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Source:

  • Widely held unsupported assumption prompted by increased awareness of the horrors of factory farming used to continue to justify continued animal exploitation in more palatable settings
  • The animal exploitation/slaughter industry perpetuates the idea (even though an estimated 99% of their products are factory farmed) and it allows the public to feel better about their complicity

The truth:

Farming animals stretches our environment beyond its limits with or without factory farms. Pasturing animals actually uses even more land for an even smaller yield, so only a small portion of the population can be fed that way (as this global calculator built by an international team demonstrates). In other words, it's not a scalable (or necessary) solution. Plus, the idea of "humane" exploitation and slaughter is paradoxical and absurd.

 
Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.
— Joseph Poore at the University of Oxford, UK, lead researcher of a groundbreaking study published in the journal Science
 The most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet, called  "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers,"  was published in Science 01 Jun 2018: Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 987-992 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216

The most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet, called "Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers," was published in Science 01 Jun 2018: Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 987-992 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216

 

Joseph Poore, lead researcher of the above study, also told the Guardian, “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project." He also added, "Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions."

 
When people criticise farming, they usually preface it with the word intensive. But extensive farming, almost by definition, does greater harm to the planet: more land is needed to rear the same amount of food. Keeping cattle or sheep on ranches, whether in the Amazon, the US, Australia or the hills of Britain, is even more of a planet-busting indulgence than beef feed-lots and hog cities, cruel and hideous as these are.
— George Monbiot, Guardian journalist & UN Global 500 Award winner for outstanding environmental achievement
 

Let's get real.

Modern versions of factory farming began in the first place because it's impossible to meet a fraction of our current demand for animals flesh, fluids, and skins without it.

Already, more land is given over to grazing animals than for any other single purpose. If factory farming was eliminated, animal production would occupy even more space and require more land and forests to be cleared – yet most people would be priced out of animal consumption due to the scarcity much smaller yields would create.

“It’s not so simple to say that extensively pasture-raised is better than intensively industrially produced (...) From an environmental perspective it’s best to reduce or stop meat consumption altogether. The reason is that it’s so much more efficient to obtain calories and protein directly from crops than indirectly from meat.”
— Water scientist Arjen Hoekstra, Creator of the Water Footprint concept
 

UN Global 500 Award winner for outstanding environmental achievement George Monbiot in the Guardian:

Because we have failed to understand this in terms of space, we believe we can solve the ethical problems caused by eating animals by switching from indoor production to free-range meat and eggs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Free-range farming is kinder to livestock but crueler to the rest of the living world.

(But of course, exploiting and killing someone for profit and pleasure isn't actually "kind" either way.)

Historian and journalist James McWilliams in the New York Times:

It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs).

And in case you've heard that grazing domesticated animals is beneficial for the environment, this unsubstantiated claim has been thoroughly debunked by a new 2-year study citing 300 sources.

Despite how old methods of animal farming are romanticized, so-called livestock were non-existent in North America before colonization. Yet animal agriculture's monopoly on our land and resources has been happening for a long time; it's just becoming more urgent with growing human population/consumption.

Locavore meat enthusiast and grass-fed beef guru Michael Pollen:

Even Pollen has admitted on camera that a global level, a sustainable amount of any animal product would be only two ounces at most per person per week. At that point, why bother? Exploiting animals for food is inefficient, outdated, and cruel. 

 
Opponents of industrialized agriculture have been declaring for over a decade that how humans produce animal products is one of the most important environmental questions we face. We need a bolder declaration. After all, it’s not how we produce animal products that ultimately matters. It’s whether we produce them at all.
— Historian & New York Times journalist James McWilliams
 

Romanticizing "the good shepherd" 

Besides, is factory farming really a modern invention so far removed from traditional animal farming anyway? Not according to Robert Grillo of Free from Harm, who said in an interview:

But if we look at this issue more closely, we discover that a factory model of animal production is as old as civilization itself. An operation that can artificially incubate and hatch 40,000 chicken eggs into chicks per day most certainly qualifies as a “factory farm,” yet, we must travel over 3,000 years back in time to ancient Egypt where some of the first high production artificial incubators were developed. So, use of the term “factory farming” — which refers to the mass commodification of animals in an assembly-line environment (and all the horrors that go along with it) — falsely suggests that some viable alternative exists.

The truth is that all commercial farming qualifies as “factory farming” based on an ancient production model of using animals as resource objects with total control over their reproduction, the stealing and trafficking of their offspring, standard bodily mutilations (both physically and psychologically traumatizing), destruction of their families and social order, intensive genetic manipulation, and of course the systematic domination, violence and slaughter in their infancy or adolescence. All the above are necessary in any kind of farming to render their flesh and secretions into products of consumption.

 
“Food miles are a good measure of how far food has traveled. But they’re not a very good measure of the food’s environmental impact.”
— Rich Pirog, Iowa State University researcher

FAQs

Why not just focus on eating local?

Although the "locavore" movement is very popular, "food miles" present an incomplete picture. Research shows that transportation only accounts for 11% of the total emissions produced by a food, while 83% are released during production (before the food leaves the farm).

