Today is November 15th, and it marks exactly one month since I have become a vegan. I have to admit that even until a few months ago, I never thought I would become a vegan. I became interested in the lifestyle through learning more about the climate crisis and how veganism is the single biggest way in our personal lives to reduce our environmental impact. The reason that I never thought I would become a vegan is because it always seemed too hard or too restrictive.
Until September of 2020, I was eating meat and dairy, although I was already trying to reduce the amount I ate. After arriving back in Edinburgh from Singapore in 2020, I decided to try out vegetarianism and see how it worked. About a month in, I realized that I was already cutting back on diary. I was buying plant-based milk, and I ate hardly any eggs. It occurred to me that it might not be so hard to take the next step and adopt a plant-based lifestyle.
Everyone is different, and I want to stress that even eating less meat and dairy is great for the environment and for animal welfare. Even if you do not want to cut out meat and dairy completely from your diet and stop buying animal-based products, it can be good to start with substituting out meat or dairy for one day per week and then gradually start to eliminate it from your life. In popular media, vegan activists sometimes have a reputation as being aggressive, but I think part of that comes from the reasons that people become vegan in the first place. There is an urgency to changing the way that we live. Two of these reasons are protecting the environment and safeguarding animal welfare. These two things are extraordinarily important, and they are why I’ve become a vegan.
Animal Agriculture’s Environmental Impact
One of the shocking things about the global carbon emissions from agriculture is that it contributes more to global emissions than all forms of transportation including cars, planes, trains and ships. A 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that a shift to more sustainable diets with more plant-based foods, especially fruits and vegetables, not only has the potential to substantially reduce emissions but also will improve health outcomes. The acknowledgement of the role that diet has to play in global emissions is very important and mass action by consumers (helped along by government subsidies of plant-based alternatives) can help mitigate catastrophic climate change.
The IPCC report clearly outlined how human activity is directly responsible for climate change and the increase in carbon emissions. Livestock emissions related to animal agriculture make up around 14% of total emissions. One of the largest forms of emissions is from cattle burping, which produces methane. Methane is around 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and the methane from cattle makes up around 1/3 of the emissions associated with livestock. However, methane is not the only reason that animal agriculture is so destructive to the environment.
Animal agriculture uses up an incredible amount of land. In fact, one of the driving forces behind the destruction of the Amazon is to free up the land for cattle farming. In the case of the Amazon, the burning of trees destroys a valuable carbon sink because trees absorb more carbon dioxide than they produce. Thus, the destruction of the Amazon serves as a two-fold destruction of the environment by not only removing a valuable carbon sink but also by freeing up even more land for animal agriculture.
Another environmental impact of animal agriculture besides land use is tied into producing the food for the animals to eat. In 2017, livestock took up about 80% of all agricultural land and produced less than 20% of the world’s calories. Lamb takes up 18.48 meters squared to produce 100 grams of protein whereas groundnuts and peas only take up 3.7 meters squared and 3.5 meters squared respectively to produce 100 grams of protein. Why is so much land being used to produce so little of the world’s calories, especially when it also needs far more land to produce the equivalent amount of protein as plant-based foods?
The main answer to this question seems to lie in the fact that people prefer meat. How the animals taste is more important than considering what the environmental impacts are of buying that meat (and this is before getting into the animal welfare issues). Someone who buys a piece of steak is not consciously choosing to support deforestation of the Amazon, but by supporting the meat industry, this is what they are doing, particularly when you add up the millions of choices of individual consumers. This is why it’s so important for consumers to change the way that they shop and no longer buy as much meat.
One of the arguments that the meat industry attempts to use to justify the continued high consumption of meat is by claiming that soy has a greater environmental impact than meat. One of the ways that this is justified is by arguing that soy is driving forward deforestation in the Amazon. Even though it is true that soy farms have contributed greatly to the deforestation in the Amazon, what this argument fails to consider is that 70% of the world’s soy is fed directly to livestock while only 6% is consumed by humans. The reason soy is used for livestock feed is that it, along with corn, help cattle gain weight much faster than they would otherwise be able to.
So even deforestation to grow plant crops is tied into animal agriculture because it is used to feed the animals who are then themselves also contributing to global emissions. And then, of course, this deforestation, particularly in the Amazon, is driving forward biodiversity loss. Because cattle and the crops used to feed them take up so much of the planet’s hospitable land, they have had to displace existing wildlife. Corn farms in the US total around 70 million acres, while soy farms total around 80 million acres. These crops go primarily to feed livestock, and the growth of these farms has led to massive deforestation throughout the United States. One can only imagine how much carbon newly planted trees could suck out of the atmosphere if most of this farmland could be converted back into nature, which is a conservation method known as rewilding.
From deforestation and biodiversity loss to the extraordinary land use and methane emissions produced by modern animal agriculture, it is clear that the status quo is not working. Humanity needs to drastically cut down on emissions, and one of the major ways to do this will be through shifting our diets towards a primarily plant-based one. I do not wish to put all the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of individual consumers. While we can all make choices to cut down on animal products, it will also be up to governments to subsidize plant-based foods and ensure a transition away from an animal-based diet and lifestyle.
