VINE Sanctuary is green from the ground up. Back when we were the Eastern Shore Sanctuary, sheltering chickens and ducks on a small plot in rural Maryland surrounded by factory farms, we hauled home discarded wooden steps to use as bird perches and hammered together a bedding shed from scrap lumber that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. Even then, when we had so little land, we made sure to reserve some of it as wild bird habitat. When we achieved our dream of expanding to shelter cows and sheep here in Vermont, we erected solar panels to power the place and used green building practices for the house we built for our full-time animal caregiver. Organic gardens help to feed the people and other animals here, and we still go “dumpster diving” for sanctuary materials.
This year, for St Patrick’s Day, VINE invited residents of a nearby town to an event we called “This Is What Green Looks Like.” In addition to a free film showing, the event included a talk on what “green” means to us. Here’s a summary of that talk:
We began the event with a quick shout-out to the Tar Sands Blockade, which had just kicked off its Week of Action against tar sands profiteers. Since we were right across the street from a branch of TD Bank, we encouraged event attendees to make the time to make a phone call and also to divest themselves from the pipeline by moving their money to a local credit union.
Green = Vegan
Why do we say that green means vegan or, more precisely, that going green must include going vegan? Because eating a single hamburger is the the equivalent of clearing 55 square feet of rainforest and then driving 20 miles to take 17 showers. On average, 20 vegetarians (and even more vegans) can dine well on the resources consumed by just one meat-eater. That’s because, whenever you eat an animal, you’re also gobbling up all of the food and water consumed by that animal during his or her life, not to mention the resources used in transporting, slaughtering, and butchering the animal; you’re also responsible for all of that animal’s excrement and other effluents, as well as any herbicides or pesticides used to grow the feed consumed by that animal.
Let’s start with land. Opponents of veganism sometimes cite the fact that forests are razed for soybean fields, conveniently neglecting to mention that most of the soy grown in those fields will be used as “livestock” feed. Those acres and acres of GMO corn that blight the U.S. Midwest? Most will be fed to chickens and cows destined to be made into meat. There are 5 pounds of vegetable protein in every pound of “poultry,” 7 1/2 pounds of vegetable protein in every pound of “pork,” and a whopping 16 pounds of vegetable protein in every pound of “beef.”
As a result, it takes much more agricultural land to produce animal products than to produce plants for people to eat. Soybeans yield 356 pounds of protein per acre, rice 260, legumes 192, and wheat 138. In contrast, “dairy” yields only 82 pounds of protein per acre, eggs 76, and “beef” only 20. (Meat” on average comes in at a mere 45 pounds of protein per acre.)
Counting calories generates similar results. While potatoes yield 18 million calories per acre and corn 12 million, “pork” yields only 3 1/2 million calories per acre and “poultry” only 1 1/2.
Besides being environmentally destructive, the process of cycling plants through animals is enormously wasteful. We lose 90% of the protein, 99% of the carbohydrates (energy), and a whopping 100% of the fiber in food crops by feeding them to animals and then eating the animals.
(That waste is one of many reasons that many hunger activists plead with people in the U.S. to quit eating so much meat. There are regions and countries where children go hungry while crops are exported as feed for animals destined to be eaten by more affluent people. In 2002, the international Forum for Food Sovereignty’s action plan called for people in affluent countries to “reduce or eliminate” their own meat consumption in order to free up resources for others.)
All of this is true regardless of where or how the animals are raised. Like vegan locavores, meat-eating locavores cut down on fossil fuel pollution associated with transport, but that’s all. All of the waste and pollution inherent in meat, dairy, and egg production remain operative.
Animal agriculture — meat, dairy, and egg production — is the number one cause of water pollution worldwide and uses more water than all other human activities combined. Here in the U.S., for example, animal agriculture is responsible for more than half of all freshwater use while also being the primary cause of problems such as the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay.
Why? Math. When you eat an animal, you’re also consuming all of the water that animal ever drank and all of the water used to grow the plants fed to that animal, not to mention all of the water used in the processes of slaughter and butchery. On average, there are 2,500 gallons of water hidden within every pound of “meat.” Contrast this with the 25 gallons of water in a pound of wheat. And so, the average veg*n implicitly consumes about 300 gallons of water per day while the average carnivore implicitly consumes an astounding 4,200 gallons of water every day.
Again, all of this is true regardless of how or where an animal is raised. We’re all aware of the intense local pollution associated with factory farming. That’s because so many animals are concentrated together in those places. But the per-animal (or per-calorie) water use associated with animal agriculture is the same, regardless of where it takes place. That’s true for the methane associated with animal agriculture too.
Climate change is, of course, the most urgent problem facing all of us today. Climate change is caused by the build-up of so-called “greenhouse gases” (primarily carbon dioxide and methane) in our atmosphere. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than any other industry—including transport.
Many Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarian or vegan for religious reasons, but some are not. Together, Seventh Day Adventists offer a useful pool of research subjects who have allowed researchers to learn about the health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets. Now, researchers have gone back to that subject pool in an effort to quantify the climate footprint of various diets. Here’s the bottom line: Greenhouse gas emissions associated with a vegan diet are 41% lower than those associated with a diet including meat and other animal products. (A vegetarian diet, not surprisingly, falls in between, with greenhouse gas emissions 27% lower than those of a diet that includes meat.)
Vegan = Not Exploiting Anybody
And so we believe that going vegan is a necessary step in becoming truly “green.” But our conception of veganism is much wider than just getting animal body parts and products out of your diet. Of course, we also want people to quit wearing wool, fur, and feathers and to quit buying products tested on animals. But we also want vegans to remember that people are animals. Cocoa beans picked by child slaves, cheap shoes sewn by sweatshop workers, produce that poisons farmworkers with pesticides—real vegans boycott such products and promote their alternatives.
Advocates of veganism also ought to work actively to ensure that everybody has access to healthy food, including bulk grains and legumes as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. That means not only reforming agriculture but also working to unravel the web of intersecting social oppressions that strand some people in “food deserts” and leave many without the economic wherewithal to choose fair trade coffee, slave-free chocolate, or locally-grown organic berries. We must also contest the cruel culture of gluttony that leads people to want blood diamonds and steak dinners.
Always Going Vegan
Not exploiting anybody? That’s a tall order. Opponents of veganism sometimes point out that animals may be killed or displaced when fields are tilled for vegetable crops. Of course that’s true. (Though, again, fewer fields are tilled for vegans than for meat-eaters.) It is almost impossible, in today’s world, to avoid collusion in the injury of others. But just because it’s nearly impossible to avoid doing harm to somebody doesn’t mean we should give up the quest to cause the least harm possible. Just because we can’t go “off the grid” completely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dial back our thermostats and unplug unused appliances. We should bike or walk whenever we can, even if we aren’t able to give up our cars completely. We might not be able to opt out of capitalism altogether, but we surely can choose to support co-ops and local shops insofar as our personal finances allow.
We see “going vegan” as a constant process of seeking to lessen the injuries for which one is personally responsible. When it comes to diet, these include not only the injuries to the planet caused by animal agriculture but also and most importantly the injuries done to animals. [The film we showed focused on those injuries, which are implicit in meat, dairy, and egg production regardless of the scale or location of the farm.]
The upside of all of this is that the process of going vegan gives us more energy. Besides being healthier, we no longer have to expend so much mental energy pretending we don’t know that those “buffalo wings” once belonged to a bird. We can use that energy to fuel that constant process of going vegan.