A Convenient Truth
Originally published in Good Karma Magazine, Chicago, October 2009
By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.
Victor Hugo is credited with saying that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. There is mounting evidence that global climate change may well bring an inconceivable catastrophe to humanity and to the Earth within the next century. Scientists estimate that if the mean temperature of the Earth rises six degrees Celsius, this could mean the probable extinction of most species, including humans.
It turns out that the main driving force behind global climate change is also behind human disease, environmental pollution, massive animal cruelty, and the whole range of dilemmas we are attempting to solve. How convenient! What is this driving force behind so many of our dilemmas? It is the routine confinement and slaughter of millions of animals every day for food.
And catastrophic it is. For example, and predictably, the most powerful and most forcibly ignored cause of global warming is eating meat and dairy products, greater even than all forms of transportation worldwide by car, truck, bus, boat, train, and plane. According to a major 2006 study by the United Nations’ FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow breeding millions of cows, pigs, and other animals for food is the greatest source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 297 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, as well as methane gas, which is 30 times more powerful. The science on this is unequivocal, and in addition, eating animals requires massive amounts of fossil fuel inputs, directly pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the United States we are transporting over seventy percent of our corn, soybeans, oats, and other grains to animals, pumping water to irrigate these fields, manufacturing millions of pounds of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, and housing and slaughtering billions of animals yearly. The end result of all this is that while it takes only two calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of protein from soybeans, and three calories for wheat and corn, it takes 54 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of protein from beef!
Already people are getting outraged about the petroleum wasted by large SUVs that are inefficient compared to economy cars by a factor of perhaps three to one. Will we get similarly outraged at people eating beef, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products, which are inefficient compared to plant foods by factors that far exceed those of the biggest SUVs—factors of 10, 15, and 25 to one? It’s easier to see the gallons of fossil fuel poured directly into our cars than it is to see the fuel consumption used to produce foods such as cheese, eggs, fish sticks, hot dogs, and steaks.
The primary driving force behind deforestation is cattle grazing and clearing land to grow soybeans and other grains to feed factory-farmed chickens, pigs, and fish. This is a further major contributor to global warming. In addition, sixty percent of our fish are now factory-farmed, causing severe water pollution and genetic damage to wild fish populations. Our limitless demand for fish that are used for feeding factory-farmed fish, birds, and mammals has brought our oceans to the brink of collapse. Dairy cows, for example, consume huge quantities of fish, added to “enrich” their feed to increase milk and fat output. It takes three to five pounds of caught fish to make one pound of farmed salmon. We have decimated fish, turtle, and sea mammal populations so completely that jellyfish are now taking over the oceans, and fishing vessels have to go out so far that they use unsustainable amounts of diesel fuel. A recent study published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal concluded that the only way to effectively reduce greenhouse gases is to significantly reduce human consumption of animal foods.
This has been increasingly emphasized in recent months, as journalists and experts begin to connect the dots for the public. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, himself a vegetarian, has been repeatedly recommending that people eat less meat and dairy products, and local governments are beginning to take action, as well. Ghent, Belgium, has designated every Thursday as “Veggie Day,” and Cincinnati has officially encouraged residents to reduce meat consumption as part of its Green Initiative.
As the threat of global climate destabilization grows, we will hopefully begin to realize that the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (and environmental pollution) is to reduce meat and dairy consumption. Gidon Eshel, a geographer at the University of Chicago concluded based on his 2006 research that, “However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet.”
Recent research has also revealed that buying locally grown meat, eggs, and dairy is not significant in its impact on one’s carbon footprint. In “The Locavore Myth,” James McWilliams explains that since transportation is only 11% of food’s carbon footprint overall, economies of scale and other factors, often outweigh transportation factors.
In addition, research reveals that in many cases, eating “free-range” and “organic” meat, dairy, and eggs does not substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, because free-range cattle, for example, are not fattened as quickly as feedlot cattle, so the reductions in carbon dioxide equivalents in foregoing chemical fertilizers and pesticides are nearly offset by these factors. According to a University of Chicago study, the various energy inputs and livestock emissions involved in meat production for an average American pump an extra 1.5 tons of CO2 into the air over the course of a year, which would be avoided by a vegetarian diet. A vegan diet, without dairy or eggs, reduces the greenhouse gas footprint much further, and 17 vegans eating organic foods have the carbon footprint of one person eating the Standard American Diet. The accompanying graph, from Germany’s Der Spiegel, actually understates the case for us Americans, since we eat more meat than virtually any other country worldwide.
To their credit, more and more meat-eating journalists are coming forth, encouraging people to reduce meat and dairy consumption to save the Earth from climate breakdown. Let’s amplify their call! The situation is critical. As the Worldwatch Institute has bluntly concluded, “It has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future.”
Al Gore called global warming an inconvenient truth because it seemed to him that solving it would require painful and economically disastrous cutbacks and changes in our lifestyle. When we look more deeply, we can see that if, instead, we approach the solution by dramatically reducing animal food consumption and production, it is indeed a most convenient truth. As the U.N. and many others have pointed out, the fundamental driving force behind the devastation of tropical rainforests, and of ocean ecosystems, and of genetic diversity is directly related to eating animal-sourced foods. Add in water and air pollution, soil erosion, and world hunger, as well as the devastating diseases caused by eating animal foods, such as obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, and kidney disease, and we can see that we stand on the brink of an enormous opportunity.
Going vegan becomes easier as more of us do it, and there is nothing more important that any of us can do to help solve global warming and our other dilemmas. Ultimately, going vegan is the most convenient thing we can do.
Dr. Will Tuttle, an award-winning writer, pianist, and composer, has presented widely throughout America and Europe. Author of The World Peace Diet, he has also taught college courses in mythology, philosophy, humanities, comparative religion, and creativity. His Ph.D. dissertation in education from the University of California, Berkeley, focused on educating intuition in adults. A Dharma Master in the Zen tradition, he has done intensive training in Korea, and has practiced meditation and vegan living for 30 years. He is devoted to promoting world peace through spiritual education and to spreading uplifting original piano music through concerts and his critically-acclaimed albums.