If we can see further today it’s because we’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants. This is certainly true of the veg movement. One of those giants is Frances Moore Lappé, author of the wildly popular book, “Diet for a Small Planet”, which came out 50 years ago and yet even today its influence is still being widely felt.
Lappé explained that a vegetarian diet was much better for the planet and was healthy for us. Ms. Lappé was 25 and attending graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, when she began to question her life’s purpose. Like many in her generation, she was inspired by the ecological movement that led to the first Earth Day.
The majority of vegetation crops grown in the United States are used to feed animals not people. To grow sufficient crops as efficiently as possible, many farmers resort to monoculture.
Monoculture is the agricultural practice of growing a single plant species across a vast land area. Instead of growing a variety of crops, as farmers have done throughout most of human history, they instead choose to farm land in such a way that it produces only a single type of crop. Monoculture farming has become more common over the last few decades, and while it can improve yields, sometimes with the help of genetically modified organisms, artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, it is causing great harm to the local ecology and environment, as well as the world as a whole. Because monoculture involves the farming of a single species, it can drastically reduce the biodiversity necessary for a healthy ecology.
Healthy ecologies may be home to many species of plants and animals. These diverse collections of species help to protect the habitat, as each of the species fills a different niche and provides different environmental services. Deer and other herbivores help keep plant populations in check, while mountain lions and other predators prey on these herbivores and keep their populations in check. Bacteria and fungi, for their part, help to break down the dead plants and animals, thereby releasing the nutrients they contain back into the soil.
But monoculture farms lack this type of diversity. Because they are aiming to raise only a single species, these areas don’t support a diverse collection of animals or other plants. This throws the ecosystem out of balance and makes it susceptible to serious problems including plant diseases. While some farmers practice crop rotation year to year, this only replaces one monoculture with another, so doesn’t allow for a wide diversity of species.
Another risk of monoculture farms is that if an insect pest likes the crop, that insect has a large food supply to draw from all in one place, leading to that insect multiplying rapidly. Conversely, a field containing a variety of plants doesn’t provide such a large block of food for the insect, so it is less likely to find the nutrients it needs to survive and thrive. Left to its own defenses, a farm field growing a variety of plants tends to attract fewer insect pests than a field growing just one type of crop. The result of this is that monocultures require the use of more pesticides, further reducing the biodiversity.
If we stopped eating meat, we wouldn’t have to resort to raising monoculture crops so often, and our food system could be more in harmony with nature, allowing many more species to flourish.
There’s an extra benefit to the environment when we go veg that’s not often talked about. We’ve written in the past about how much global warming gases are emitted by the animal agriculture, but there’s more good news. Once we stop raising animals for meat, the land they were using, directly and indirectly, could be allowed to return to its natural state and start absorbing carbon.
The extensive amount of land used to raise meat incurs a carbon opportunity cost, given the potential for carbon sequestration through ecosystem restoration. Soil carbon sequestration is a process in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil carbon pool. As the ecosystem recovers, the native plants absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, and store carbon in their roots, thus increasing organic carbon in the soil.
This would have a huge impact. Raising meat has had a particularly detrimental impact on land since half the land on earth is used directly or indirectly for raising meat. A recent study showed that if everyone in the world went vegan, we could remove 16 years of fossil-fuel-based carbon emissions from the atmosphere by the year 2050. That’s enough to really turn around the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and start to reduce the rate at which the climate is changing.
Another factor not talked about is that the mass of animals raised for slaughter on Earth now outweighs all wildlife by a factor of 15-to-1. This causes massive damage to world’s ecology and leads to a reduction in biodiversity with the extinction of many species. With the land freed up from raising animals, wildlife would have a chance to recover increasing the chances of species survival. This would provide a broad benefit to the ecology and help normalize the natural food chain, making the soil and plant life healthier, which could then absorb further carbon from the atmosphere.
So a global switch to a vegan diet would both reduce the emission and increase the absorption of greenhouse gases, and enable the ecology and especially the soil to recover, creating a virtuous circle instead of a vicious decline in the health of our planet.
Fishing and fish farming are destroying the ocean’s ecology. In fact, according to the United Nations Environmental Program, the ocean’s ecological crisis is “greater than anything witnessed on land.” According to the UN, almost 90% of the fisheries are now at either their sustainable limit or beyond.
The scope of this problem can partly gauged by the fact that there are now over four million commercial fishing vessels combing the world’s oceans, depleting fish at a rate that’s considered three times more than is sustainable.