ourselves on much less land, and nature could recover.”
Humans began animal agriculture about 12,000 years ago. But the industrialized version took off in the 20th century, especially after World War II, and ever more so starting in the 1970s. In fact, industrial agriculture now ranks as the most unsustainable aspect of modern civilization. Worldwide, some 70 percent of “farmed animals” exist for their short, terrible lives within “factory farms,” also often euphemized as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In the USA, the figure approaches 99 percent, as Ms. Thunberg noted in her documentary, released on Saturday 22 May, the UN’s International Day for Biological Diversity.
Accumulating research has documented just how animal agriculture destroys our environment and climate. Yet, it mostly remains the “elephant in the room”—or “the cow in the room”—that all too few ever even talk about. One of the latest examples of that research was published in the journal Nature Food on Monday 13 September, titled “Global Greenhouse Gas [GHG] Emissions from Animal-Based Foods Are Twice Those of Plant-Based Foods,” by Xiaoming Xu et al. Xu and his colleagues studied carbon dioxide and methane emissions from consumption and production of 171 plant crops and 16 animal products, tapping data from some 200 countries, supplemented by computer modeling. Agriculture produces more than 17 billion metric tons of GHG emissions per year, according to their study—and animal products account for 57 percent of those emissions.
Estimates of exactly what percentage of greenhouse gas emissions—chiefly CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane)—animal agriculture directly and indirectly causes do vary widely, such as:
14.5 percent to 18 percent in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 416-page 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, repeated in another FAO report in 2018, a statistic diluted under influence of animal ag interests (the US EPA lowballs only 3 percent of GHG emissions deriving from animal ag),
51 percent in the November-December 2009 World Watch Report, compiled by Robert Goodland, lead environmental advisor at the DC-based World Bank, where he was known as “the Conscience of the World Bank,” and his close colleague there, Jeff M. Anhang, and
87 percent, in the August 2021 book Food Is Climate by Glen Merzer, (co-author with Howard F. Lyman of the 1998 memoir Mad Cowboy), based in part on an 18-page article by Sailesh Rao, PhD, published in April 2021 the Journal of Ecological Society.
Ms. Thunberg, in her documentary, chose to rather conservatively attribute 25 percent of GHG emissions to animal ag . She also pegged the annual toll of land animals killed at “more than 60 billion” (other estimates range from 56 billion to 74 billion to 80 billion). She noted the uncounted annual toll of water animals killed comes to 200 million tons by weight (others estimate the number the individuals killed at between 1 trillion and 3 trillion).
Physician researcher-author Neal D. Barnard, MD, who hosted the 2-1/2-hour online “Plant-Based Climate Summit” on Thursday 1 April 2021, and had founded the DC-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in 1985, told viewers, “A global shift to a plant-based diet could reduce greenhouse gases caused by food production by 70 percent.” In September 2021, he said via online video, “We’re calling on the United Nations to reject a counterproductive and dangerous proposal from the meat and dairy industries that want the UN to support increases in the air pollution that exacerbates the climate crisis. The industry’s lobbying groups, like the International Meat Secretariat, the International Poultry Council, the International Dairy Federation, and the International Egg Commission, they threaten to withdraw from [the] UN summit on food sustainability in New York…Instead of giving in to the meat and dairy industries, the UN should follow the advice of a 2019 study that calls for reducing meat consumption to benefit the climate and human health.”
According to PCRM, eating 75 grams of beef, a typical daily fast-food burger, each day for one year, contributes total greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a typical gas-powered car across the USA 2-1/2 times. As E The Environmental Magazine reported earlier, “More than a third of all raw materials and fossil fuels consumed in the U.S. are used in animal production…Producing a single hamburger patty uses enough fuel to drive [32 km] and causes the loss of five times its weight in topsoil.”
Source: Plant-Based Treaty
Indeed, zoology professor Joseph Poore, who researches agriculture and the environment at the UK’s Oxford University, co-led an extensive assessment of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture published in the prestigious peer-reviewed AAAS journal Science, on Friday 1 June 2018. They called going vegan the “single biggest measure” one person could take to cut pollution, reducing that person’s carbon footprint by as much as 73 percent.
Animal agriculture wreaks havoc with our environment and climate in myriad ways. Among them:
Air pollution (37 percent of methane emissions come from factory farms and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers foul the atmosphere with 90 million tons of carbon dioxide annually),
Deforestation (in the USA alone, more than 105 million hectares have been cleared for crop land, mostly to grow feed grains for “farmed” animals, and much of the vast Amazon rainforests of Brazil, ”the lungs of the planet,” have been felled for cattle pasture and feed grains),
Water pollution (industrial ag accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use, and manure and effluent contaminate waterways),'
Monocultures (single-crop farms focused on “commodities” such as corn, wheat, and soybeans—mostly to feed animals—have “hijacked” most of the world’s farmlands), and,
Fossil fuels (animal ag heavily depends on petroleum-derived synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and fossil fuel transportation; on US farms, an average of the equivalent of 51.45 liters of fossil fuels are used on each hectare of land, and those farms average almost 170 hectares).
