A few years ago, this statement was splashed all over newspapers, magazines, and social media: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use.” It came from Joseph Poore, an Oxford researcher. Poore looked at the overall impact of our food systems on the environment.
But first, what is veganism? The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living, which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans, and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
There is indeed diet in the definition, but clearly, it shows that veganism is not just about diet, but a way of life that seeks to end animal exploitation.
The Oxford study examined 40,000 farms in 119 countries and some 40 agricultural products consumed by humans. They found that the production of animal-sourced food (ASF) like meat and dairy accounts for the use of 83 percent of all farmland. It also produces 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while only providing 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein for humans. So where do we get the 82 percent of calories and 63 percent of proteins? You guessed it right, from plants.
Another study from the University of Minnesota shows how animal agriculture is a very inefficient system, using too much land and emitting high GHG while producing only a small percentage of food for humans. Only 59 percent of calories produced become food and most of the loss is shown in the feed conversion ratios (FCRs).
It also found that if biofuels and animal feed are dropped to focus on only food crops, instead of feed crops for animals, we can increase food calories produced by 70 percent. It could feed up to four billion people and solve world hunger. It could also register significant reductions in methane emissions, which is 25 percent more potent as a GHG than carbon dioxide.
By focusing only on food crops globally, we could free up around 75 percent of land being used for animal agriculture and still produce more than enough food for everyone. That’s a lot of land that can be allotted for protected areas, rewilding, and agricultural regeneration. Dropping animal feed would also mean ASF production would drop, and people would have to skip meat, dairy, and eggs, and eat a whole-foods plant-based diet and vegan alternatives.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that animal agriculture emits 18 percent of all GHGs, more emissions than the transport sector. Different studies and sources estimate much higher, from 25 percent to 51 percent, and claim that many animal agriculture emissions are unaccounted for. However, even FAO’s conservative estimation still accounts for almost 1/5 of all emissions. Clearly, animal agriculture is a climate issue we could no longer ignore.
Projections show that by 2050, crop production must double to meet the demand of feeding a growing global population. If we continue to raise animals for food, they will continue competing with humans with their feed.
Considering all of these, animal agriculture is not as innocent as large producers want us to believe. Most of the subsidies that it receives pull down the price tag of ASF while increasing externalized costs. Externalized costs, or what economists call negative externalities, refer to the harmful impacts of a transaction to an unrelated third party or even the larger society. An example of an externalized cost is the pollution of water bodies where animal farms dump excretions.
In mid-September this year, the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, FAO, and UN Development Programme (UNDP) came out with a report which reveals that 87 percent of all agriculture subsidies in 88 countries, including the Philippines, distort pricing and are environmentally and socially harmful.
The report titled “A Multi-Billion-Dollar Opportunity” says that around US$470 billion of this agricultural support goes to price incentives, chemical inputs harmful to humans, and the environment such as pesticides and fertilizers, among others. It was also found that the most emission-intensive products such as meat and dairy, receive the highest subsidies. On the other hand, smaller landholders, who are more efficient in producing 35 percent of the world’s food on only 12 percent of farmlands, receive less subsidy. It’s a great illustration of economic inequity and how animal agriculture has more disadvantages than advantages.
The UN report proposes the repurposing of these harmful subsidies to support climate-smart practices and innovation toward the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) and just climate transition.
The climate crisis requires all hands on deck. This means that every little bit helps—from reducing individual emissions through a vegan diet and more mindful, earth-friendly lifestyle to large-scale shifting to renewables and phasing out of industrial animal agriculture.
The UN says we have a multi-billion-dollar opportunity to make a difference now. By repurposing support to harmful animal agriculture and focusing more on food crops for humans, we will be reaping many benefits to our health, to the climate, and the environment as a whole.
About the author
Shiela R. Castillo is a social development professional, foresight practitioner, and climate advocate with 20 years of experience in the Philippines and Cambodia. She has been a Climate Reality Leader since 2011 and mentor since 2016. In 2017, The Climate Reality Project Philippines conferred to her the Luntiang Dahon for Climate Leadership Award. A passionate environmentalist and animal rights activist, Shiela is a vegan and initiator of several online communities on veganism. She also has eponymous blogs on WordPress and Medium.