Choosing a plant-based diet not only saves a vast amount of suffering for so-called farm animals, but also brings positive effects that reduce the negative impact of human activity on climate change. The article presents arguments resulting from the research of various scientific teams studying the climate and hard statistical data.
In the face of war, economic crisis, and rampant inflation, the topic of the climate crisis has unfortunately been pushed to the background. What's worse, in the name of short-term gains, long-term goals are being sacrificed, which ultimately means that the pace at which we are heading towards a climate catastrophe is much greater than just 2-3 years ago. Such a shortsighted policy of many governments - including the Polish one - leads directly to the edge of the abyss. To the point where the relatively comfortable world in which most of us live will change into a reality straight out of Mad Max.
The climate is one of the most complex phenomena that we as humanity are trying to understand, and the same goes for the causes of its changes leading to global warming. The causes listed by the United Nations1 are as follows:
Meanwhile, looking at the problem from a slightly different perspective, on the pages of the European Commission3 we find information that the cause of global warming are greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. The EC directly states "Burning fossil fuels, deforestation and increasing livestock farming are increasingly affecting the climate and temperature of the Earth."
When writing about climate change, it is impossible not to mention reports created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Documents created by the IPCC are scientific, comprehensive, and thorough. Online, it's easy to find articles that, referring to these reports, say that "veganism will help save the world"4. However, in times of "fast journalism", where the number and clickability of articles count more than their quality, it is worth checking the facts. So what does the team of climate experts tell us in their materials? Let's look at Chart No. 1. It presents the potential of different diets in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG – Greenhouse Gas), measured in gigatons of CO2 equivalent emitted per year. It's debatable whether you can really call someone a vegetarian who "consumes meat or seafood no more than once a month"5, but note the jump in bars between vegetarianism and veganism. That's equivalent to a whopping two gigatons of CO2 / year. Well, we now know that a plant-based diet is good for the planet. But is it definitely good for me? Is it healthy?
"Consistent evidence shows that, in principle, a dietary pattern based mainly on plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and to a lesser extent on animal-derived foods, is healthier and has a lesser impact on the environment (less greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water use, and land use) compared to current average diets worldwide and in the US"6.
Effect of acid rain in the vicinity of Mala Upa. Photo by Jakub Nadolny.
The choice of veganism should primarily be motivated by ethical considerations due to the hellish suffering inflicted on non-human animals treated merely as a byproduct of human meals. Unfortunately, vegetarianism is not an appropriate response to this moral issue, because the fate of cows bred for milk or chickens bred for eggs is at least as bad as that of animals slaughtered for meat. It might seem at first that milk production does not require the cow to be killed. Egg production does not require killing chickens. And there are also "free-range" eggs. I admit that I held such views for far too long and I have nothing to justify myself with. It was a kind of naivety or perhaps also moral laziness.
Let's start with the fact that animals in industrial farming are treated instrumentally, like money-making machines. To avoid being accused of bias, let's refer to the "Farmer's Eye" portal. In the article "How long do beef and dairy cows live?" we can read among other things: "Cows are extremely intelligent and empathetic animals that we most often encounter in herds. As we already know, the longest lives can be enjoyed by cows that die naturally. Compared to those intended for milk and meat, their existence is several times longer. Cows can live up to 25 years, and the longest-lived cow was Big Bertha, who lived almost 49 years. Moreover, cows are very intelligent animals, which can remember their names and, interestingly, also have memories."7. However, a shocking cognitive dissonance occurs because in the same article we read: "Beef and dairy cows live as long as they are needed" and "The average lifespan of a dairy cow is about 5-6 years, during which it produces over 23,000 litres of milk. This is significantly longer than in the case of beef cows, whose meat should be fresh and young so that farmers have a chance to sell it." Calves naturally need about eight litres of milk a day8. So-called "dairy" cows "produce" 20-50 litres a day, so much more than in natural conditions. As one can easily guess, this happens at the expense of their health and life. "Milk production at such unnaturally high rates is physically exhausting for cows, comparable in metabolic effort to running 1.5 marathons a day."9
Year by year, the situation is getting worse, as shown by data from the Central Statistical Office, illustrated in chart number 2.
Intensive industrial farming means a life spent in a cramped prison. Concrete instead of grass. Decalcification of bones, problems with hooves, and the effect of constant milking - mastitis. Despite antibiotics, pus from the inflammation gets into the milk and when its amount exceeds permissible standards, it is considered that the milk is not fit for consumption. And a sick cow is simply killed. It is also worth asking where the cow actually gets the milk from. Cows are no different in this respect from other mammals, including humans. A cow has milk when she becomes pregnant and has offspring. Cows are artificially inseminated, and during the insemination procedure, the farmer inserts his hand deep into the cow's anus to hold the uterus10. What would we call such a "procedure" performed against the will of the female if she belonged to another species, sometimes called human?
Calves that are born as a result are an unnecessary byproduct, so within a maximum of a few days they are taken from their mother (who suffers as any mother who loses a child does) and killed or sold for meat.
A similar fate befalls male chicks, which in the process of egg production are also unnecessary, so they are ground alive.
The above description is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg, an introduction to "attractions" straight from Dante's "Divine Comedy". Those interested in a more thorough analysis are invited to the sources mentioned at the end of the article.
The conclusion is one - supporting dairy production through our consumer decisions carries virtually the same moral burden as consuming meat.