Moreover, US animal agriculture alone produces some 130 times as much feces and urine waste as do the humans in the country. Much of that manure winds up either in massive cesspool “lagoons,” full of nitrates, nasty microbes, and noxious drug-resistant bacteria, all of which often leak out. Some waste is misted into “sprayfields,” which drifts unwelcomed through the air, over to neighbors. Agricultural “non-point” runoffs pollute streams and rivers, fostering toxic algae, killing lots of fish, and generating low-oxygen “dead zones.” The one in the northern Gulf of Mexico, for example, was created by the animal ag-related runoffs and effluent carried and dumped there by the Mississippi River.
Huge quantities of fossil fuel energy, as well as those fossil fuel-derived synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, are used on vast corporate monocrop farms. Some70 percent of US grains (such as corn and soybeans) are used to feed not people, but animals. And according to the Audubon Society, animal agriculture sucks up almost 50 percent of the fresh water used in the USA, and as much as 70 percent worldwide.
In addition, a vegan world would require 76 percent less land devoted to agriculture, freeing an area equivalent to North America and South America combined, from Alaska to Terra Del Fuego, as Ms. Thunberg explained in her mini-documentary. Some of that land could be “re-wilded” back to nature, with newly planted trees acting to absorb the elevated levels of CO2, now at more than 413 parts per million (ppm), even with some temporary lessening associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. (The truly safe level is widely considered to be 200 to 280 ppm, though even the 350 ppm level deemed acceptable by some experts was soared past in 1987.) As Tate J. Salisbury cautiously wrote in the Washington University Law Review, “Livestock production currently uses 30 percent of the world’s land area—much of which could be given back to native plant and animal species and reforested if consumption of traditional meat were to substantially decrease.”
Yet in the USA, for example, most grazing of cows and sheep currently takes place on public lands, at government-subsidized, bargain-basement, virtually giveaway prices. This practice also costs US taxpayers more than US $1 billion per year—and deer, elk, moose, coyotes, foxes, and other animals sometimes become entangled in the extensive barbed wire fencing, often slowly and agonizingly paying with their lives. Furthermore, the USDA’s oddly named “Wildlife Services” expends tens of millions of US dollars each year using trapping, gassing, and explosives to kill 1.5 million predators each year, to protect privately “owned” livestock animals. (Ms. Thunberg stated that 83 percent of all the world’s agricultural land is used to support animal ag.)
As Annie Lowrey wrote for The Atlantic in April 2021, in a piece headlined “Your Diet Is Cooking the Planet,” “The conservation nonprofit Rare analyzed a sweeping set of climate-change mitigation strategies in 2019. It found that getting households to recycle, switch to LED lighting and hybrid vehicles, and add rooftop solar systems would save less than half the carbon emissions combined than would reducing food waste and adopting a plant-based diet.”
And physician and author Michael Greger, MD, wrote in “Diet & Climate Change: Cooking Up a Storm” for the Nutrition Facts Web site, back in September 2015:
"One of the most prestigious medical journals in the world editorialized that climate change represents the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and currently, chronic diseases are, by far, the leading cause of death. Might there be a way to combat both at the same time?...The same foods that create the most greenhouse gases appear to be the same foods that are contributing to many of our chronic diseases. Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy were found to have the greatest environmental impact, whereas grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables had the least impact.…A strictly plant-based diet…[would be] responsible for only about half the greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, studies have suggested that moderate dietary changes are not enough to reduce impacts from food consumption drastically.
"The [European] Commission report described the barriers to animal product reduction as largely, lack of knowledge, ingrained habits, and culinary cultures. Proposed policy measures include meat or animal protein taxes, educational campaigns, and putting the greenhouse gas emissions info right on food labels. Climate change mitigation is expensive….a no-animal-product-diet could cut the cost 80 percent."
Doomed cows crowd into a US feedlot operation—each emitting an average of some 400 liters of methane daily..
One helpful solution would be the Plant-Based Treaty (https://plantbasedtreaty.org), a grassroots global initiative modeled on the Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty. The latter treaty was initially proposed in October 2018 and officially endorsed by 100 Nobel laureates the day before Earth Day 2021 (https://fossilfueltreaty.org). The Plant-Based Treaty itself was formally introduced on Tuesday 31 August 2021, with events in 50 cities around the world. Its main provisions, for starters:
“Relinquish”: Stop digging the hole deeper. Build no new slaughterhouses, factory farms, or fish farms—nor expand existing ones. No new forests should be cleared for animal ag purposes. Live exports of animals must be banned. Indigenous lands, rights, and knowledge must be safeguarded.
