By Louise Davies
Last Tuesday, at the COP23 Climate Change talks in Bonn, 15,364 scientists from 184 countries—the most scientists that have ever jointly published anything in history—declared “time is running out”. They said: “We must recognise, in our day-to-day lives … that Earth with all its life is our only home.”
It’s clear that the situation is grave. It’s a challenging time for those of us trying to lead the fight against climate change, with the US withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord precisely as we see an increase in dangerous weather events around the globe. There has never been more at stake. Despite the critical point at which we find ourselves, there is much to be hopeful about.
We can hope that our representatives in Bonn step up the pace and that policies and legislation are implemented to reduce reliance on fossil fuels which are often seen as the biggest culprits. We can carry on doing the simple things like changing our light bulbs to energy saving ones, washing our clothes at 30 degrees, perhaps flying a little less. Or we can do something that will make a real difference… and think differently about what we eat.
Let me explain a little more about just how damaging our current dietary habits are to the planet. You may be surprised to hear that the livestock sector is the major cause of global deforestation and is responsible for up to 91% of Amazon destruction. Trees and forests are destroyed to graze animals and to grow crops to feed them. And to those of you concerned about soy, very little of the world’s soy crop is used to produce meat substitutes for vegans. A far greater amount ends up in feed for poultry, pork, cattle and even farmed fish.
This deforestation is a contributing factor to climate change, removing the valuable C02 absorption and storage that trees provide. But deforestation isn’t the only way that the livestock sector contributes to climate change.
The global livestock industry generates as much greenhouse gasses as all transport combined. All those cars, ship, and air miles are outweighed by the preponderance of meat on our plates. This is exacerbated by the fact that animal agriculture is the world’s biggest producer of methane, a far more powerful greenhouse gas than the much-maligned CO2.
An average cow produces around 700 liters of methane per day – equivalent to the emissions produced by a 4×4 traveling 35 miles a day.
The problem goes beyond emissions and deforestation; meat-eating is a very inefficient food source and form of nutrition. We find ourselves in the bizarre situation where for every 100 calories we feed to animals, we only receive 12 calories back from meat and dairy. By feeding ourselves with those crops directly, we could feed billions of more people around the globe.
More and more esteemed bodies are advocating a move toward a plant-based diet for these very reasons. Respected policy institute, Chatham House has stated: “Reducing global meat consumption will be critical to keeping global warming below the danger level of two degrees Celsius.” The WWF’s recent report, aptly named Appetite for Destruction, states: “Meat consumption is devastating some of the world’s most valuable and vulnerable regions, due to the vast amount of land needed to produce animal feed.” When we consider the damage that a meat and dairy diet inflicts on our planet, veganism starts to look less like a whimsical lifestyle choice, and more like a moral imperative.
At this point, it might be worth me clarifying what veganism means for those of you that don’t know. Veganism is a 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.
There are many ways to embrace vegan living. Yet one thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs, and honey – as well as products like leather and any tested on animals.
This year, The Vegan Society launched its biggest campaign to date – Plate Up for the Planet. We challenged people to try a vegan diet for seven days to see what the impact would be on their food-related carbon footprint. The results were astounding. In a few weeks, over 10,000 people took the challenge, saving the same amount of carbon dioxide as flying to the moon and back. Out of those surveyed, 44% said they will definitely continue on a vegan diet and 83% said they will reduce the amount of meat and dairy they consume.
Following a vegan diet can sound challenging, or may seem like a large sacrifice. But in the context of climate change, it is the very definition of an “easy win.”
It’s also true that it has never been easier to be a vegan, with a proliferation of trendy restaurants, a blooming selection in supermarket aisles, and an internet full of recipes, hints, and tips. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Sunday supplements of our national newspapers had been colonised by an army of vegans, such is the hype that currently surrounds a vegan lifestyle. We are lucky enough to have high profile celebrities who have embraced a change in their diet, and we even have the world’s first vegan football club!
Of course, it’s not just about individual action and we need to see policies implemented at government levels to address the impact of animal agriculture. The Vegan Society are working hard on this, calling for a farmed animal tax, increase in vegan public procurement, and policies to encourage a shift to plant protein agriculture. There is much to be done if the will is there, and increasing public awareness to encourage these interventions is crucial.
But you can do something. You can halve your food-related carbon emissions by going vegan.
Whenever we think about change, inevitably there are barriers. This harks back to Al Gore‘s ground-breaking film about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth – we know the facts, and we know the consequences of our actions, but the changes that are required are inconvenient to us. This inconvenience, however, has to be weighed up against the huge long-term consequences of doing nothing. So when you think about veganism, there are no doubt personal barriers that you can think of. What about Sunday dinners? Christmas day? How will I manage without cheese? Is life worth living if I can’t go to Pizza Express?! Then there are practical barriers – will it be more expensive? Where can I get all of the strange, exotic ingredients? (or “vegetables” as we vegans like to call them). Finally, there may be social barriers – will my friends think I’ve gone mad? Will I still be invited to parties? What about my parents, my children, my work colleagues?
Think of your personal barriers to change. Then take a moment to think of the challenges we face as the human race. Often, your sticking points may not seem so important in the grand scheme of things. We at The Vegan Society will be there to help you every step of the way. And yes, you can get vegan pizzas at Pizza Express!
At Bonn, one delegate (Eric Holthaus) asked: “All good people of Earth: What will it take? How far will you go, today, this year, to keep life as we know it on our planet?” I’m asking you to consider a simple thing – that your three meals a day could make a huge difference in the fight against climate change.
You can sign up for Plate Up for the Planet here.
Louise Davies is the Head of Campaigns and Policy at The Vegan Society having joined in 2016. She combines a passion for social justice, environmentalism and animal rights.