Animal agriculture is the most destructive force on the planet. Mass veganism is the only way to combat the impact of climate catastrophe.
While veganism is increasingly understood to be the most sustainable way to eat, it is still regularly insisted that certain meats are environmentally friendly. We take a look at how viable these claims really are…
Foods considered ‘sustainable’ have seen a surge in popularity in recent years due to increased understanding of the effect our diet has on the environment. Sustainable eating is generally – and rightfully – synonymous with veganism. A study by the University of Oxford in 2018 claimed that going vegan could be the ‘single biggest way’ that a person can reduce their environmental impact on Earth, and removing meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce your carbon footprint by 73 per cent.
Animal agriculture is catastrophic for the environment in a huge number of ways. It’s responsible for more greenhouse gases than the combined exhausts of all transportation systems (including planes), but it isn’t just emissions that are the issue. Due to the vast amounts of land needed for farms and space for the animals, meat and dairy production is the single leading cause of deforestation globally. In addition, farmed animals consume huge amounts of water and crops that could be fed directly to humans. For detailed information on the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, watch the video below.
In recent years, there has been increasing public acceptance of the fact that we cannot continue to eat beings like cows, pigs and sheep at our current rate if we want to save the planet. But there remains a general reluctance to conclude that we must therefore be vegan. Instead, there has been an influx of so-called ‘sustainable’ options of animals to eat – including grass-fed cows and ‘venison’ (otherwise known as dead deer).
These claims were reiterated in a recent article on sustainable eating, which cited them as among ‘the most sustainable foods’ that could ‘save the world’. While the piece did contain a number of perfectly sustainable plant-based foods like oats and pulses, claims that any meat at all can be sustainable in a UK food system are questionable.
Is grass-fed meat better for the environment?
It is well-known that cows collectively produce more emissions than any other ‘livestock’ globally, but there is an argument that ‘grass-fed’ animals can be an eco-friendly option.
That grass-fed beef can be ‘sustainable’ due to regenerative farming is based on the idea that grazing cows can absorb carbon back into the soils. Modern farming has led to a significant reliance on artificial fertilisers and regenerative farming is seen as a remedy to this. It has been claimed that rotating animals and crops can “build soil carbon and so offset livestock emissions”.
Grass-fed farming seeks to do this by allowing the animals to graze on pasture, consequently stimulating plant growth through the process of photosynthesis. This means that carbon is taken from the atmosphere and stored in the plants and roots, which can then help build soil carbon. However, this process also leads to enteric fermentation (where microbes in the digestive system of the animals turn carbon into methane), and the creation of manure which, as well as returning some of the carbon back to the soil, also produces nitrous oxide as well.
A study titled Grazed and Confused, published by the University of Oxford in 2017, looked at the environmental impact of grass-fed cows. While lead researcher Dr Tara Garnett accepted that certain grazing managements can put carbon into the soil, she added that these would at best amount to 20-60 per cent of the emissions the animals use in the first place.
What’s more, the soil reaches soil carbon equilibrium after a few decades, meaning it cannot sequester any more carbon. At this point, none of the emissions from the animals would be offset, and farmers would need to either use more land or stop farming.
Grass-fed cows have also been found to have a greater environmental impact compared to grain-fed due to increased resource use, as well as emissions from the farming process and animals themselves.
As pointed by Dr Garnett, grass-fed cows use significantly more land than their grain-fed counterparts, and they also produce more greenhouse gases. “This is because commercial feeds tend to be less fibrous than grass, and so cows that eat them produce less methane (through belching and flatulence), which is a potent greenhouse gas,” writes Garnett. “Animals in more intensive, grain-fed systems also reach slaughter weight faster than grass-fed animals do, so emissions over the animal’s entire lifetime are lower.”
It is abundantly clear that it is animal agriculture itself, rather than what classification that agriculture is, that is the issue. As Dr Garnett put it: “Grazing livestock are net contributors to the climate problem, as are all livestock. Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing damaging greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use.”
Is venison a sustainable meat option?
The idea that venison is a miraculous solution to the quandary of an eco-conscious meat-lover is nothing new and is frequently lauded in the press.
The argument for ‘sustainable venison’ rests on the fact that wild deer are overpopulated in the UK due to the fact there are no longer wolves to hunt them. Because of this, they are regularly ‘culled’ by hunters to protect farmland and wild vegetation.
While it’s undeniable that some venison is a more eco-friendly option than other animal flesh, given that it is indeed often made from hunted deer, rather than farmed, it doesn’t mean we should encourage the mass population to eat it.
Moving away from the obvious issue of animal rights (and how strange it is that a nation traumatised by Bambi’s mother’s death now seemingly wants to buy her from her shooter and cook her), it’s pretty tricky to argue that venison is a viable long-term sustainable food. Most UK venison comes from Scotland, which, according to stats from 2020, ‘culls’ 100,000 deer each year. It is thought that this yields around 3,500 tonnes of meat, but this is not enough to feed rising demand in the population (as well as the venison that we export abroad, which is around one-third of our supply). An increasing amount of farms and imports is inevitable and already happening.
Around 1,200 tonnes of farmed venison is imported to the UK each year, mainly from New Zealand, Poland, and Ireland. In addition, an increasing proportion of venison for sale in the UK comes from farms.
In 2018, a report named ‘Beyond the Glen, A strategy for the Scottish Venison Sector to 2030’ outlined the aim of increasing the deer farming sector in Scotland. The report said that they hoped to bring farmed venison meat up from 100 tonnes to 850 tonnes by 2030, meaning the annual harvest would increase from 1,700 to 15,000 animals. A key part of this report, however, is that it did not contain plans to increase production of wild venison, meaning that the move to a greater emphasis on farming already seems to be happening.
A quick Google search produces a number of articles heralding the increasing popularity of venison, and urging the public to consider it on the grounds of its sustainability. But if environmentally-minded proponents of venison got their way and everyone in this country decided to start eating it, the increased demand would lead to an influx of the already-growing number of deer farms, meaning we’d be back to square one again. A study from New Zealand (where deer farming is rife) found that farmed deer have similar emissions to cows and more than sheep.
As mentioned previously, all livestock farming – regardless of what type it is and the animal it’s for – is devastating for the environment, but it appears that deer have the potential to be among the highest polluters.
Telling people to eat deer, rather than cows, won’t solve animal agriculture’s environmental issue, it will re-route it. We cannot continue to eat meat at all if we want to save the planet.
Original source: https://www.surgeactivism.org