It is no more a secret that intensive animal agriculture is at the helm of the environmental crisis that we face today. Be it global warming, massive energy consumption, land and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and species, the majority of the problems are rooted in the way humans are producing and consuming animals.
We have often been told that driving hybrid cars or getting solar panels are required to make the biggest difference. But how often have you been told that what you put inside your shopping bags at the grocery store can actually have a greater environmental impact than any other thing mentioned above?
Removing animal products from your plate is one of the most powerful ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint. The reason people aren’t able to tally the heavy environmental toll of animal products is because the destruction caused by intensive animal agriculture is largely hidden from our direct experience. It is easy to identify the carbon emissions from activities like driving fossil fuel cars as the damage is much more observable. But, for animal products, the math is not so simple, for the hidden externalities remain the climate crisis secret – less known and even less thought of!
Intensive animal agriculture is the primary driver of biodiversity loss. This is because, in order to support the production of animal products,species-rich natural ecosystems are being converted to arable land and pastures. The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) 2006 report titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, stated that, “Livestock plays an important role in the current biodiversity crisis, as they contribute directly or indirectly to all the drivers of biodiversity loss (habitat change, climate change, invasive alien species, overexploitation, and pollution), at the local and global level.” (1)
Production and consumption of animal products is not only bad for the environment but also for both, our individual and community health. Overstocking of animals and absence of waste management in animal farms poses a major health risk to the workers employed in the industry, people living in neighbouring areas and consumers eating the produce of such units.
Factory farms located near urban and peri-urban areas become a source of water contamination which may result in the spread of zoonotic diseases. (2) . People working on these farms and those living in and around the farms are more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections (Brief Report on the environmental status of some poultry farms in India, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, 2017).
Climate change is a hunger risk multiplier. And since intensive animal agriculture significantly contributes to climate change, the need for a global shift away from meat and dairy to combat the harmful impacts of animal agriculture on climate and world hunger becomes imperative.
Animal agriculture is also one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, with more than 15% of the world’s total GHGs coming from animal agriculture. These emissions are a result of the immense inefficiencies during the conversion of plant protein to animal protein, in addition to the manure management and enteric fermentation in ruminants. A stunning 50% of the GHGs emitted by food and land use systems are associated with conventional animal agriculture, and, as farm animals’ numbers grow, their emissions are also likely to grow, even assuming “efficient” growth. Ruminant meat production is the third largest GHG emitter in India, even though consumption is relatively low. (10) With a growing demand for animal-based protein, this statistic is alarming – the need to incentivize consumption to more environment-friendly protein sources is critical to maintain diets that are within planetary boundaries.
A United Nations report on the effects of climate change concluded that the global consumption of animal meat must come down to curb global warming, reduce growing strains on land and water and improve food security, health and biodiversity. (3)
This change calls for a greater focus on plant-based food choices at the individual level and encourages plant-based feeding and farming practices to hunger and food security problems at the policy level.
The gains in efficiency that reduce the prices of animal products tend to increase the externalized costs. Plant-based meats score better than animal protein as they emit; 30%-90% less greenhouse gases(4)(5), uses 72%- 99% less water(6) (7) ,uses 47%-99% less land(8) ,and causes 51%- 91% less aquatic nutrient pollution as it produces no manure, unlike conventional meat(9).
Thus, plant-based meat has tremendous potential to help build a sustainable food supply, primarily due to its efficient use of resources. Governments and agencies across the globe are realising the urgency for substantial dietary shifts from animal-based products to plant-based diets and hence are investing in the development of alternative protein sources.
Humane Society International works across the world to help food and hospitality businesses increase the availability of plant-based foods on menus, and is carrying out successful programs across Asia, such as the Green Monday program in Vietnam, Meatless Monday in Sri Lanka, among others through our plant-based initiative. In 2019, we convinced more than 400 institutions, ranging from daycare centres, orphanages, schools & colleges, as well as global food service and catering companies to adopt policies around serving less meat and more plant-based foods in their cafeterias, by conducting more than 150 culinary events, training over 1,330 food service professionals around the world. We also conduct plant-based awareness programs in schools and colleges across the Indian subcontinent, calling for more sustainable and humane consumption patterns. We are heavily invested in aiding the growth of the plant-based meat, dairy and egg sectors in India, and are working with stakeholders from academia, policy makers, and several others to bring affordable, nutritious plant-based and cultivated protein to consumers.
The earth has reached its tipping point and we can’t continue to live with our unsustainable ways. Food is a powerful lever, and one with which we can optimize human health and environmental sustainability on this earth. We’re a microcosm of this huge structure and each one of us has the power to influence it and strive for a sustainable future- a future that ensures the well-being of all: humans, planet and animals.