Earth Day Myth Debunking
By Audrey Lawrence
Adopting a cruelty-free, vegan lifestyle has enormous benefits for the environment. Yet there’s no shortage of information that tries to discredit this fact. In honor of Earth Day, an annual event to support environmental protection, I decided to dig into a few of the claims that I’ve heard. What I found from this investigation is that the claims are more myth than truth. I hope that by the end of this post you’re also confident that going vegan is not only a great choice for animals but also for the planet!
Myth 1: The production of non-dairy milk is more harmful to the environment than that of dairy milk.
Claims that non-dairy milk is worse for the environment than dairy milks typically stem from the water consumption used in farming the non-dairy milk bases, namely almonds. Almonds have been cast as the culprit in California’s droughts and epic wildfires. However, this casting is far from the truth.
Almond production is the third heaviest user of water in the state of California. But the water footprint of almonds at < 2.5 million acre-feet per year (MAF) is dwarfed by the two highest consumers: animal feed at 15 MAF and alfalfa, straw, and hay at 5.5 MAF. Both of these are primary inputs to California’s meat and dairy industry. In fact, a University of Oxford study from 2018 found the water usage to produce one liter of dairy milk to be 628 liters compared to 371 liters for a liter of almond milk.
In addition, one fun fact about almonds is that they neither burp, fart, nor produce excrement. The footprint of greenhouse gas emissions for dairy milk is multiple times that of almond milk, and the types of gases released for dairy production are more dangerous for the environment. Methane has 86 times the impact on global warming than that of carbon dioxide, and a single cow can produce 66 to 132 gallons of methane per day through burps and farts. Excrement from cattle farms pollutes local water sources as well, causing dead zones in coastal areas.
Lastly, there are a number of non-dairy milks in addition to almond milk that take even less of a toll on the environment to produce. Check apps like EWG for a score on the environmental impact of oat, rice, soy, and other non-dairy milks.
Myth 2: Meat consumption can be done in an environmentally-friendly manner.
Myth 2, part 1: Local beef is an environmentally conscious choice.
By eating locally produced food, you can cut down on your carbon footprint as the polluting impacts of transportation are minimized. However, livestock is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than all transportation. And as mentioned above, many of these gases like methane have a more pronounced impact on global warming than CO2. In fact, if you’re concerned about climate change, you’re better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from a local farm.
What’s so damaging about producing red meat? For starters, the water consumption. An estimated 2500 gallons of water is required to produce 1lb of beef. That’s the equivalent of 125 showers! Beef requires a lot of land, 3 acres per grain-fed cow and 9 acres per grass-fed cow. And as mentioned above, the gases and excrement produced by cows pollutes the atmosphere and local water sources.
Another damaging impact of cattle farming is its threat to biodiversity. With 18% of ice-free land used for pastures, livestock production is the single largest driver in habitat loss.
To protect their ever expanding pastures, often onto public land, farmers kill off native predators. A local example is the Washington State Department of Fishing and Wildlife killing of the final 2 remaining wolves of the Wedge wolfpack this past year to protect livestock. Wolves are classified as an endangered species in Washington state as they are just reaching levels of over 100 wolves after being completely decimated in the 1930s. A food choice that drives extinction of a local species is not an environmentally conscious choice in my opinion.
Myth 2, part 2: Switch to chicken to improve your environmental footprint.
Is swapping chicken for red meat in your less of a disaster for the environment?
Yes, the impact of chicken production on the environment is lower than that of beef, but poultry production has similar problems. For instance, the impact of excrement is degrading to local streams and rivers, and has proven challenging to regulate in regions like the Chesapeake Bay. Poultry is also the biggest user of the world’s feed crops. An enormous amount of deforestation in South America is for animal feed, much of this for use in the poultry industry.
The greenhouse gas emissions for poultry is also non-trivial; the combination of emissions from growing feed, emitted from waste, and used for processing chicken is 129 billion pounds of CO2 emissions per year for the US, the same amount as that from 12.37 million cars. I particularly liked the usage of the metaphor “swapping beef with chicken is akin to swapping a Hummer with a Ford F-150, not a Prius” from one Vox article that put this myth to bed.
Myth 2, part 3: Fish is a great alternative to other meat.
One major issue with the fishing industry is overfishing. The amount of overfished stocks has tripled in the past 50 years and today one third of fisheries are catching fish faster than we can replenish stock. Overfishing can interfere with the ocean’s food chain, causing not just problems to the overfished species but the entire web of ocean life. We’ve seen a decrease in 39% of marine species over the last few decades.
