By Craig Gabrielson
I’ve heard a lot of different words used to describe me and my vegan diet; extremist, hippie, tree-hugger, naïve – the list goes on. Then add my military background, where red-blooded, steak-eating, beer-drinking masculinity is a point of pride for most. Believe me, I’ve heard my fair share of ridicule. There are other words, that I believe, and evidence shows are far more accurate: sustainable, healthy, and ethical.
Vegan diets are far more sustainable than an omnivorous diet. Scientists have been talking about it now for the better part of a century; the climate is changing at a dangerously rapid rate and the Anthropocene – the age of man – is responsible. Although it may sound like a debate on the political stage, the debate has long since been settled in the scientific community.
According a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the combined exhaust from the world’s entire transportation sector.
Additionally, a research paper published in BioScience, a journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, animal agriculture water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually.
Among many other detrimental effects, livestock are responsible for massive amounts of methane released into the atmosphere.
According to a research paper submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day.
Science Magazine then reports that methane has a global warming potential 86 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period.
What’s worse, according to the World Bank, an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries, animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction.
Livestock and livestock feed facilities occupies a third of Earth’s ice-free land.
Put simply, humans are responsible for destroying the part of earth that absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, and replacing it with methane, carbon dioxide-producing animal agriculture facilities.
So, what about fish?
Fish could be the answer to solving a big part of the world’s hunger problems if practiced responsibly. Industrial fishing has been anything but responsible though. According to an article by National Geographic, 2.7 trillion animals are pulled from the ocean each year and if this trend continues, we could see a fishless ocean by 2048.
Industrial-sized fishing operations, shark-finning, ocean acidification due to excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, and a number of other events are responsible for obliterating the ocean’s ecosystem. At a fundamental level, our very existence owes thanks to the ocean’s ecosystem. Every other breath we take comes from the oxygen produced by the ocean.
There are far too many evidence-based statistics to list here, but if anything is apparent, it’s that our habitual overconsumption is unsustainable. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction. At this point, I have to wonder, who is the extremist here?
But, where do you get your protein?
Health concerns with a vegan diet are both valid and answerable. Poorly maintained vegan diets can lead to deficiencies in essential amino acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine and zinc. Each one of these nutrients have a plant-based alternative or supplement.
For example quinoa, amaranth and spirulina offer a complete amino acid protein and can be found in pastas, cereals and a number of other foods. Nutritional yeast is a tasteless ingredient that can be added to anything and offers vitamin B12.
Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, as well as fruits, beans, peas, nuts and seeds, offer iron, protein and zinc. A pinch of iodized salt can answer for iodine. At a minimum, supplements are available for each of the nutrients a poorly maintained vegan diet lacks.
In American food culture, health doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of most people’s minds. According to the American Heart Association, nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children deal with the health effects of obesity.
One in three U.S. adults is considered to be obese and another third is considered overweight.
A National Institutes of Health report showed that the average adult weighs over 26 pounds more today than they did in the 1950s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 610,000 Americans die from heart disease every year. Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are at an all-time high. The American Heart Association states that weight-related health issues cost Americans $190 billion annually.
While research is always on-going, the evidence for the health benefits of eating a vegan diet are pouring in. Avoiding processed meats and dairy, coupled with an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes and fiber may lower your risk of heart disease and diet-related cancers.
The National Institutes of Health also states that those who eat a vegan diet may benefit from a 75 percent lower risk of developing high blood pressure, a 42 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, a 78 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and a 15 percent lower risk of dying from diet-related cancers.
Admittedly, all of these are just numbers, but the numbers represent a greater picture. American diet and overconsumption has led to the obesity epidemic we’re witnessing. The numbers are at least worth looking into.
Lastly, and perhaps most difficult to argue because of the deeply-rooted beliefs most Americans have, a vegan diet is more ethical. Life has been on this planet for some 3.5 billion years and organisms have unapologetically consumed other organisms for nutrients and survival this entire time. But never in earth’s history has a single species of animal done it on the scale to which humans are doing it now. Without including fish, 56 billion farm animals are killed every year for food.
It has only been in recent years that we have been able to begin to understand the cognitive capabilities of non-human animals. It is observably obvious that these animals are capable of feeling empathy, happiness, pain, fear and sadness – among many other fundamental emotions.
In 1789, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham said, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?”
When I think about other animals, I can’t help but think of how much more similar we are, than we are different. Mothers care deeply for their young and their young are just as inquisitive and playful as our own.
We all share a common ancestor, and it is therefore not unreasonable to imagine they feel sensations the same way we do. When we look back at history, we’re often disgusted by the way certain civilizations behaved.
The zeitgeist is ever-shifting and I often try to imagine how a civilization in the distant future might view ours. This line of reasoning, for me, creates an incredible amount of empathy.
In 1947, American naturalist Aldo Leopold said, “It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations; that men are only fellow voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.
This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.”
So, put down the cheeseburger.