As I started this blog and was just beginning to think about how my diet affects the environment, I focused mainly on the idea of vegetarianism. All of my first posts on this blog centered around this idea of avoiding the products of animal agriculture. Though I have learned more and my perspective on the issue has evolved, I still think that this is one of the most important dietary choices we can make to help out the environment. Since I haven’t talked about this issue for a while, I want to come back to it and add everything that I have learned, every reason that my diet has changed to become what it is now. Just as a warning, this post got pretty long. But that’s just because there is so much to say! Please don’t be discouraged and maybe read it in chunks if necessary because I think this is really important stuff.
I choose to avoid factory farmed animal products (meat, eggs, milk, gelatin, honey, leather, etc.) because I believe that factory farming is our single biggest impact on the environment. Let’s consider the issue of climate change, for example. According to a 2010 study by the FAO (Federal Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), livestock alone are responsible for 18% of human-caused CO2, more than that of transportation. In other words, the cows in the world contribute more to global warming than the cars in the world.
Water conservation and usage is another important factor in the future of our environment. According to author Dr. Richard Oppenlander, animal agriculture accounts for 50% of global freshwater usage. Looking closer, the amount of water used to produce one pound of beef is roughly equivalent to the amount of water a person uses in showering over the course of an entire year. As I like to put it, if you want to lower your water usage by about 5,000 gallons, you can stop showering for a year or not eat a few hamburgers. It might seem shocking that animal agriculture uses so much water and contributes so much to climate change, but a lot if it has to do with ecology and biology.
In eating meat, we are eating from higher up on the food chain. Instead of eating grain, we are eating an animal that ate grain. Since the food calories take a more circuitous route to our mouths, many are lost along the way: the cow uses much of the energy from its feed to function, to grow or metabolize nutrients for example. Quantitatively, the cow gains only a single pound for every 8 pounds of food it eats. (Chicken on the other hand, need just two pounds of feed to gain one pound.) We can look at this food chain in terms of water usage. In raising a cow (or chicken), we need the water to grow the grass/grain it eats, the water for it to drink, and the water to clean and process the animal, among other things.
We can also look at a cow’s life as an energy transfer in terms of calories. According to author James McWilliams, for every calorie of energy we put into growing grain, we get 1.5-2.5 food calories out. But the figure is shockingly inefficient when we look at livestock. For every 33 calories of energy we put into raising cattle on a feedlot, we get only 1 food calorie out. This energy comes mostly from fossil fuels and a little bit from the sun.
The environmental harm of industrial cattle farming also comes simply from the biology of the cow. Cows are ruminants which means they digest their food by fermentation, regurgitation, and chewing cud. This fermentation produces methane as a byproduct. Our cows are responsible for 37% of the methane we put into the air. Methane has a greenhouse gas potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide, meaning that one molecule of methane traps 25 times the amount of heat than one molecule of carbon dioxide does. Hopefully it’s now easy to see how animal agriculture can play such a big part in larger environmental issues such as water conservation, energy usage, and global warming.
I am vegan also because of the cruel treatment of animals that takes place on a concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO. On a CAFO, farmers treat animals like production machines to get the most meat or eggs or milk with the least time and money. A layer (a hen raised for eggs) has on average 67 square inches to move around in, less than the area of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper. The layers only produce eggs when it is light out and they are awake, so the lights in a CAFO are often kept on for 18 hours a day to maximize egg production. Needless to say, this is tiring and unhealthy for the chickens. Because animals are kept in such close confinement and such stressful conditions, they can get violent. To avoid the animals harming each other out of stress, chickens are often debeaked and pigs have their ears and tails clipped without anesthetics. And since animals are disease-prone when so tightly concentrated, they must be fed antibiotics. As we can see, lots of moral problems arise with raising animals in such concentration along with the earlier mentioned environmental problems.
It’s all these factors that lead writer Jonathan Safran Foer to assert that “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.” And It’s important to realize that these are inherent biological traits of cows, no matter how you raise and kill them. Even if they are the happiest, healthiest, most-humanely treated cows on the earth, they need to eat grain or grass and give off methane (though chickens don’t need to eat as much and don’t give off methane).
The unchangeable biological traits of farm animals accounted for, there are still many cattle farms which have a lower impact on the environment than the typical CAFO: they use less water, produce less carbon dioxide, and pollute less. In some ways these farms actually take advantage of a chicken’s or cow’s inherent biological traits to form an intricate web that imitates nature itself.
At Polyface Farms, farmer Joel Salatin keeps chickens, rabbits, turkeys and cows in this kind of interconnected system. Instead of bringing in water from the outside like a conventional farm, Salatin uses water from surrounding ponds in a gravity-fed system, practically eliminating water usage by taking advantage of that which naturally collects from rain or runoff.
At Polyface, with a method called management intensive grazing, cows are moved between paddocks of fresh grass every few days. The cows leave cowpies (as would happen on an industrial farm). But on an industrial farm, this waste would go into a huge waste lagoon which is even more disgusting and pollutive than it sounds. The lagoon emits greenhouse gases and sometimes leaches into groundwater or surrounding bodies of water. But at Polyface, Salatin cycles the cows’ waste back into his interconnected system rather than leaving it to pollute. A few days after the cows leave, Salatin brings chickens onto the paddock where they eat grubs out of the fresh cowpies. Salatin also uses animal waste to create compost to grow the grass which in turn feeds the animals that produce the waste.
Unlike a conventional system which has many outside inputs and negative byproducts, this cycle minimizes waste and pollution by keeping everything in one self-enforcing loop. Instead of farming the same species in high concentration, Salatin farms many different species who work together and have a lot of room. Chickens get to run around and be chickens, eating an omnivorous diet as is healthiest for them. Joel Salatin likes to say that he lets the animals do the work. They go about their day, eating what is best for them and acting as they like. Lo and behold this lifestyle isn’t just healthier for the animal, it’s healthier for humans and the environment too.
