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Can eating less meat stop environmental chaos?

This article is over 4 years, 10 months old
The meat industry is destructive but changing our diets won’t be enough to save the planet, says Martin Empson
Issue 2649
Many people see veganism as having a big impact on the environment
Many people see veganism as having a big impact on the environment (Pic: Larry Rana/USDA)

Millions of people want to do something to “save the world”. We are told to recycle more, stop using plastics and change our behaviour in all sorts of ways to reduce our environmental footprint.

One change that we are often urged to make is to go vegetarian or vegan.

Many people argue that this would have a big impact on the environment. And changing diets is popular.

In 2017 the demand for meat-free food rose by almost 1,000 percent and even big food companies such as Greggs and McDonald’s are offering vegan options. But is a change of diet enough to avoid environmental chaos?

At first glance it would seem the answer is yes.

Industrial agriculture, in particular the meat industry, is very damaging to the environment because it is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, chemical pesticides and fertiliser.

All agriculture has some impact on the environment. But campaigners often highlight the farming of livestock.

For instance, activists have long protested against the destruction of South American rainforests that are cleared to make way for cattle farms. This has helped drive species extinction and the loss of biodiversity—the variety of life on Earth.


It’s also contributed to global warming through the destruction of trees and other plants that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Livestock farming is destructive because feed has to be produced for the animals to eat.

Big food business sells veganism to mask its crimes
Big food business sells veganism to mask its crimes
  Read More

So land must be set aside to grow food, using pesticides and fertilisers, and sometimes clearing forests, for the animals.

Animal farming also requires lots of water, and the animals produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Capitalism has driven the development of industrial agriculture because it wants to maximise profits. Changes to individual diets won’t solve the fact that food production is organised for profit.

In richer countries, we are sold a diet high in meat because selling meat makes money for big multinationals.

Packing cows and pigs into vast factory farms is not just cruel—it’s profitable and destructive.

Modern industrial farming has developed in a particularly harmful way.

Fields of single crops such as corn or wheat stretch for miles and miles, requiring vast quantities of inputs such as water and chemicals.


But historically farmers have produced food in much more sustainable ways—using fewer inputs and mixing crops and animals together.

The high levels of energy required by industrial farms mean that a tonne of maize grown in the US uses 160 litres of oil compared to less than five litres in Mexico.

Meanwhile the peasants and workers who farm have been driven off the land, or work for poverty wages.

The planet desperately needs sustainable agriculture and so do the people who eat the food. We need healthier diets with less processed foods.

But winning this means kicking out the small number of food multinationals that have created a highly unsustainable food system.

Under capitalism, it isn’t only meat production that damages the environment—it’s the entire food industry.

Even if everyone could be convinced to go vegan, we would still have to get rid of the capitalist system that creates our food.

The world’s workers need to build a new society where food is produced in a sustainable way.

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