You are what you eat, or so the old saying goes. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, we as humans have been aware that what we eat affects our mental and physical wellbeing. But as of 2016, the majority of the world’s population still appear oblivious as to how our diet can affect our environment.

In fact, the two go completely hand in hand; global warming and changes in rainfall have a huge impact on our food security, and our diets are a major contributing factor to climate change. In fact, animal agriculture is thought to contribute to over 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. In comparison, worldwide exhaust is only responsible for 18%.

Although there is a plan for improved farming with less greenhouse gas emissions, dietary patterns will need to be altered if we want to avoid catastrophic consequences. Agricultural emissions are projected to increase by 80% by 2050, while transport emissions are to only rise by 20%; yet news outlets seem to focus only on how public transport and electric cars will ‘save the planet’. Marco Springmann, a researcher at Oxford University, said that a global shift towards vegetarianism and veganism could have “huge potential to improve our planet’s state… from a health perspective, an environmental perspective, and an economic perspective.”

From first impression, adopting a diet that is both sustainable and healthy may seem hard – determining just what is sustainable is a challenge. How the food was grown, how much land was used, how it was transported and packaged, and how resources were used in the making of a product are all important, and relevant, questions.

Agriculture is responsible for about 70% of all human water use, is the leading cause of rainforest destruction and biodiversity loss, and rearing livestock accounts for 30% of the Earth’s land surface. It’s quite clear that animal products come from places that are putting large amounts of strain on our planet – avoiding these means you avoid feeding into their supply/demand curves.

And as for the health benefits – in the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death. Studies have found that populations with vegetarian and vegan diets have lower risk of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. In a medical trial named Lifestyle Health Trial, 82% of people with diagnosed heart disease that followed a plant-based diet had some level of regression of atherosclerosis, a disease of the arteries caused by deposition of fatty materials on their inner walls.

Additionally, the World Health Organisation recently classified processed meats, such as ham, sausages, hot dogs and salami as being “Group 1 – carcinogenic to humans.” Red meats, such as beef, pork, veal and mutton, were classified as “Group 2A – probably carcinogenic to humans.” There is a large amount of data to support a link between eating such meats and colorectal cancer.

Whilst talking to Andrew Taylor, a vegan for nine years and co-owner of a vegan food business, the unavoidable topic of animal rights was brought up after discussing both the environmental and health benefits of a vegan diet. He believes that “a large scale shift in how humans treat other animals would indirectly bring about more positive changes in how we treat each other.” Not contributing to the horrendous way that we treat other animals is one more positive consequence of avoiding animal products.

Each year, over 56 billion animals are killed for food – excluding fish and other sea creatures, whose deaths are so great that they are only measured in tonnes. In a report completed by the BBC on the ethics of eating animals, it was found that the animal interests violated by raising animals for food in modern agriculture include: to continue living, to live in natural/’decent’ conditions, to make free choices, to live a life free from fear or pain, to live a healthy life, to eat a natural diet, and to enjoy the natural social/family/community life of its species. The final statement of this report reads that “if you accept that animals have rights, raising and killing animals for food is morally wrong.”

The legendary Paul McCartney is quoted as saying, “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everybody would be a vegetarian.” Many people advocate for ‘humane meat’, or ‘free range eggs’ – but what they don’t realise is that animals raised in green pastures, or in tiny cages without a hint of sunlight, more often than not end up in the same death-row line at the same slaughterhouse. Before death, an animal is held off feed for 12 to 24 hours to ensure complete bleeding and ease of evisceration.

The stunning process is the first thing an animal will go through when arriving at a slaughterhouse – livestock are restrained in a chute that limits their physical movement. Once restrained, an animal is stunned – with either a bolt gun, electricity, or carbon dioxide. After stunning, an animal is still alive but rendered immobile or unconscious. They are then suspended by a hind leg, and moved down a conveyor line where they usually go through a process called ‘sticking’; the insertion of a knife into the carotid artery, meaning they bleed out. At this point in the process, differing species receive different treatment – but you’ve probably heard enough.

During one of her documentaries, Temple Grandin discusses the rules for beef to be labelled as ‘Animal Welfare Approved’ in the United States. At least 95% of animals must be stunned on the first shot, no more than 2% of animals fall during the process. No more than 3% of cows moo (“a sign of stress,” she notes), and no more than 25% are hit with an electric rod. Roughly 20,000 cows die each day for food in the States – meaning 1,000 of them have to be hit with the bolt gun twice. 400 of them fall over during the process, 600 moo, and 5,000 are hit with an electric rod.

It doesn’t sound hugely humane and uncomplicated; and this is only if all farms met the most strict regulations for slaughter in all of the United States. When I searched to find the number of farms meeting these regulations of farming and slaughter in the States, I was disappointed – there are only ten beef farms currently registered as ‘Animal Welfare Approved’. Unfortunately, over 99% of animals in the United States are raised on factory farms, living in cramped, dark conditions before being slaughtered. Sadly, there are no animal welfare laws at all in China, the world’s largest meat producing country.

The meat industry is not limited to just beef – in most countries, poultry farming practices are not regulated. Chickens are usually given growth hormones so they can be slaughtered earlier, shortening their natural life span from 8-10 years to 5-7 weeks. Chickens are generally raised in one of two settings – caged, or in a shed. Chickens raised for meat, or ‘broilers’ will almost always be raised in a shed with thousands of other chickens, their beaks often cut off or blunted (without painkillers) so they won’t peck each other to death. Hens, the egg-layers, will usually be raised in cages, with little or no room to move. If they are labelled free range, or cage-free, they will generally have been raised in a shed like the broilers – there are no regulations for labelling poultry or eggs as free range, as long as they were not raised in a cage.

However, as Kira van Os, a vegan for almost two years and a strong animal rights advocate, tells me, “in New Zealand, there is no audit for free-range farming – generally a rule followed is 9 chickens per square metre, or about 10 square centimetres for each chicken to live in.” As for the slaughter of these chickens – because of the lack of regulations around these, they are usually suspended by both legs, and their throats are cut – sometimes after being dipped in water with a current running through it to paralyse (they are still conscious after this process), but often this step is skipped – while they are still alive, and then dipped in scalding water to remove their feathers. Many chickens are still alive at this point and are thus boiled alive.”

By removing animal products from your diet, you are withdrawing your association with any industry that treats animals like this. To quote Kira: “I didn’t want to contribute to the suffering of animals, and learned that I didn’t have to if I went vegan.”

Veganism obviously isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of climate change – we should still turn off our lights when we leave a room, take public transport when possible, and buy an energy efficient fridge. But if changing our diet can help the environment, help our health, and help the animals (as studies show, it can help us save more than $750 a year as well), why not do it?

It’s as easy as (vegan) pie.


This article was submitted for The Common Room, a place for all young people to share their views. Got something to say? Everyone’s welcome – click here to contribute.

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