My birthday gift to myself: #GoingVegan.
I'm dropping dairy. After six years of being a vegetarian, I'm taking the plunge into a fully plant-based diet.
Eating is perhaps our single most profound engagement we have with nature and non-human animals, and what we eat determines how we choose to interact with them. No matter how you slice it, there's almost no escaping two realities: your animal source foods are funnelled through indefensible factory farms and are responsible for the lion's share of our foodprint.
Those of you who know me well are aware I've been critiquing and flirting with veganism for many years. It's complicated... I've been podcasting on animal agriculture for half a decade, debated with livestock farmers and vegans alike, protested and lobbied against factory farms, campaigned for a shift towards more plant-based diets, participated in veganuaries, as well as interviewed, filmed and promoted agro-ecological (livestock) farmers.
I see many problems with the vegan movement and will still challenge my vegan friends by remaining (self)-critical. I will continue to defend holistic intersectional alternatives to industrial agriculture - some of which are not vegan. I make a distinction between veganism as a diet and as a food system. I recognise that the battle starts with our plates, but doesn’t end there. If that confuses you, tune into a new podcast episode later this week.
And yet, I'm still #GoingVegan. Why?
Doesn't all food production impact nature? After all, there's nothing 'natural' about growing food. The story of agriculture is the story of humankind's destructive domestication of plants and animals. The story of 21st century food however above all concerns the latter: the domination and mass exploitation of non-human animals.
Defending the indefensible?
Domination? Mass exploitation? Really?
Yes. Via factory farms: an ethically indefensible human-made invention that perpetuate unfathomable suffering for everyone involved. Almost all animal source foods are raised this way. Accepting this horror show is one of the defining moral mistakes of our time. Try to visit one if you can.
"We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress." - Sam Harris.
When it comes to factory farms, we will horrify our descendants.
Pragmatically speaking, the easiest way to consistently opt out of that system in the West is to adopt a vegan diet. Alternatives to factory farmed meat and dairy are few and far between.
That's because our modern food system is designed around eating animals. Three quarters of the world's agricultural land (or a quarter of the world's total land area) is dedicated to grazing and feeding livestock. Roughly 80% of global deforestation is a result of agriculture, with grazing for ruminants and crops for animal feed being the two leading causes. Millions of hectares of commodity crops (maize, wheat, soy) are grown to feed billions of chickens, pigs and cows. In Europe, 62% of our cereal crops are used as animal feed, whilst only a quarter is used to feed people directly.
The same goes for global freshwater use - 70% is used up by agriculture - with the vast majority for livestock and their feed.
Eating animals (dairy included) is above all a land-use issue. Soy - the world's most destructive wonderbean - is the main culprit. This protein-rich bean is mainly grown in the Americas: on the once fertile Great Plains in the United States and on freshly cut forests in the Cerrado Savanna and the Amazon rainforest in South America.
Deforestation in the Amazon is at its highest rate since 2008 and increased by 9.5% between August 2019 and July 2020 (PRODES). In just a year, 11,088 km² were cleared, the equivalent to 626 million fallen trees. The lesser-known Cerrado is the most diverse tropical savanna in the world, containing 5% of all the world’s species of plants and animals. In the last 35 years, more than 50% of its approximately 2 million km² (an area two times the size of France) has been cleared for pasture and cash crops (mainly soy).
Drenched in indigenous blood, the story of soy is not only an ecological catastrophe but also a humanitarian disaster. Indigenous communities are on the frontlines of Bolsonaro's brutal assault on human rights and the environment. 2019 was the deadliest year ever for environmental activists (Global Witness 2020), in large part due to lack of law enforcement in Brazil.
Animal-based foods are at the top of the list - and it’s not because they’re not local, or wrapped in plastic.
What about tofu and soy burgers?
Vegetarians and vegans eat soy. As it turns out however, the best way to eat less soy is to actually eat soy. Only 6% of global soy production is used for direct human consumption. In Europe, a whopping 88% of soy is used for animal feed. The majority of the remaining 12% is for biofuels. In Belgium, only 3% is for direct human consumption.
The best way to eat less soy is to eat more actual soy. When you can, choose organic. Most soy grown in South America is non-organic GMO soy, so choosing organic tofu will likely mean your soy will not come from South America. GMO products for direct human consumption are prohibited from the EU market, but for our animal feed, GMO crops are permitted.
For all the land and resources we dedicate to feeding farm animals, we sure treat them like shit.
An army of uniform hybrid breeds of chickens, pigs and cows are bloated and fattened with soy at breathtaking speed and slaughtered with stupendous efficiency. It takes just 6 weeks to 'raise' a broiler 'chicken' to slaughter weight. In reality, we're raising and slaughtering deformed obese baby animals (a six week old chicken is still very much a chick). Hybrid breeds hardly resemble their Southeast Asian red jungle fowl ancestors.
In a nutshell, industrial animal agriculture is devouring the natural resources on which future food production depends. By choosing the path of industrial animal agriculture today, we are, quite literally, “eating our collective tomorrows”.
Bella the Burper King
Here comes a final shocker - nearly half of livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions come from methane gas (FAO). The main source? Cows. That means that about 7% of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from cows belching. That doesn't mean pigs and chickens are off the hook. Growing demand means nitrous oxide emissions (decomposing manure) and carbon dioxide emissions (mainly animal feed-related) are still rising.
We neither have the land nor the carbon budget to sustain the pressure of billions of suffering animals on our planet.
Frankly speaking, nor should we be able to stomach it any longer.
A Call to Arms to Fight Factory Farms - Matteo De Vos
Environmental Impacts of Food Production - Our World in Data
"Climate change cannot be sufficiently mitigated without dietary changes towards more plant-based diets" - Poore & Nemececk 2018 Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers
“If consumption of animal products was halved by replacing the worst options with plant-based alternatives, land use would be reduced by 2.1 billion ha and GHG emissions cut by 4.8 billion metric tons of CO2eq” Springmann et al., 2018 Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits