Have you heard that making the transition to veganism will help save the planet? Perhaps you’ve watched some of the many documentaries on veganism that depict livestock as destructive to the planet.
This may come as a surprise, but authoritative information contradicts the alleged evidence that livestock is bad for the environment.
In fact, livestock–when properly raised–is essential for planetary health and removes carbon from the atmosphere. You heard me.
Yet those documentaries ignore the facts and evidence–from authoritative sources–about why veganism is bad for the planet.
In this article, I break down
- The myths about veganism.
- The research that reveals why a transition to veganism is not the answer.
- Why livestock are nowhere near the biggest producers of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Why the planet actually needs properly-raised livestock.
Before you make the decision to transition to veganism and throw out your butter, let’s dive deeper into what research says about agriculture and animal husbandry.
The Problem With Vegan Farming Practices
MYTH: Raising livestock is bad for the planet.
RESEARCH REVEALS: Not only is it not bad for the planet to raise livestock for food, it’s actually absolutely necessary. Raising livestock, also known as animal husbandry, provides not just nourishing nutrient-dense foods for people, but helps nourish the planet as well.
It’s a popular idea today to think that if we were to transition to veganism and only grow plant foods (grains, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, and produce), without any grazing animals (for dairy, meat, poultry, and eggs)—essentially vegan agriculture—we’d make an abundance of quality food, and save the planet. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The issue isn’t as simple as: livestock is bad for the planet and vegan agriculture is good for the planet. That’s way oversimplified.
The question is: what kind of livestock-raising practices are we talking about?
Vegan farming practices trigger super-high greenhouse gas emissions, even higher fossil-fuel-dependency, and make arid, infertile wastelands out of already-limited arable land within just a few years.
Why infertile? Because shit is gold.
That’s right: manure from pasture-raised farm animals—absent in vegan farming—is an indispensable part of our food chain. It’s also worldwide economic salvation.
So let’s talk shit.
Biodiverse Farming, Shit, and Carbon
“We tend…in American agriculture to think primarily in terms of technologies that work, instead of understanding how systems work.”
—Fred Kirschenmann, “Leaders in Alternative and Sustainable Agriculture: Oral History Interview Series” (Kirschenmann advocates for transition to a sustainable “organic nutrient-recycling system”)
As you read these words, I magically whisk you away to a biodiverse farm.
Here we are, surrounded by crops of vegetables, fruit growing on trees, cows, chickens, goats, and all manner of animals right out of a children’s book.
You tell me you want to pet a goat.
I tell you to watch your step.
You look down and see a pile of shit. Then you see another. In fact, there’s shit e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e.
I tell you you’re walking in a gold mine because friendly bacteria in the guts of pastured livestock (ruminant animals) ferment plant food to produce nutrients that wind up in the livestock’s feces.
Some of these bacteria also wind up in the feces as well.
The feces winds up in the soil. The soil is nourished.
The grass and plant foods grown in that soil are optimally nourishing to both livestock and humans.
You know what also ends up in the soil? Carbon. When animals are pastured they sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, producing a “negative carbon footprint.”
It’s a simple, harmonious, small-scale cycle that’s integral to the planet’s ecological sustainability, especially when widely practiced. It makes sense. The transition to veganism does not.
You nod your head (remember: we’re still standing in the middle of a biodiverse farm?).
A Negative Carbon Footprint Is Only Possible with Pastured Animal Agriculture
None of this can happen without animal agriculture. The transition to veganism would drive a nail in the coffin of the only system–a natural system at that–that actually takes up carbon from the atmosphere and safely stores it underfoot.
It’s also valuable to consider that, practically speaking, insofar as domesticated livestock goes, we’re far beyond the point of being able to tell Sally Cow, Go! Run! You’re free! She’d probably flash us a blasé glance, moo, then turn back to chewing her cud (if she were pastured, that is).