The topic outlined in this part of the article is extensively covered in Sylwia Spurek's book "The Stench, Blood and Tears". It is available for free online, I encourage you to read it11.
In the first chapter titled "Climate, Environment and Natural Elements", we read: "In Europe, [the farming sector] is responsible for 78% of land biodiversity loss, 80% of soil acidification and air pollution (emissions of ammonia and nitrogen oxides), and 73% of water pollution (both nitrogen and phosphorus)".
Industrial farming causes a series of catastrophic environmental changes through the emission of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). It is estimated that if the citizens of the European Union adopted a vegan diet, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 70%.
There is much talk about carbon dioxide, however, although there is much less methane in the atmosphere, it has a 28 times higher greenhouse potential. Nitrous oxide, which destroys the ozone layer that protects the Earth from UV radiation, is similarly underestimated.
Beyond greenhouse gas emissions, there are a number of other harmful effects of mass animal exploitation. Local ecosystems are exposed to high emissions of nitrogen and its compounds (including ammonia). As a result, not only air quality deteriorates, but also water and soil (acidification and loss of biodiversity). Nearby forest ecosystems are also destroyed (mosses, lichens, coniferous trees and shrubs, forest soils are sensitive to nitrogen pollution). There are also a whole host of other compounds that are often overlooked in environmental impact analyses due to the difficulty of calculating their emissions (e.g., hydrogen sulfide, a highly poisonous gas).
It might seem that if we live far away from these deadly and toxic places, we can feel relatively safe (ignoring global climate effects). Nothing could be more wrong. When hearing about local polluters, let's remember that we are all connected - by air, water, earth. Nothing on this planet operates as a lone, isolated island. For example, in the summer season, we often hear about beaches closed due to cyanobacteria in the Baltic Sea or at some lakes. Cyanobacteria are toxic bacteria (in 2020 they caused the death of over 300 elephants in Botswana), which thrive especially in conditions of too high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. Meanwhile, over half of these compounds reaching our sea via water come from agriculture. So maybe it's enough to just give up swimming? Unfortunately, compounds emitted by industrial animal farming (including ammonia) also cause so-called acid rains, which not only ravage the landscape, but also lower the pH of the soil, causing crops to accumulate heavy metals.
Let's remember that when we talk about such farms, we mean both animals killed for meat and those exploited for milk or eggs. So, if we really care about the well-being of animals and our planet, a more effective choice will be veganism.
In an article titled "There’s one big subject our leaders at Cop27 won’t touch: livestock farming" published in "The Guardian", George Monbiot states that there are two things we must do to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown: leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop animal farming12. However, the latter topic is often overlooked, which could have two reasons: a) it's not that bad; b) it's (for some reason) inconvenient.
It is estimated that animal farming accounts for 16.5 to 28% of total greenhouse gas emissions13. This number doesn't sound drastic, but even if we take the lower estimate (16.5%), it's more than the emissions from all global transport. Worse yet, global meat consumption is growing rapidly. It is estimated that by 2030, half of the global carbon limit (set on the assumption that we want to avoid warming greater than 1.5 °C) will be consumed by this industry14.
An analysis by "Our World in Data"15 shows that even if we eliminated all other causes of gas emissions, food production alone would exceed the carbon limit by two or three times by 2100. Food production, in which animal farming accounts for 57% of greenhouse gas emissions16, while providing only 18% of calories17. The author of the analysis concludes that giving up eating meat and dairy in favour of a plant-based diet is an integral part of the fight against climate change through necessary emissions reduction.
Scientists from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley have developed a model18, which calculated that phasing out the animal farming industry over 15 years would have the same effect as reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 68% by 2100. The conclusion? "Reducing or eliminating animal farming should be at the top of the list of potential climate solutions" - said Patrick Brown, a retired Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University.
Research of this type is not new. As early as 2010, an international research team noted that mass animal farming has its consequences for human health, the environment, and the global economy19. Data collected 13 years ago showed that over 1.7 billion farm animals occupy more than ¼ of Earth's lands. The production of feed for these animals consumes ⅓ of arable land. Even then, the farming industry was responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In the study "Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems", 19 commissioners and 18 co-authors from 16 countries analysed the issue of a diet that would be both healthy and beneficial for the planet20. The key issue serving as the starting point for considerations states: "Strong evidence indicates that food production is among the largest drivers of global environmental change by contributing to climate change, loss of biodiversity, drinking water consumption, interference with global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and changes in land systems (and chemical pollution, which is not the subject of this study)". Importantly, the authors also raise the issue of a lack of sufficient food for over 820 million people. The conclusions drawn are not surprising. The solution is a diet mainly composed of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unrefined oils. To be fair, I'll add that a small amount of so-called seafood and poultry is allowed, although personally, I believe that for the sake of clarity of the message, it would be best to fully give up animal-based food.
According to scientists' conclusions, such a diet would allow for safe population growth even up to 10 billion by 2050. However, as the authors of the study write, "even a small increase in the consumption of red meat or dairy will hinder or prevent the achievement of this goal".
I believe that ethical reasons should be fully sufficient to choose veganism. However, if for some reason they are not convincing to someone, I hope that concern for the planet will become a sufficient argument. Veganism in today's times is not a particularly difficult challenge. Especially for people living in cities - everything is within reach or available for online ordering.