And it’s these types of farms that lead me to believe not all animal agriculture is bad for the animals and the environment. It’s these exceptional methods of farming that stop me from being completely vegan. Why make an exception to my veganism? I believe that it is important not only to avoid the bad farms but to support the good farms. Factory farms like the ones I described above produce about 99.9% of the animal products in America. But there is still that .1%. There are those special farms out there like Salatin’s which care for their animals and the environment. As author Michael Pollan says, “It’s the practice, not the principle.” I don’t think farming animals is inherently cruel in principle. It’s just the way that farming is commonly practiced. e.g. on a CAFO. Cows on a farm like Polyface can be perfectly happy and healthy.
I want to bring about change by supporting those .1% of farms until they take over the other 99.9%. We can’t accomplish this just by avoiding all animal products. I really believe that we have to seek out and support those farms which are doing it right. Maybe that means buying milk from a farm like Claravale Dairy in Panoche, CA. At Claravale, a small herd of 60 cows has room to roam around. Claravale has a closed herd which means all their cows are born there and never bought from anywhere else. Unlike factory-farmed cows, which is stuffed with corn and other grains to fatten them up, Claravale cows are fed on pasture for most of the year and on organic hay and grain when pasture isn’t available. The farm never uses pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Antibiotics are used only when a cow gets sick and it is completely necessary for the cow’s health to medicate him or her.
So I drink raw milk from Claravale Farm and I raise my own chickens for eggs. I raise my chickens in the way that is healthiest and happiest for them. They get to run around my backyard and eat grass, worms, fruit and veggies, along with the traditional grain. In taking advantage of the wastes of my kitchen (food scraps) and the natural diet of the chicken (grass and bugs), I am buying less grain from an outside source. I am decreasing the energy and water input to raise these hens. If I were completely vegan, I would be denying that it is possible to raise animals in this humane and sustainable way. Claravale and Polyface farms are examples of this possibility. Still though, I don’t drink milk or eggs from any other farms.
I think it’s important to realize that eating factory-farmed milk or eggs is in many ways the same thing as eating factory-farmed beef or chicken. Dairy cows and beef cows are kept in pretty much the same conditions. Though we might defend the industry saying that cows like to be milked and milking feels good to them, it’s not that simple. In order to keep a cow producing milk, the cow must be continually impregnated. So where do the offspring go in this process? Depending on the gender, the calf either becomes a dairy cow like its mother, or is sold to become a veal calf. So in drinking milk, we are indirectly supporting the veal industry. I think the treatment of veal calves typifies the cruelty of CAFOs. Veal calves are kept in crates so small they can’t stand up. (Their practically unused muscles lead to more tender meat.) Veal calves often never see the light of day until they are brought to slaughter after 20 or so weeks. On factory farms, cows aren’t milked by humans but by machines. And though you don’t have to kill a cow to get her milk, dairy cows aren’t saved from a painful slaughter. Once a cow has passed her prime milk production, she is sent off to the slaughterhouse to become meat just like all the other cows. For these reasons, vegetarianism is no longer enough as I aim to avoid all the cruelty and environmental harm of factory farming.
Even though this post is getting very long, I would like to cover one last topic: the healthfulness of a diet low in animal products. It’s easy to think that a meatless diet is unhealthy because it lacks the protein, iron, or other nutrients found in meat. However, there are many other foods that are rich in these nutrients. Nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and tofu are all high in protein. Spinach actually has more iron than beef. A lot of products like soy milk or rice milk are fortified with vitamins that would be found in milk or other animal products. These fortified products are really the best vegan source of B12, an important vitamin found most commonly in animal products. Personally, I would be vegan even if I thought it wouldn’t be the healthiest option for me. I want to put the health of the environment and animals above my individual health.
In all actuality though, there are many real health benefits to a diet lower in animal products. According to a report by the American Dietetic Association, “vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, [and other nutrients such as] folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals.”
The report also states that “vegetarian diets are often associated with a number of health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) [that is, thy are not as fat] and lower overall cancer rates.” Because of these health benefits I believe that a diet free of factory-farmed animal products is not only better for the environment, but also our own health.
Even though I believe very strongly in avoiding factory-farmed animal products, I realize that it is hard to completely and suddenly change your dietary habits. And I realize that we all have tons of stuff to do and can’t always prioritize based on the health of the hens or the environment. Still though, any change is helpful and meaningful if it is based on something you believe in. Even if it is just starting with meatless Mondays or trying to cook more veggie burgers than hamburgers at home, it’s important to act on this belief. And as someone who truly loves the taste of meat and cheese, it isn’t as hard as you might think to give these up, especially if you do it gradually.
As I have learned more about animal agriculture, my diet has evolved. I started by taking red meat out of my diet, then I decided to take out all meat, and eventually I became vegan. Then I added my own chickens’ eggs back in and the occasional glass of Claravale raw milk so that my family would be buying less products from factory farms.
I think one of the strongest testaments to the plausibility and logic of a diet low in animal products is that several of my friends at school have decided to take on this diet. I do not actively try to convert anyone or rant about my dietary choices. In fact, I am usually pretty shy about my diet and rarely mention it. Nearly all of my friends are vegetarian or vegan, just because it just makes sense in so many ways. It speaks to the environmentalist or animal activist in all of us. Some of my friends have environmental reasons, others take a more moral perspective. Either way, there are several reasons (like the ones I mentioned above) that my friends and I try to avoid factory-farmed animal products.