Our commitment must be to humane treatment, which includes feeding Sally what she’s biologically made to eat–grass–not what can make her fatter quicker and increase her disease-risk (grains and soy) at a seemingly lower cost.
Biodiverse farms that grow plant foods and are inhabited by humanely-raised pastured livestock—that’s where it’s at. It’s kind of quaint when you think about it.
Quaint but powerful: the animals on these farms produce nutrient- and friendly-bacteria-rich soil that nix the fossil-fuel-guzzling and air-pollution that inevitably come with large-scale conventional monoculture (whether for plant or animal farming).
When you understand how systems work–namely that of animal agriculture–the transition to veganism for environmental health becomes not only unnecessary, but unscientific and unstrategic.
[Erika ends her shit-talking rant.
All of a sudden, you’re back home lying on your couch. You check the soles of your shoes and are relieved you listened to Erika’s warning.]
Myth: Livestock Are the Biggest Producers of Greenhouse Gases
It’s a common misconception that all livestock endanger the planet because they produce greenhouse gases (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide).
Sustainable farmer, owner of Polyface Farms, author and lecturer, Joel Salatin, explains that 95 percent of all methane in the world is produced by wetlands.
Moreover, the 2011 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report indicates one-third of increased carbon emissions in the global atmosphere comes from wetlands.
The 2011 UNCTAD report also indicates agriculture is responsible for only 13 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA’s 2019 statistics list emissions from agriculture at 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.1 (UNCTAD has not updated its gold-standard report since 2011.)
The 13 percent of emissions, described in the 2011 UNCTAD report, is comprised of
- 40% from soils (nitrous oxide)
- 27% from enteric fermentation/livestock digestion (methane)
- 10% from rice cultivation (methane)
- 9% energy-related (carbon dioxide)
- 7% manure management (methane)
- 6% other (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide).
Don’t let that 27 percent figure for livestock digestion deceive you. UNCTAD’s 2011 report also explains that increased methane production is the result of industrialized agriculture, not sustainably pastured livestock.
The report cites the International Livestock Research Institute, saying a typical pastured African cow offsets its methane emissions by taking up carbon in its pastures.
So if that 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from methane were from pastured livestock, we’re not looking at an imbalance in the natural order of things.
And if that 27 percent comes from commercial agriculture, it still only makes for a small fraction of all greenhouse gas emissions (27 percent of 13 percent = 3 percent).
The data simply doesn’t support a transition to veganism.
Your mind drifts to your biodiverse farm-visit with Erika. You begin to feel nostalgic and vow to return for some quality goat-time. But next time, you’ll wear rubber boots.
Case In Point: Livestock Are Not Dangerous to the Planet
Yes, conventional animal farming employs heinous, inhumane, disease-encouraging practices, and makes for nutritionally-inferior foods. But livestock-digestion is not the greenhouse gas-producing big bad culprit. Extreme fossil fuel use is—even for plant farming.
Commercial farms use tons of fossil fuels whether they grow plant foods (grains, soy, veggies, etc.) or raise animals (for meat, eggs. or dairy).
Why? If these farms are raising animals, they need to fuel machinery on-site, and they need to transport large amounts of grain/soy-feed from across the country. This requires lots of fuel.
Those grains, in turn, require synthetically-enriched fertilizer, also transported from all over the country.
More Problems with the Argument to Transition to Veganism
Why do these larger plant-food / vegan farms need to import fertilizer?
1) Because constantly growing one kind of plant-food (monocropping) depletes arable soil so much it only takes a few years to render it infertile. Larger-scale plant farms can’t function without imported synthetically-enriched fertilizer, and therefore lots of fossil fuels.
