In the 15,000 year span of agrarian history there has never been such a dramatic shift in the way the world eats as there has been in the past few decades. With rising rates of meat consumption comes many negatives effects. Livestock agriculture is to blame for an astonishing portion of Greenhouse Gas emissions and land use globally contributing irreversible effects to climate change. Previous negative connotations related to veganism are slowly being replaced by positive ones, as more athletes, celebrities and people of the like are adopting an environmentally conscious and animal friendly diet. Shifts in big agriculture toward the production of vegan friendly options such as meat substitutes and nut milks are a sign that the future is looking bright for the growth of more vegan diets (Oberst, 2018)). In countries such as China there has been massive shifts in greater meat consumption and production, but it was soon realised by the Chinese government that this was not sustainable especially because the population saw huge increasing rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases (Milman, 2016)). There is no universally agreed vision for sustainable agriculture; this paper will aim to analyze the extent to which veganism can combat climate change via the attempt of sustainable agriculture which results in reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions and land and biodiversity loss while finally concluding that veganism has the possibility to become the next widespread way of sustainable eating, and the future of sustainable agricultural practices.
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It is necessary first to define and discuss the terms that will be addressed in this essay. Although veganism is approached in various ways, the essence of the term is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose” (“definition of veganism”, 2016). This definition is very broad and can basically be summed into the elimination of the exploitation of animals by humans. Veganism has gained popularity in the past 10 or so years with advocacy organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) reaching widespread media outlets with their dramatic use of shock tactics to persuade people to live the vegan life. All vegans do not associate with organizations such as PETA, in fact most practicing vegans are not part of any social movement organization or group; the subculture has grown exponentially past just involving radical animal rights extremists (Cherry, 2006). People are not only adopting vegan diets for the protection of animal welfare but also the health benefits that correlate with not consuming animal products, and the environmental sustainability aspect of the diet. Until recently the veganism movement was looked at quite negatively and meat-free options were not something that were found very easily. The statistics for the growth of veganism in recent years have been astonishing; in the United States there was a 600% increase of people who identified as vegan from 2014 to 2017 (Oberst, 2018) sales of plant based foods increased by 8.1% in the past year and plant based dairy alternatives are expected to represent 40% of the combined total of dairy and dairy alternative drinks within three years (Fox, 2018). Sustainable agriculture will also be discussed in relation to the veganism movement. The goal of sustainable agriculture is to “meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Feenstra, 2017). Sustainable agriculture addresses many environmental and social concerns while not compromising economic productivity for farmers (Feenstra, 2017). Agriculture has changed so dramatically in the past hundred years but it has seen its most dramatic change since the end of World War II (Feenstra, 2017). Food productivity skyrocketed due to new technologies, increased chemical use, and government policies which promoted the maximization of production (Garnett, 2007).
Despite the seeming trend towards veganism, worldwide meat production has increased enormously and more notably it has expanded by 20% in just the past decade (Stoll-Kleemann, 2015). It is estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that the worldwide consumption of meat has increased from 23 kilograms to 42 kilograms per capita between 1961 and 2009 (Stoll-Kleeman, 2015). Developed countries are consuming double the amount of meat versus developing countries. (Stoll-Kleeman, 2015). The demand for meat and other animal products is expected to increase if left unchecked; population growth is only a minor player in this issue, as it is mainly the cultural significance of meat eating, rising incomes and rapid urbanization driving up the demand for meat products (Tilman, 2014).
There are two main ways in which meat production contributes to unsustainable agriculture and climate change: GHG emissions and land use. Livestock production is responsible for the lion’s share of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture. The mass production of animal protein via global livestock and dairy production requires mass amounts of land to produce the end products; not only do the animals need somewhere to live and grow, but their food has to grow as well. It is approximated that 70% of agricultural land and 30% of the global land surface are used towards animal production (Garnett, 2009). Some researchers estimate that if the crops grown for animal feed and biofuel were instead directly consumed by humans an estimated 70% more calories would be available in the global food system, meaning roughly 4 billion more people could be fed which is much more than the growth that is expected in the next 50 years. (Tscharntke, 2005)). If the vegan diet was adopted worldwide, the projected amount of cropland needed in 2050 could be reduced by 600 million ha which would protect areas likely to experience problematic biodiversity loss (Tilman, 2014). Today, animal husbandry can be blamed for roughly 30% of global biodiversity loss and this is primarily because of changes of land use (Scarborough, 2014). Land clearing not only contributes to GHG emissions, but it is at the forefront of environmental and ecological degradation. The WWF has assumed that in the past 40 years, 52% of all the world’s wildlife has disappeared with agriculture as one of the top contributors (Scarborough, 2014). Livestock production as a whole includes deforestation for grazing land and soy-fed production, soil carbon loss in grazing lands, energy used in growing feed-grains, calculated food miles to transport feed to livestock, use of nitrogenous fertilisers and gases from animal manure and fermentation (McMichael et al, 2007). 35% of GHG emissions from livestock production comes from deforestation and desertification (McMichael et. al, 2007). Feeding a population on a diet of animal protein requires a magnitude of resources much more extensive than does a diet of plant protein. Issues of ‘food problems’ such as insecurity and sustainability have previously been something only mentioned in the developing world, yet the problem is much bigger than that. Food is being produced on a scale globally that could feed roughly 10 billion people, but we still somehow cannot solve the hunger problem that leaves 855 million people undernourished across the globe (Johnson, 2006).
