What we eat may be a personal choice, yet it affects people, nature, and animals far and wide. With the skyrocketing world population, we’re also rethinking sustainability and looking at food production systems able to feed billions. Is it even possible?
There’s a lot of talk about how to feed the growing population and as a result, there’s also a lot of research to provide some answers. Details vary according to the country but the bigger picture stays the same – growing crops and eating them directly is much more efficient than feeding the crops to animals and then eating their flesh and secretions. Animals (just like us) eat a lot of food but only a fraction of what they consume is used to grow muscles or produce other tissues that people eat. The rest of the feed becomes energy to fuel all their organs, physical activity, breathing, tissue repair and a lot is also excreted as waste. The latter is an issue in itself – animal waste producing greenhouse gasses and contaminating groundwater. Farms, slaughterhouses, processing plants, transports (of feed, animals and products) also use up a lot of resources such as electricity, water, fuel and chemicals, whilst emitting vast amounts of greenhouse gasses and producing tons of plastic packaging. This is only multiplied by the sheer number of animals reared and killed for food – around 70 billion annually.
Eating only local animal products is not a solution because most animal feed is imported from far away or a lot of land is used to produce it locally. As a recent study demonstrated, what you eat has a bigger environmental impact than whether it’s local – and plant foods always have a smaller environmental footprint than animal foods.
Eating plant-based foods is not only a lot gentler on the environment and much less resource intensive, plants also use up carbon dioxide (one of the main greenhouse gasses) and return oxygen into the atmosphere. And as if that wasn’t great enough, some of them also help to enrich the soil in which they grow with nutrients! Moving away from animal farming and towards arable (plant) farming could reduce food greenhouse gas emissions and land use by as much as 70% and reduce water use by 50% (1). That’s pretty spectacular!
Research from the University of Oxford provided similar insights – in countries that eat a lot of meat, such as the US, transition to a plant-based diet would slash food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 61-73% (2).
Lead author Joseph Poore said: “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”
Indeed, changing the way we eat can transform our future – slow down climate change, free up some land and allow it to be reforested, save vast amounts of resources, and produce enough food for everyone.
We all have different beliefs and attitudes towards killing animals but because meat, dairy and egg industries keep bombarding us with idyllic images, not many people know what life is really like for farmed animals. The question of killing is important but so is whether farmed animals have a life worth living. If you have ever seen some images from undercover investigations, you probably know the answer. It’s impossible to raise billions of animals in conditions that would fulfill their needs, and wouldn’t reduce them to suffering commodities.
Absolute majority (99% in the US and vast numbers in Europe) of pigs, cattle, chickens and egg-laying hens are raised at intensive farms, also known as factory farms because of the huge numbers of animals they hold. In these barren halls, sheds or feedlots, animals barely survive – and many do not – in filthy, crammed conditions until the time they are taken to the slaughterhouse, which may be the only time they see daylight. Pregnant sows are restrained in cages (farrowing/gestation crates) from before they give birth until their piglets are weaned a few weeks later, unable to even turn around. Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated every year so they produce milk but their calves are unwanted byproducts so they are removed and treated like trash. The young of all farmed animals are subjected to painful mutilations, such as teeth and tail clipping, castration without anaesthetic, horn bud removal, beak trimming – to limit them hurting each other, which only reflects the poor mental state these animals are in.
Fish are farmed more than ever before – about 50% of fish consumed worldwide come from farms, that are equally crammed and pitiful as livestock farms. Diseases and fish parasites are thriving in these environments so the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides thrown in the water as a ‘cure’ is mindblowing. Commercial fishing is equally problematic, decimating the oceans to the brink of fish species extinction – 90% of fish stocks are depleted. Yet still billions of fish die slow and painful deaths when they are caught in huge nets, together with many other species (dolphins, turtles, seabirds). Discarded nets and fishing gear are also one of the main plastic pollutants in the oceans – accounting for 46% of all plastic trash in the seas and killing more and more sea life that gets entangled in the nets.