Another environmentally harmful aspect of fishing is bycatch, which refers to the additional fish, birds, or other animals that are caught accidentally in nets and typically discarded. As one can imagine, it’s difficult to get an trusted estimate of how prevalent bycatch is, or even what constitutes bycatch, but rates of bycatch in commercial fishing are stated to be from 10% to 40%.
For some species, like shrimp caught by trawling, it is estimated that 90% of the catch is bycatch. Bottom trawling operations are particularly devastating to the oceans. Large nets used in this process are agnostic to what they catch, collecting bycatch as well as damaging the ocean floor. For example, trawling for sea bass is estimated to kill up to 10k dolphins per year annually off the coast of France. Limiting bycatch is often required by law, but this is enforced in a voluntary manner and there normally lacks sufficient incentive for fisheries to do so.
The ocean plays an essential role in the globe’s climate from soaking up a third of human-generated carbon dioxide to distributing heat around the globe. It is critical to the environment that we have a healthy ocean, and overfishing and bycatch are majorly impacting the web of life crucial for a healthy ocean.
What about farming fish?
From the onset, it would seem that a solution to overfishing and bycatch is aquaculture, or fish farming. Yet aquaculture has a number of problems on it’s own. The pollution from fish farms impacts marine waters beyond the farm itself, harming nearby fish populations. To create these fish farms, often precious coastline is destroyed, such as the mangrove forests that protect islands from tsunamis and wetlands that previously protected land in the Mississippi Delta from storms like Hurricane Katrina. Lastly, to feed certain carnivorous species the farmers must rely on open water fishing, which is exactly what we were just trying to avoid.
What about sustainable fishing practices?
In theory, we should be able to support sustainable fishing, or fishing in a manner that the fish can naturally replenish stock to keep up with the rate at which they are harvested. In practice, this is difficult to achieve in the scalable manner to feed the world’s almost 8 billion people.
Today, there are 4 million fishing vessels supplying fish; the effort to oversee sustainability in this industry would need to be tremendous. Not that some organizations are not trying. For instance, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is one non-profit that accredits fisheries for sustainable operations, engaging 300 fisheries today. The assessment for MSC accreditation lasting up to 5 years takes 12-18 months costing fisheries upwards of $120,000, however, and there is not much oversight into these fishing operations after the initial accreditation besides an annual audit.
Different groups have raised issues as well with some MSC accreditations, such as the Earth Island Institute, who pioneered reform in tuna fisheries to protect dolphins with their International Marine Mammal Project. Earth Island has a problem with MSC for giving sustainable label to Mexican “dolphin-deadly” fisheries. And “dolphin-safe” labels such as those issues by Earth Island are themselves riddled in controversy, from class action lawsuits about false claims to trade politics. It’s really confusing to keep track of which sustainable labels to trust.
Overall, oversight into the sustainability of this 90 million ton a year industry is significant and we’re struggling to do it today. There are newer initiatives to use satellite tracking and big data techniques to more closely monitor fishing. But today it is a lot of work on the consumer to understand the sustainability of every fish product, and trust the agencies are monitoring the industry effectively. An even easier approach you can take to preserve fish species and the ocean ecosystem is to just leave it alone (don’t eat fish).
From a dietary perspective, if you want to minimize your toll on the environment, the easiest, most effective way is to eat vegan.
Myth 3: Vegan leather products are more environmentally damaging than their leather counterparts.
Leather takes a huge toll on the environment to produce. As mentioned above, cattle farming is extremely resource intensive and polluting. And leather production is not always merely a byproduct of the meat industry, as there is a growing industry of farming primarily for leather. In addition, the process of tanning leather uses hazardous metals, causing damage to fish and other animal species in the area near where this waste is dumped, along with exposing the humans tanning the leather to serious health risks.
It’s true that many vegan leathers are made with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), an environmentally harmful substance that is created from fossil fuels, chemicals, and a lot of water and is not biodegradable. Yet there’s an ever growing list of vegan leather alternatives to PVC- pineapple, cork, even leather grown in labs! And these products keep getting better in terms of quality and durability.
There are a number of options out there that are more sustainable than animal farmed leather; you just need to be a bit careful about what you’re buying, and there are great resources out there to help you!
In conclusion, I hope that this piece has assured you that a vegan lifestyle is a great choice for planet Earth, in addition to all its other many benefits for the animals that co-habitate the planet with us.