GHG emissions vary among foods as relative to animal-based foods, plant-based foods have much lower GHG emissions, in fact meats such as beef and lamb have 250 times more emissions per gram of protein than those of legumes (Tilman, 2014). Methane and nitrous oxide are released through animal waste, which are greenhouse gas emissions that are, respectively, 30 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (Scarborough, 2017) Global emissions from meat production account for 2,836.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, while milk production comes close at 1,416.1 million tons of CO2 equivalent (Stoll-Kleemann, and Schmidt 2017); livestock are also to blame for 64% of anthropogenic ammonia emissions which contribute to acid rain and the acidification of ecosystems (Stoll-Kleeman and Schmidt, 2017). Studies show that the highest dietary GHG emissions were found in meat eaters while the lowest dietary GHG emissions were found in vegans (Scarborough et al, 2014). A vegetarian diet has the ability to reduce emissions from food production by over 55% per capita, while reducing meat and dairy products has the highest impact on reducing GHG emissions compared to cutting out any other foods. (Schmidt et al. 2017). Experts warn that a rise of two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is when climate change becomes dangerous (Garnett, 2009). To keep below this point, global GHG emissions must be reduced by 85% on year 2000 levels (IPCC, 2007), and meeting this will require cuts by all sectors of the economy including the agricultural industry and most notably the livestock industry (Garnett, 2009). It is also important to note that the production of animal protein also causes serious deterioration of water quality linked to the discharge of ammonia and nitrous oxides connected with the waste expelled by intensive cattle farming enterprises (Garnett,2009).
Big agriculture in the form of livestock production is not only one of the biggest drivers of climate change, but it is also unethical and barbaric in the ways in which it is performed. When discussing sustainable agriculture, it is often thought that simply reducing one’s meat intake will be enough to counteract the overwhelming GHG emissions of the livestock production industry; but given that many people agree with the fact that it is wrong to mistreat livestock, will the same production of livestock be tolerated in policies to design future sustainable agriculture policies? Some say that reasons to preserve the environment and slowly combat climate change are ethical more than they are economic, but that is not correct (McMichael, 2007).Without environmental sustainability, future generations will have such a small percentage of the natural resources we have readily available for us today; with the thought of agriculture sustainability comes the thought of future generations and the hope that they can prosper. This is a view that the Chinese government has taken seriously. China has seen remarkable economic growth in the past couple decades which brought on an increase in consumer income, which lead to important changes in food consumption (Milman, 2016). One of these changes was a widespread increase in meat consumption. Ever since China’s race towards producing and consuming American levels of animal consumption they have experienced environmental and health implications such as obesity and non-communicable diseases (Milman, 2016). The China story also revolves around food security. For example, to feed their everlasting demand of pigs (they have recently become the world’s largest pig producer) they have become heavily dependant on soy to feed these pigs (Milman, 2016), so need to secure land to grow soy for this purpose and have been buying vast tracts in other countries such as New Zealand and Australia, to guarantee their food source (Milman, 2016). In an effort to manage these issues, China has planned to cut down meat consumption by 50% via new dietary guidelines set up by China’s health ministry (Millman, 2016), and with these new regulations, are acting as a pioneer in the “de-meatification” of diets.
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Given the projected increases in global livestock production and the unsustainable GHG emissions that are associated with these increases it is clear that policies need to change to reduce the demand for animal products and their production. This is where veganism can help. With the growing amounts of mainstream vegan Instagram accounts, YouTube channels, and films such as “What the Health!” and “Forks over Knives” promoting healthy, sustainable, vegan lifestyles, it is easy to say that the community is growing faster than ever expected and that’s happening just in time. Veganism is not something to be stereotyped any longer, it is a diet and lifestyle that is taken on by athletes, celebrities and many others alike, the connotations behind the word “vegan” are shifting towards becoming entwined with all of the positives the diet brings to personal health, animals, and the environment.
Veganism is an efficient strategy for countering biodiversity loss and climate change. Sustainable agriculture and veganism go hand in hand, as livestock and dairy production are one of the biggest polluters on the planet, responsible for global biodiversity loss, not to mention the often inhumane methods of production. Veganism provides answers to climate security while enhancing animal welfare along the way. Any way in which people lower their meat consumption is beneficial to the environment and allows the path to sustainable agriculture more clear. With the veganism movement growing day by day it is a so-called light at the end of the dark story of livestock agriculture.
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