There is a single industry that is responsible for 51 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, totalling more than every transport system in the world combined. According to the Food Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, this industry is also responsible for 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas with 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In the US, this industry uses 55 percent of total water consumed. Further, the documentary Cowspiracy revealed that this industry is the ‘leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution and habitat destruction.’
This industry is animal agriculture.
It’s funny, isn’t it? Eating is such a personal thing.
You associate spaghetti bolognese with your childhood, not with rainforest destruction and greenhouse gas emissions. Ice cream is a necessity for week 13 of every semester, not a water polluter and top methane gas producer. Fish and chips are the quintessential Aussie summertime dinner, not a contributor to the projected fishless oceans we could see by 2048.
I think most of us are averse to the idea that what we eat is intrinsically ethical – eating has been a sacred, joyful and bonding experience that humans have shared for millennia. Around the world, cultures are tied together by food. When backpacking in Malaysia over the summer, I was told that I would never taste a true laksa without shrimp paste and fish sauce, and would thus, never fully appreciate the Malaysian experience of food. I’m now living and working in Germany, and I have to accept that while I can eat all the pretzels and potatoes my carb-obsessed heart could wish for, I must pass on the wiener schnitzels, white sausages, and coffee cakes that Germans are proud to call their specialities.
Food is integral to culture, family and history – it’s been this way for a very, very long time.
Perhaps this is why, in the discussion about climate change and global warming, one of the biggest contributors is often left out of the conversation. Acknowledging that eating fewer animal products – or cutting them out completely – is essential to saving our planet is not only scary to admit, but is often met with fierce resistance. You can ask someone to spend $20,000 on solar panels, sell their car, and take pitifully short lukewarm showers, but don’t ask them to buy lentils instead of steak. That is not just offensive, it’s threatening.
As a six-year-long vegan, I am by no means judging this reaction. I understand the vegan stereotypes – crazy, judgmental, annoying, pushy and ultimately ‘missing out’ – because I understand how much food means to people.
But I don’t want to take anything from you. I just want to start a conversation that reframes how we should think about food. Take for example, the fact that it takes 2400 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, compared to the 25 gallons it takes to produce a pound of wheat. By swapping out meat for seitan (a very high protein meat substitute made from wheat), tofu or beans, you could save more water than you would by not showering for six months.
If you choose to eat animal products, you have to accept that your choices may not be ethical. They are understandable choices because of the society we live in and culture we are surrounded by, but they are not the most ethical.
The question of privilege also ties into the conversation about veganism – wealth, whiteness and other various forms of privilege offer greater accessibility to the fresh food and information that makes veganism a possibility. I would argue, however, that it is meat-eating that is the greatest privilege of all.
Rising water levels caused by carbon emissions will see poor island nations disappear first. The fact that animal agriculture uses up to 33 percent of the world’s fresh water may not impact us in Australia, but it does affect poverty-stricken developing countries who don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. The 91 percent of Amazon destruction that animal agriculture is responsible for has not hit us yet in our air-conditioned flats, located ten minutes walk from Woolies, but the Maccas burger you eat at 3am after a night out does contain flesh that likely comes from there. It’s a different story for the impoverished and neglected communities that built their livelihood and culture around the forest, hundreds of years before it was ever touched by European hands.
Most of us are in privileged enough positions to be able to find good quality fruits and vegetables for low prices and buy bags of lentils, rice and tofu instead of chicken breasts and lamb chops. Doesn’t sound appealing? That’s okay. The Cruelty Free Shop now open on Mort Street in Braddon has got you covered, with everything from tasty coconut milk based ice cream, to vegan fish fillets and dairy-free cheeses that taste so good they fooled my omnivorous 17-year old brother. Choosing an ethical diet and eating your favourite things has never been easier.
I’m not asking you to give up your culture, or your favourite foods, or your money. I’m not even asking you to go fully vegan (although, if you did want to, that would be awesome). I’m just asking that you think about the consequences your seemingly personal actions have on a planet that we all share. Some easy swaps – putting lentils in your bolognese instead of beef, or getting your morning latte with soy or almond milk instead – will go a long way towards helping preserve our precious environment.