- 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
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. In fact, the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet, published in the journal Science, has found that "avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy." Plus, the idea of "humane" exploitation and slaughter is paradoxical and absurd.
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."
Pete Smith, Former Convening Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said: “The need to reduce demand for livestock products is now a scientifically mainstream view. Only a significant decrease in meat and milk consumption will allow us to deliver a food system fit for the future – for the benefit of humans and the planet as a whole. Producing the same mix of foods as we consume now, even if we were to do so more sustainably, cannot deliver the reduction in environmental impacts we need to protect the planet for our children and their children.”
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.
Although "grass-fed beef" is positioned as more green, a Harvard study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that shifting all beef production in the U.S. to pastured, grass-fed systems would require 30% more cattle, increase beef's methane emissions by 43%, and would require far more pasture than is available. The study also notes other environmental harms that would likely result from a shift to all or mostly grass-fed beef production.
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.)
Harvard study published in Environmental Research Letters (summarized here):
This study concludes that shifting all beef production in the U.S. to pastured, grass-fed systems would require 30% more cattle, increase beef's methane emissions by 43%, and would require far more pasture than is available. The study also notes other environmental harms that would likely result from a shift to all or mostly grass-fed beef production.
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.
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.
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.
Resources for transitioning farmers:
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.
Additionally, the Rancher Advocacy Program is "designed to work with ranchers that use animals for profit so that they can confidently move away from the cruelty model of animal agriculture, to other viable farming and business practices."
- Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth covers a study published in the journal Science (The Guardian)
- Harvard Study Finds Shift to Grass-Fed Beef Would Require 30% More Cattle and Increase Beef’s Methane Emissions 43% (summarized by AWFW)
- The Myth of Sustainable Meat (New York Times)
- The Humane Meat Myth (Veganuary)
- Humane Farming Myth (Woodstock Farm Sanctuary)
- Vegan Mythbusting #3 - Eating Local Meat is Better Than Being Vegan (The Flaming Vegan)
- Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States (Environmental Science & Technology)
- 'Wow, no cow': the Swedish farmer using oats to make milk (The Guardian)
- Pig farmer goes vegan and quits [pig] farming, has an awesome message (Lovely Tips)
- A major dairy producer collapsed — now it's making nut milks and business is booming (Business Insider)
- Soledad Goat’s Cheese Went Vegan and, Some Say, It’s Better than Ever (Los Angeles Magazine)
- Sowing Change
- Former Meat and Dairy Farmers Who Became Vegan Activists (Free From Harm)
- A Closer Look at What So-Called Humane Farming Means (Free From Harm)
- Environmental Groups as Climate Deniers (Counterpunch)
- Veganic World
- Is manure essential? (Veganic Agriculture Network)
- Interview with veganic farm Lazy Millenial Farms (Seed the Commons)