At the Gate we have a monthly Green Gate challenge. One staff member chooses something that we all will try to achieve in the service of being green. It might not be immediately clear why, for the November challenge, I chose to ask the office to go vegetarian or vegan for their office lunches. But few challenges could be more practical in trying to reduce our carbon footprints.
Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation. Let that sink in. Giving up animal products might be more effective than riding your bike to work. That’s something that surprised me the first time I heard it. We are taught to think of planes and cars as the most destructive aspects of human activity on Earth. But transportation exhaust is responsible for 13% of all greenhouse gas emissions, 5% less than animal agriculture. Of course, this is not to say we shouldn’t be cognisant of and actively reducing our use of greenhouse gas emitting transportation. But we should not only be focussing on it. Livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the most destructive of which is methane, which has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame. Cows produce 150 billion gallons of it a day.
The unfortunate reality is that animal agriculture is killing our planet and that if we don’t change our relationship with food soon, we will have passed the point of no return. As well as greenhouse gases which are warming our seas and bleaching coral, trawling, the destruction of natural habitats to raise animals and hunting are all destroying the animal world’s chances of survival. Up to 200 species of plants, insects, birds and mammals become extinct every day and raising animals for food is the main reason why. Extinction levels are currently up to 1000 times higher than expected because of humans and there are warnings that we are causing the 6th mass extinction event on the planet. A mass extinction event is one in which 50% of all species go extinct. And none has ever been attributed to a species before. Global populations of fish, birds, mammals and amphibians already declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012 and we are losing 3% of species every year. That mathematics does not look good in the short term let alone in the long view. All quite difficult to digest. But we have to be aware of the consequences of our lifestyles if we are to change to a more sustainable path.
And there is hope. Research led by scientists at the Oxford Martin School found that switching to a mostly vegetarian diet, or even just cutting down on meat to within accepted health guidelines would make a large dent in greenhouse gases. In fact, adhering to those guidelines could cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050, the study found, while widespread adoption of vegetarianism would bring down emissions by as much as 63%, increasing to 70% with a vegan diet. And this would also have health benefits. Over 5 million premature deaths could be avoided globally by 2050 if health guidelines on meat consumption were met. That increases to more than 7m with a vegetarian diet and 8m if we all adopted a vegan diet. These steps, if widely followed, could also reduce global healthcare costs by $1bn a year by 2050. So as hard as is to change our relationship with food, the choice is a necessary and beneficious one.
For us at the Gate the challenge has not always been as easy as (vegetable) pie, but when we didn’t meet our challenges we started a Green Tax (collected in an empty mug) to which people contributed. And we managed to start a conversation about the relationship between food and the environment. About what all of our personal choices amount to. And every journey, no matter how big, starts with a small first step.
Useful links for further reading:
Meat the End (documentary about animal agriculture and climate change)