Intensive farms and meat processing plants are the ideal breeding grounds for deadly bacteria and viruses that are constantly evolving. Farmers know this so they use antibiotics on a large scale to banish and prevent diseases but it has a nasty side-effect – bacteria develop antibiotic-resistance, meaning that they can cause an illness that’s impossible to treat with medicines we have. Many of these bacteria are highly infectious and enter the food chain very quickly. The overuse of antibiotics on livestock and fish farms and its dangerous consequences are well documented but with the sheer numbers of farmed animals, it’s impossible to control disease any other way (3, 4). So it’s a Catch 22, unless we radically change our diets and reduce or eliminate the demand for animal foods.
The latest global threat – coronavirus COVID-19 – has its origins in the wild but infected people through the meat market where thousands of animals were brought and killed on a daily basis (5). Shifting towards plant-based diets is in our best interest if we are to avoid epidemics like this in the future.
Food production systems are intertwined with human rights at every step and there are some very complex issues. One of them is the growing of crops for animal feed whilst millions of people are starving. We currently produce enough food for everyone on the planet but most of it is fed to livestock. This is not only unfair but also depletes resources at a much faster rate than if we seriously tamed our hunger for animal products.
Another grim issue is how work at factory farms and slaughterhouses affects the workers. They often suffer from mental health issues, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, recurring nightmares, and tend to have higher rates of substance abuse as a result (6). Many of them end up in this line of work because they may lack qualifications or are illegal immigrants, and quickly become trapped in the endless cycle of killing. The fishing industry is no better, as investigations and whistleblowers revealed, many poor people end up as literal slaves on boats they may never return from (7).
Yoga philosophy is strongly rooted in compassion – both towards yourself and others. One of the most important yogic principles is Ahimsa – non-violence – in our actions, speech, thoughts and consequences of our actions, such as what we pay for. The logic is that we should not cause harm to ourselves or others, not simply because it’s a good thing to do but because by partaking in causing harm (directly or indirectly) to someone else, you’re hurting yourself too because it’s affecting your mind.
Another yogic principle is Asteya – non-stealing. It’s very much about the perception of what stealing is and teaches us to not steal people’s time, not hoard things, be mindful of greed (including on the yoga mat when we try to go further than our bodies allow), and be content with what we have. It’s also very meaningful in the relationship to food – the most obvious teaching being that we shouldn’t buy too much and then waste it. Up to a half of all food produced is wasted (thrown away) and we, consumers, are responsible for 40-50% of this (8). But Asteya has other dimensions – for example we want chocolate so we go and buy some. Following Asteya would mean considering who produced the cocoa beans for it and if they were paid enough, perhaps choosing Fair Trade products when it comes to foods from problematic backgrounds. It’s a little different with animal foods because animals never give their life willingly, we always steal it from them. Milk production is even more entangled in cruelty because we first steal the cow’s newborn to be able to then steal her milk, and when she is worn out, we steal her life too. That’s never ok.
Yoga is also very focused on purity of mind, body and speech – Saucha. When it comes to food, Saucha teaches us to eat fresh, clean food that nourishes us and doesn’t slow us down. You know how tired you feel after a greasy, heavy dish, compared to something healthier? That’s not to say you should eat salad all the time but you get the gist.
Yoga and plant-based diets go hand in hand – eating plants instead of animals vastly reduces the amount of suffering in the world and in return is great for our mental and physical health.
By choosing a plant-based diet, you have a direct and positive effect on the world. In one year, you save:
- At least 47 animals (9)
- Up to 73% of food-related greenhouse gas emissions (10)
- Around 50% of food-related water use (1)
- Up to 70% of land that could remain forested or at least not intensively farmed (1, 11)
Of course, arable farming comes with a host of issues, too, but is much gentler on the environment and people too (with some exceptions like palm oil). Transition to a plant-based diet means moving towards a world where neither human nor animal life is worthless, towards a fairer and healthier society. As one of the biggest reports on the future of foods points out, we need to change our diets fast if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences (12). But don’t despair, there’s good news too! Thanks to the growing awareness of these issues it’s now easier than ever to go plant-based and in return your new diet will boost your health and performance. With our nutrition guidance and the Supercharged Ten diet plan, you can be a plant-based warrior in no time!