In fact, the locavore movement began after it was widely reported that Iowa State University researcher Rich Pirog found that produce typically travels 1,500 miles before getting to your plate. But Pirog himself makes it clear that food miles shouldn't be conflated with environmental impact, as they so often are and continue to be. 

The harder-to-accept truth is that the production of animal foods is inherently more resource-intensive and less efficient, regardless of how far the animals' flesh and secretions are transported.

In fact, in the New York Times' number one tip in their piece What You Can Do About Climate Change is that "reducing how much meat you eat matters more than going local." They even say, "You’re better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from a local farm." Again, given the ethical and environmental catastrophe of animal agriculture, why reduce when we can replace?

Doesn't sustainable small-scale agriculture need to include animals & manure?

Nassim Nobari of Seed the Commons explains that the locavore movement defaults to a vision of small-scale agriculture that includes farmed animals, often positioned as the only alternative to industrial agriculture (therefore serving to further delegitimize veganism). But this is a false dichotomy. Biodiverse food systems can and do exist within a framework that eschews animal exploitation. 

Believe it or not, she adds, veganic farming is actually nothing new. North American indigenous agricultural systems didn't use domesticated animals before the colonists came along. The highly efficient milpa system in Mesoamerica (based on corn, beans, and squash) fed what was likely the densest population on the planet at the time without any animal inputs, including draft animals.

Per the Veganic Agriculture Network, plant-based fertilizers like mulch, "green" manure, vegetable compost, and chipped branch wood provide food for the multitude of organisms that live within the soil. They add:

Farmed-animal manure is not necessary for crop production. Organic farms have access to such large amounts of manure because the high consumption of animal products in North America results in an abundance of animal feces. (...) In fact, it would be more efficient to directly use the fodder to fertilize the soil than to feed the animals, collect the manure, compost it, transport it, and spread it on the soil. 

Do vegans want farmers to lose their jobs?

No! As investors worth trillions of dollars are urging, farmers and food companies should evolve with the times by transitioning away from animal exploitation, as many have done and continue to do.

In fact, Forbes Magazine is advising businesses to shift to vegan or be left behind, as "the plant-based food sector is experiencing tremendous growth." They state, "Rather than resist the inevitable, smart animal agriculture businesses are getting in on the plant-based revolution by buying or investing in plant-based brands."

A few examples of such farmers include:

  • Gustaf Soderfeldt, a former pig farmer who used to manage a small-scale meat business he considered "humane," now says vegan farming is "kinder, healthier, more efficient, less wasteful, and more climate-friendly."
     
  • Henry Schwartz is the 82-year-old CEO of vegan nut milk company Elmhurst Milked, which rebranded after 92 years as Elmhurst Dairy. The dairy shifted to a plant-based model after realizing "it was time to embrace a new model and look toward the future," and sales are double what they estimated.
     
  • Carol and Julian Pearce converted their 20-acre goat dairy farm into an animal sanctuary and gave up a thriving chèvre business to jump into the growing field of plant-based cheese. "We don't miss it," says Julian. Their popular cashew-based cheese line comes in flavors like sweet red pepper-shallot and lemon-lavender. 
     
  • Adam Arnesson has begun transitioning away from using the oats he grows as feed, instead using them to make oat milk for the company Oatly, whom he says are "telling people what the science tells us about the need to consume more plant-based foods.” He's now producing double the calories for human consumption per hectare at half the climate impact per calorie. Rather than being anti-farmer, he believes plant-based innovations can help transition farmers away from livestock and offer better opportunities.

If you are farming animals and you want to make the transition to a more ethical, sustainable way of earning a living, you are in good company. The group Go Vegan World is offering assistance.

 
There’s now a growing community of vegan farmers around the world who are spreading the message that there’s a better and smarter way to farm, and they’re developing knowledge and methods to enable a revolutionary shift – to vegan farming.
— Gustaf Soderfeldt, former pig farmer turned vegan farmer
 
 
 Gustaf Soderfeldt is a former pig farmer who used to manage a small-scale ‘humane’ meat business.

Gustaf Soderfeldt is a former pig farmer who used to manage a small-scale ‘humane’ meat business.

 
 
 Former Elmhurst Dairy CEO Henry Schwartz, which rebranded as vegan milk company Elmhurst Milked and is selling twice as much as originally estimated

Former Elmhurst Dairy CEO Henry Schwartz, which rebranded as vegan milk company Elmhurst Milked and is selling twice as much as originally estimated

It’s about transforming with the times. As awareness and demand for vegan products continues to grow, we’re seeing plant-based options become mainstream.
— Former Elmhurst Dairy CEO Henry Schwartz
 
The most important thing to me now is that people become aware of what is happening on farms. And that they stop eating animals and drinking their milk. And just choose to become vegan.
— Michelle, former small dairy farmer, via "Former Meat and Dairy Farmers Who Became Vegan Activists," Free From Harm
 
 
 

The Facts

Gain a clear understanding of the various ways animal agriculture harms our planet. 

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The Myths

Challenge the narratives that downplay the negative impacts of animal production & vilify vegan diets.

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