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Veganism and the Environment by Chris Sutoris, Vegan Views 83 (Spring/Winter 99)

What we know as the Sahara Dessert was, until around 5,000 years ago, land covered with vegetation. The principal cause of this change from a previously fertile landscape to barren waste land was overgrazing by animals that were kept to provide food. This led to soil exhaustion and erosion. Today, we have an artificially high population of farm animals due to overbreeding to satisfy the demand for meat and dairy products, which is resulting in similar large scale damage to the environment and causing unnecessary famine in the Third World.

Most people are aware of the high demand for building land for new houses and urban expansion, yet food production is the cause of a less noticeable demand for land. If people ate only food of plant origin, typically only a sixth of the amount of land would be needed to feed a given amount of people than would otherwise be needed to feed the same amount of people with animal derived food. Part of the reason for this is that when animal derived food is produced, not only are you providing food to feed X amount of people, you also have to feed Y amount of farm animals. Producing food only of plant origin would mean woodland and hedgerow would no longer need to be destroyed and more could be planted to reverse past woodland and hedgerow decline. More woodland and hedgerow would help prevent soil erosion and keep land fertile, provide cleaner air and make more habitats available for endangered species and other wild life.

But land isn't the only scarce resource that plant derived foods can save. To produce and serve X amount of food by weight, beef production uses 200 times more water than the amount needed to produce the same amount of soya. And remember, this is including all stages of production including cooking and serving the food. Farm animals also contribute significantly to pollution and global warming in the form of methane, carbon dioxide, and slurry, not just air pollution, but river and land pollution too. Food plants on the other hand convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and don't cause pollution, which means less greenhouse gas and more fresh air. How can anybody who eats meat possibly call themselves an environmentalist?

What about the Third World? If plant based food production needs significantly less land and water than animal based food production to feed the same amount of people, doesn't it make sense for the people of the Third World to eat a plant based (i.e. vegan) diet? And if they saved the extra water that was no longer needed for farm animals, they would be better prepared when they had a drought. The European Union imports annually from the Third World around 30 million tonnes of plant based food specifically for feeding farm animals; if we don't want to be responsible for taking food out of the mouths of starving people, doesn't it make sense for us to eat a plant based diet too? Do you realise that by adopting a vegan diet you and other people like you would be reducing the demand for these imports? Did you know that over 35% of grain grown throughout the world is produced purely to feed the artificially high population of farm animals and that Britain, and any other country for that matter, would be able to be self-sufficient in food if everyone ate a plant based diet?

We often hear the phrase 'market forces'. Market forces are actually the choices people make when they decide to buy or not to buy a certain product or products. This means that the market adapts to the demand created by the public, by supplying what it believes the public will most want to buy, and by producing less or discontinuing what it believes the public no longer wants so much of. By changing to a vegan diet, you will actually be creating a market for food grown in a more environmentally friendly way which needs significantly less land and water to produce when compared to food of animal origin. But as well as that, you will be reducing the amount of land required to produce food in total. And this reduction will be in the type of food that causes greenhouse gases, river pollution, as well as pain and suffering to millions of farm animals each year. It also means less need for woodland and other natural sites to be destroyed. So by being vegan you are playing an important part in helping to prevent unnecessary damage to the environment and helping relieve famine in the Third World, as well as helping to prevent suffering to animals in First World farms.

A balanced vegan diet is also healthier as it contains less saturated fat and more fibre than a diet based on animal derived food, so all in all it's good for the environment, good for people in the Third World, good for animals, and good for you.

So why aren't the so called environmental and Third World organisations telling everyone to become vegan? The simple answer is that these so called 'environmentalists' and people who campaign for famine relief in the Third World like eating meat and dairy products. They tell us about the need to stop destroying the rainforest, which usually ends up as cattle ranches. They campaign to save woodland and other natural sites in this country and in Europe. But they will not give us the next bit, which is this: if we, the public, create the demand for the product of those cattle ranches and animal farms, those cattle ranches and animal farms are going to come into being. And if those cattle ranches and animal farms come into being, the rainforest and/or other natural sites around the world will be destroyed. Even if it could be justified to destroy part of a natural site to feed people, it certainly can't be justified to destroy five times more of these natural sites than would otherwise be necessary. If these so called environmentalists continue to eat meat and other products of animal origin, they are in effect saying: it's OK to destroy five times more natural woodland than necessary, including the rainforest, and turn it into cattle ranches, just as long as you make sure you use public transport when you go shopping for the products of this destruction. It doesn't make sense. Likewise, Third World campaigners also seem to think it's OK to eat meat. They put money into the collecting tins to provide crops, emergency food rations, irrigation schemes, farm animals, etc. for the Third World, and then they eat hamburgers and steaks produced from animals which were fed on imported Third World grain, while millions of Third World people are still starving to death. This doesn't make sense either. One of the first things we learn as children is that 1 + 0 = 1. We learn that things have to add up. The environmental movement is trying to tell us that 1 + 5 = 1. They are pretending that eating animal derived food is OK from the environmental point of view, when clearly it isn't.

Whenever there is a news item on TV or in the press concerning yet another famine in the Third World, people often say, 'I wish there was more I could do than just donating some money! Well, there is, and we in the vegan movement must tell them what it is. If we want to help to save those people who might well starve to death in the future, we can do something. We can become vegan. And if we want to reduce the demand that destroys the environment, the same answer applies. Veganism isn't about being negative, it's not about giving things up or going without. It's about being positive. It's about wanting something better. Better health. Better environment for our children to grow up in. Clearer conscience, knowing the food we eat that gives us life and isn't costing life, whether human or animal, elsewhere in the world. Veganism is about making the world we live in a better, friendlier place for people and animals alike.

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Cross-reference: Environment