2) Because not all land is actually arable to begin with. This makes fertilizer a necessity to aid in food production. According to the 2011 UNCTAD report, the highest agricultural carbon emissions come from land conversion to agriculture. In the US, just 26 percent of land can be used for pasturing livestock, with the grasslands of the Western US only good for pasturing. Twenty percent of US soil can be cultivated for crops, but we use half of that land to grow food for commercial livestock.2 Per UNCTAD, more than 33 percent of cereal products in the world (a lot produced where rainforest used to be, and all sprayed with agrochemicals that were tested on animals) are used to feed commercially-raised animals—a figure that will jump to 50 percent by 2050.3
In short, both commercial plant and animal agriculture are hooked on agrochemicals, synthetic imported fertilizer, and the fossil fuels to transport the fertilizer.
This also means we don’t have the land to support growing more plant foods, unless we force things along via the high-carbon-emissions process of land conversion.4,5,6
Now, top all those production-and-transport carbon-emissions off with the energy it takes to commercially store the food.
What you get is a ginormous carbon footprint, whether you’re eating conventionally grown animal or plant foods.
Once again, the argument for transitioning to veganism for environmental reasons isn’t grounded in the facts. Through and through veganism amounts to unsustainable agriculture.
(The argument to transition to veganism for nutritional reasons also isn’t grounded in the facts–as you can read about in many of my articles.)
Sustainable Farming Practices that Include Pastured Livestock Is the Solution
“…sustainable pasture promotes soil carbon absorption and soil fertility. Every ton of additional humus [decomposing plant and animal matter] in the soil relieves the atmosphere of 1.8 tons of CO2. This illustrates the importance of integrated crop and livestock production, sustainable pastoralism, and the particularly problematic role of industrialized (landless) livestock production.”
—Ulrich Hoffman, in the 2011 UNCTAD report, “Assuring Food Security in Developing Countries Under the Challenges of Climate Change: Key Trade and Development Issues of a Fundamental Transformation of Agriculture”
Unlike commercial animal and plant agriculture, sustainable farming practices keep things local, full of life, and minimize fossil fuel use.
If these small sustainable farms sell their products on a more local level (farmers markets, food co-ops, local home-delivery), we’re looking at the smallest carbon footprint possible. We’re also looking at the least food waste possible.
Sadly, as much as 25 percent of all fresh fruit and veggies in the US goes missing during its voyage from commercial farm fields to our plates.7
When we grow food on a smaller scale then transport it shorter distances, we lower the chances food goes to waste.
Understand that most of the grains and plant oils (canola, soybean, etc.) out there are commercially grown. If you were to eat in a noncommercial way, if you were to eat locally and seasonally, as if you lived on a small self-sustaining farm, the simple truth is that you won’t be eating tons plant oils, or grains (or its byproducts, like cereals, crackers, etc.) because it takes lots of land to grow tons these things.
The simple truth is that growing and eating food in a sustainable way can only happen on a smaller scale, and includes mostly fresh local and seasonal organic produce, and pastured/grass-fed animal foods (meat, eggs, and dairy). Growing and eating food in a sustainable way simply can’t happen by way of a transition to veganism.
While it’s true we have exponential population growth and limited arable land, the very process of raising and sourcing animal foods from a multitude of small self-sustaining biodiverse farms, by default, regulates production in a manner protective of ecological health.
We don’t have to worry about eating “too much” animal foods from these sources. In fact, the more money we put into truly sustainable agricultural practices, the more power we give them to become the norm.
And remember: the category of animal foods is not limited to meat (poultry, beef, etc.), but also includes eggs and dairy, which are even more readily produced, and in greater volumes than meat could ever be.
Sustainable nourishment is the goal, and it’s thoroughly possible every day for everyone on the planet. Transition to veganism not required (and ideally avoided.)
The Global Impact Of Sustainable Farming Practices
“We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature.”
—Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director
“Organic agriculture relies on healthy soils and active agro-ecological management rather than on the use of inputs with adverse effects such as artificial pesticides and fertilizers. It combines tradition, innovation and science. Among the benefits are higher incomes, more stable and nutritious diets, higher soil fertility, reduced soil erosion, better resilience to climate extremes such as drought and heavy rainfall, greater resource efficiency, lower carbon footprints, less dependence on purchased external inputs and reduced rural-urban migration.”