“Redirect”: Declare climate emergencies, as 2,033 jurisdictions in 35 countries had done as of Wednesday 20 October. Updated official dietary guidelines must promote wholefood, plant-based diets. Taxes on meat should be imposed, with monies used to repair lands damaged by animal ag.
“Restoration”: Plant native trees to bring back habitats. Cities should increase green spaces, such as green rooftops and wildlife corridors. Vegan food stores should be added to urban and rural food deserts. Existing Marine Protected Areas should be declared no fishing zones—and upgraded to Highly Protected Marine Areas, with new HPMAs designated too.
Even the CEO of the Danish Crown meat company, Jais Valeur, told Denmark’s Berlingske newspaper that the growing awareness of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture will increasingly curtail its ubiquity and admitted being wrong in dismissing the vegan movement when he had been asked about it five years earlier. “Beef is not going to be super climate friendly,” he said in October 2021. “It will be a bit like champagne, namely a luxury product. It has become clear to me that the way one consumes and thinks about meat is going to change markedly in the coming years.” Danish Crown, with ties to more than 130 countries and traces its origins to the 1880s, ranks as the world’s biggest “pork” exporter and Europe’s biggest “pork processor,” slaughtering 18 million pigs and 800,000 cows in the 2019-2020 financial year. The firm’s Web site laxly claims it will halve its emissions by 2030 and achieve net neutrality “by 2050.”
As Howard F. Lyman, the fourth-generation Montana cattle rancher and feedlot operator who left that life behind and became a noted vegan speaker and author, once observed, “To be an environmentalist who happens to eat meat is like being a philanthropist who doesn’t happen to give to charity.” Food Revolution Network co-founder Ocean Robbins, whose father John Robbins rejected the Baskin-Robbins dairy ice cream fortune to become a vegan champion, said, “Every bite you take is a vote—you’re voting for the health you want, and you’re voting for the earth you want.” Most fortunately, as Greta Thunberg and others like her know well, it is easier than ever to become vegan, in diet and beyond.
Those wanting advice on making the switch can obtain free “Vegan Starter Kits” (VSKs) with details on the whys, hows, and recipes, from sources such as:
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (Washington DC USA, available online) https://www.pcrm.org/veganstarterkit
Animal Outlook (Washington DC, sent to US addresses only) https://animaloutlook.org/literature/vegetarian-starter-guide/
Go Vegan World (Meath, Ireland, available online) goveganworld.com/about-us/ (Ireland)
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Australia (Sydney NSW, Australia, available upon request) https://secure.peta.org.au/page/36959/data/1
Twitter hash tag #EatForThePlanet
Now Earth mini-documentary by Tom Mustill, with assistance from Nathan Grossman and others, “Greta Thunberg Connects Climate, Ecological, and Health Crises,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sa-IHN9_3Uw
“Creating A Sustainable Future—A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050,” World Resources Report, December 2018, https://wri.org/sites/default/files/2019-07/creating-sustainable-food-future_2_5.
PCRM Climate Summit online video, Thursday 1 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxzSfiFz3fo
Livestock’s Long Shadow https://awellfedworld.org/livestock-climate-advanced/
Sailesh Rao, PhD, “Animal Agriculture is the Leading cause of Climate Change -- A Position Paper,” Journal of Ecological Society, April 2021, page 155+ https://climatehealers.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/JES-Rao.pdf
Joseph Poore, op-ed essay, “We label fridges to show their environmental impact–why not food?,” London’s The Guardian, Wednesday 10 October 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/10/we-label-fridges-to-show-their-environmental-impact-why-not-food and Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers,” AAAS Science, Friday 1 June 2018, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaq0216
Andrea Thompson, “Here’s How Much Food Contributes to Climate Change,” Scientific American, Monday 13 September 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/heres-how-much-food-contributes-to-climate-change/
Michael Greger, MD, “Diet & Climate Change: Cooking Up a Storm,” Nutrition Facts, Monday 14 September 2015, https://nutritionfacts.org/video/diet-and-climate-change-cooking-up-a-storm/
Kate Good, “5 Ways Factory Farming Is Killing the Environment,” One Green Planet, July 2021, https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/factory-farming-is-killing-the-environment/
Tate J. Salisbury, “Labelling the New Meats: Applying Preexisting Principles to the Regulation of Radical Products,” Washington University Law Review, Volume 97 Number 5, 2020, page 1603+, https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6411&context=law_lawreview
Annie Lowrey, “Your Diet Is Cooking the Planet/But two simple changes can help,” The Atlantic, April 2021, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/04/rules-eating-fight-climate-change/618515/
Science journalist and media historian Alfred Robert Hogan, who is researching and writing an in-depth biography book on Greta Thunberg, is a regular contributor to Green TV.