Plant-based Diets: Needed Yet Not Enough

As this blog has argued repeatedly, people, animals, and the environment are threatened by the mass production and consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy. In particular, the factory farm model of livestock production that is becoming the norm even in many parts of the developing world has led to increasingly destructive side-effects with its huge waste management problems, inhumane animal confinement, and sheer scale of production.

One proposed solution to these problems is to substitute these intensive livestock practices with extensive ones that more resemble the way livestock was raised before CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Not that all of the technological advances in agriculture made in the twentieth century should be thrown out, but that there should be a critical reappraisal of the externalities involved in producing food. Small-scale organic farms, for instance, are able to cycle waste back into the soil, provide animals with more space to exhibit their natural behaviors, and produce products that are healthier for human consumption.

Yet many oppose animal agriculture altogether, arguing that 1) unless global livestock numbers are reduced, greenhouse gas emissions will remain the same (and actually, grass-fed ruminent animals such as cattle emit much more methane — a potent greenhouse gas — than do their grain-fed counterparts), 2) the resource footprint of livestock remains high, requiring large amounts of land, water, and crops, 3) if consumed in excess, even organic animal products result in deleterious health effects, and 4) raising animals for food involves inhumane acts such as slaughtering animals, culling unwanted male chicks, and weening calfs away from their mothers, and therefore cannot be ethical or humane, regardless of whether the bulk of the animals’ lives are pleasant.

All things equal, a vegan diet goes much further in caring for the well-being of people, animals, and the planet than an omnivorous diet, though there is obviously much more to the equation than whether or not a diet is plant-based or plant-and-animal-based. One can imagine a vegan diet based in foods made from monocultures grown in previously forested land on petro-fertilized soil, dowsed in pesticides,  shipped from half way around the world, processed with chemical additives, and packaged in plastic being a less than ideal dietary choice, both from an ecological and human health perspective. A diet that truly cares for people, animals, and the planet must be so much more than merely plant-based, nonetheless, choosing a diet low or even void of animal products is one of the most important dietary choices one can make.

As a world, we need to think about not only how to produce enough food — for now we produce a quantity of food sufficient to feed the world population adequately — but also about the many impacts that our food system has on people, animals, and the planet. At an alarming pace, much of the world is now turning towards a western diet high not only in animal products, but also in sugar, preservatives, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates. Not only is it unsustainable because of the sheer quantity of resources involved in growing, processing, and delivering such a diet to consumers, but it is leading to widespread chronic, diet-related health problems, causing animal suffering, and rapidly heating the planet.

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