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Animal agriculture: the concealed cause of climate change

Pope Francis recently presented actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio with a leather-bound version of his encyclical on environmental concerns, Laudato Si’. If the irony escaped the Pope, it is because his 40,600-word document makes no mention of the meat industry as a contributor to climate change. Although animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change, it remains taboo, in public debate and even in environmentalist circles, to say so. Perhaps it will take the peace movement, with its commitment to nonviolence, to break the silence. For animal agriculture involves immense violence against animals. But first the peace movement will have to overcome its anthropocentrism.

It is in the anthropocentric mentality of domination over what we call “nature” that the roots of the ecological crisis lie. We have treated the earth as a reservoir of “natural resources” that supplies us with food, fuel and building materials. For thousands of years we have been gradually ousting free-living animals from their natural habitats to use the earth for ourselves and the cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs we raise for food. Marine life is being pushed to the point of collapse through our plunder of the oceans.

Some of consequences of our commodification of animals are climate change and environmental destruction. Numerous credible investigations report that raising animals for food is responsible for between 18% and 51% of all greenhouse gases,1 more than the entire transportation sector is responsible for. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of rainforest destruction, species extinction, ocean dead-zones, and water pollution.2 It occupies 45% of the earth’s ice-free land3 and uses 30% of all water consumed on earth.

Yet, despite all this being so, the annual COP summits consistently turn a blind eye to the meat industry. Their focus is industry’s consumption of fossil fuels. Likewise, many influential mainstream environmental organisations – Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider, 350.org, Climate Reality Project among them4 – steer clear of animal agriculture for fear of alienating their funders and dues-paying members. It is too awkward to suggest that behaviour change regarding our food choices may be a necessary part of the solution to climate change.

There is a close relation between militarisation and our commodification of animals, which should be of particular concern to antimilitarists. At times the demand for land and water to raise animals for food has led to invasions and warfare.5 The military is used in the land grabbing now rampant across the globe. In Ethiopia, one of the worst offenders, millions of acres have been made available to foreign investors, some of it for grazing “livestock” or for producing feed for “livestock” that will end up as meat on the tables of the wealthy in Persian Gulf states and India. In these land grabs, the Ethiopian government has used its security forces to evict hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from land they have lived on for generations.6

When it is suggested that we would do well to examine the ramifications of raising animals for food, the argument is often advanced that only the well-off in developed countries have the luxury of food choices. Many of the world’s poor have to raise animals themselves or fish or hunt wild animals to meet their nutritional needs. But this argument must contend with the reality that almost 50% of the world’s grain is fed to “livestock.” If we did not breed all these many billions of animals for food, the food grown to feed them could easily feed the one billion people in the world who go hungry every day. The skewed international politics surrounding food sovereignty and food security come into play here.

As the ensuing debates are aired, the statistics will be disputed and charges made that the issues are being oversimplified. For some, however, one aspect of the meat, egg, dairy and fishing industries cannot be argued away, and that is the cruelty inflicted on animals by these industries, and the reverberations of this violence and brutality throughout society. The global food production process has become highly mechanised “agribusiness.” Low inputs and high profits are the priority, not the welfare of the animal subjects. From cattle traumatised in feedlots and abattoirs, to sows confined in tiny crates going insane from lack of stimulation, to battery hens cramped all their lives in tiny cages, to dairy cows kept virtually perpetually pregnant and hormonally modified to produce ten times more milk than they would naturally, to fish pulled up in nets from the ocean depths so quickly that their internal organs burst, to the “bycatch” of turtles, dolphins, sea birds and “economically useless” fish that is thrown back into the ocean dead or wounded, the exploitation of animals, the suffering they are made to endure and the contempt for life displayed by the food-from-animals industry are, for many, unconscionable.7

Deforestation of the Amazon, as seen from a satelliteDeforestation of the Amazon, as seen from a satellite

What we reap from such brutality is evident everywhere in society. Our social, political, economic, legal and other institutions – like our culture of food – are based on patriarchy, privilege, commodification and exploitation. Like our eating habits, our institutions reinforce the domination of the powerless and the vulnerable by the strong, the male and the wealthy. Like the meat industry, their means of operation are violent. It is thus not surprising that our society is beset by an inner agitation and suffers so much oppression, exploitation, injustice and family violence. The mentality of domination seeps into every aspect of our private and public lives. We cannot expect to be happy if we cause suffering to other beings. Recognising the impoverished thinking and way of acting represented by the mentality of domination is an essential step to our healing and to our rediscovery of our interconnectedness and shared evolutionary history with all other life forms.

The antimilitarist movement, motivated by an overarching commitment to nonviolence, has long organised around issues of peace, war, militarisation and violence. Now, with the realisation that human beings have pretty much also been at war with the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants, the antimilitarist movement needs to consider moving beyond its present anthropocentric horizons. It needs to contemplate extending nonviolence to other sentient beings.

Any venture by the peace movement to align with the climate change movement and begin addressing environmental issues would be seriously deficient if it ignored animal agriculture. It would be like trying to address lung cancer without looking at smoking. Both these “single issue” movements need to identify animal agriculture as a problem which falls within their issue; from the perspective of climate activism, because animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change; from the perspective of peace activism, because it is inconsistent to work for nonviolence amongst humans while being complicit in violence toward animals. If these two movements combined in a mutually-enriching complementary relationship and together ended animal agriculture, the levels of violence in society would decrease dramatically, the forests and wildlife would return, the rivers would run clean again, the oceans would recover, and the methane produced by “livestock” would no longer be released into the atmosphere.

Notes

1 A 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Livestock’s Long Shadow, estimates that 7,516 million metric tons per year of CO2equivalents (CO2e), or 18% of annual worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, are attributable to cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, horses, pigs, and poultry. In 2009, two environmental advisers from the World Bank, Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, released an analysis on human-induced greenhouse gases, Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change were pigs, chickens and cows? (WorldWatch, November/December 2009. Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, USA. Pp. 10–19.Available at http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf), which found that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32,564 million tons of CO2e per year, or 51% of annual worldwide GHG emissions.

2 These claims can all be checked on the “The Facts” (http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/), a webpage on science and research done on the true impacts of animal agriculture, maintained by the directors of Cowspiracy, a 2014 documentary film produced and directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, which investigated animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

3 Philip Thornton, Mario Herrero and Polly Ericksen, Livestock and climate change, Livestock Exchange, no. 3 (2011). International Livestock Research Institute (available at https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/10601/IssueBrief3.pdf)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)) Assessment Report: IPCC AR5 WG# Chapter 11, Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) (available at http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter11.pdf)

4 These, and other organisations were identified, after considerable investigation, as helping to maintain the silence on animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change in the documentary film Cowspiracy (http://www.cowspiracy.com).

5 This is the subject of David Niebert’s book, Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism and Global Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

7 The exploitation of animals has been extensively documented. See Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (Boston: Little, Brown and Company; 2009) and The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony by WillTuttle (New York: Lantern Books; 2005). A good source of information is the website of Viva!, an organisation which fights against animal cruelty and helps animals affected by the farming industry (http://www.viva.org.uk).