—Press Release for 2012 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
All the benefits of biodiverse sustainable farming practices mean something important for not just the US, but the world, and not just in terms of ecological sustainability, but economics and improved quality of life.
According to a 2009 report from UNCTAD, small-scale organic systems in developed countries succeed in producing 92 percent of the yield seen with conventional agriculture. Pretty awesome.
But check this: organic systems in developing countries produce a whopping 80 percent more than conventional farms.8
This is particularly important because we’ll have over 9 billion people on the planet by 2050,9 and as UNCTAD assessed in 2012, 73 percent of land certified for organic wild collection and beekeeping is in developing countries.
Keep in mind, many farmers in developing countries practice organic farming without formal certification.10 It’s easy to see the potential in this.
If wealthier nations won’t assist less developed nations by educating them about and helping them to develop sustainable agricultural practices, the global struggle for control of resources will only intensify more and more rapidly.
None of us has a separate destiny on this planet. Nations are connected in an inextricably bound web. The health of the individual is only possible when we ensure global health.
With certified organic produce sales climbing from $23 billion in 200211 to $60 billion in 201212 and $50 billion in 2019,13 it’s clear sustainable farming is the way of our global future, not the transition to veganism.
Be ready to do your part with your wallet and your plate.
The less money spent on food produced by major corporations that push commercial agriculture (replete with GMO seeds, and pesticides that are tested on animals) on not just US farmers but farmers in developing nations, the healthier everyone becomes, the healthier our Earth becomes.
We need to commit to being a part of the sustainable solution.
Conclusion: Identify Corruption and Non-Science
You’ll be seeing more headlines like this one from April 2022, published in The Guardian, in the coming months and years: “Northern Ireland faces loss of 1 million sheep and cattle to meet climate targets.”14
The sub-title reads: “Northern Ireland Assembly’s first climate act will require the farming sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.” The image caption reads: “According to the analysis, about 700,000 sheep would need to be lost in order for Northern Ireland to meet its new climate targets.”
This means farmers will be forced to kill their livestock to comply. Which will spell financial ruin. And keep in mind that not all these livestock were intended for meat either.
The word “lost” is more than a misnomer. It’s manipulative and deceptive.
This is beyond bullshit.
Here’s the truth: pasture-raised livestock do not harm the environment. In fact, they do the opposite.
And even standard commercial agriculture (as unhealthy and inhumane as it may be) only minorly influences greenhouse gases.
The truth is that none of these new regulations is based on science.
These regulations are solely a money-driven and outright nefarious push by Big Ag and the arguable parasites/psychopaths who run it to transition “the masses” to food that requires an intermediary (read: Big Ag).
Remember: to control food, water, transportation, and communications is to control everything.
It’s time to speak truth to power–before it’s too late. Our individual and planetary health requires our our informed revolution.
Still considering the transition to veganism for health reasons? Read these articles I wrote first: Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein: The Myths and Facts and Is Saturated Fat Bad For You? No!
- While it’s commonly believed the transition to veganism results in greater environmental sustainability than raising livestock, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
- Vegan farming practices create super-high greenhouse gas emissions, even higher fossil-fuel dependency, and make arid, infertile wastelands within just a few years.
- Animal husbandry and sustainably-, locally-produced manure are essential for maintaining fertile soil.
- Commercial agriculture practices create a massive carbon footprint, whether by growing animal or plant foods.
- Raising and sourcing animal foods from small self-sustaining biodiverse farms self-regulates food production and protects ecological health.
- Small, organic systems in developing countries produce up to 80% more than conventional farming.
- Putting your money into food from local biodiverse farms is the best solution for your health and the planet.
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- https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse gas-emissions
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Feature image Copyright Erika Herman, includes “Cow” image by hazelart from caseart, and “comic bubble” by DAPA Images.