However, shifting away from animal agriculture is not solely about the environmental impacts, although I admit that is the primary reason why I decided to become a vegan. There are also the horrible abuses present in modern day factory farming.
I think animal welfare is something that we do not really ever consider that closely when it comes to farm animals. Certainly whenever I used to buy a pack of chicken or beef at the supermarket, I never thought about the suffering that the animal had to go through. There is quite a big disconnect within popular culture about caring deeply about the suffering of dogs or cats (and other pets) but not caring about the torture of animals that goes on in factory farming. I firmly believe that if people conceptualized farm animals in the same way that they do about cats and dogs, then factory farming would never have been allowed to continue. The following paragraphs will depict graphic violence, so please skip them if you do wish to read about it.
The National Humane Education Society details what happens during cattle farming. If cattle were allowed to live a normal life, then they would live to about 25 years of age. There would be a family unit of a bull, a cow, and several calves and they would eat a variety of plants. Instead, in the US, many cattle are branded with a hot iron to show ownership, have their ears pierced with an identification tag, and males have their testicles cut off.
At about one year of age, cattle are then forced into the rather innocent sounding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). However, the CAFOs are zero-grazing lots where cattle stay in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions where they are mostly fed corn and antibiotics to stave off infection. Cattle are kept in these cages until they are sent to the slaughterhouse and those who cannot walk are euthanized.
Milk production is also vile. In order to produce a steady stream of milk, the cows selected for milk production are forced to give birth every year. Their offspring, if they are cows, continue the vicious cycle of serving as milk producers until they are sent to be slaughtered. If the children are male, then they are kept in tiny crates with their own feces and urine for about 18–20 weeks until they are slaughtered. The dairy cows never move and have their waste mechanically removed, and their milk is also removed by machines.
Through this whole process, it is clear that the animals feel pain. If nothing else, the normal life of cattle indicates that to keep them in cages and force them to produce milk until they are slaughtered constitutes cruel and unusual punishment or, in other words, torture. Another aspect of modern farming rife with mistreatment is the poultry industry.
Often, the poultry industry will seek to hide behind moral justifiability by claiming that their chickens are “free-range.” However, in the US, all free-range means is that chickens have some access to the outside world. However, chickens are often kept in over-crowded warehouses where they are technically free-range because there is a door but in reality, they will never go outside. Additionally, free-range chickens are subject to debeaking, which involves searing off a portion of the chicken’s beak without anesthetic.
Egg production is also horrible. Birds generally have their beaks cut off within a couple hours of being born. Hens are then crammed into tiny battery cages and forced to defecate on one another for lack of space. Disease kills off many birds, although this is still a better fate than male chicks get. Since male chicks are of no use to the egg industry, they are thrown into high-speed grinders called macerators while they are still alive and die a horrible death.
While there are many more horrible practices, this brief look at modern farming has shed light on the carelessness shown for animal life and how farmers and the food industries do not care at all if animals suffer. When you choose to buy that next piece of meat or dairy, just think for a moment about the industry that you are choosing to support. I know most people would never condone the torture of dogs or cats, and yet by turning a blind eye to modern farming, we condone the torture of farm animals on an industrial scale. I hope by going vegan that I will play some small role in stopping this industry.
Reflections on the First Month of Being Vegan
One of the reasons that I haven’t mentioned here that people cite for going vegan is health reasons. Certainly going vegan can introduce you to a lot more fruits, vegetables and whole-based plant foods, which is extremely beneficial. One of the main pitfalls to avoid is getting enough vitamin B-12, which does not come from plant-based foods. However, it is added into plant-based milks like almond milk or in nutritional yeast. I have started taking a B-12 supplement, and I will also probably start taking a vitamin D supplement. Most people, including omnivores, are deficient in vitamin D. I really do feel good in health terms. Back in April at the beginning of the lockdown, I started running again. Now that I am on a vegan diet, I am running further than I ever did before. If you have doubts about being in good shape on a vegan diet, then I recommend that you watch the documentary The Game Changers on Netflix.
I would say it has also been an easy transition because my flatmate is also vegan. I have also discovered a new hobby in vegan baking, which I enjoy and can share desserts with my flatmates. I understand that it can be hard to commit to that if you live in a household with all meat eaters and don’t cook. Maybe try to convince them to try a meatless meal once per week and see how it goes from there. While I think there needs to be a huge amount of urgency in dealing with the climate crisis and with animal welfare problems in modern farming, I also understand that people adopt new things at their own pace, and change is hard. While this might be a controversial opinion among vegans, I do not think that you need to get rid of all non-food items that are made from animals immediately. Obviously, I would not buy more animal products and hope to slowly donate animal products (like clothes) and buy vegan alternatives.
More than anything else, veganism is a statement. It is a statement that I am upset with the status quo and with nothing being done about the climate crisis. It is a statement that I am upset with how the world tortures farm animals. I am very happy to make these statements because I believe wholeheartedly that radical change in the way that we live is necessary, and that veganism can help achieve it.