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Aren't "humane" animal products more sustainable?

Quite often, those promoting "humane" animal products suggest that these products are more sustainable than animal products from large industrialized operations. At first glance, this may seem to be true. When one pictures a traditional small-scale farm with large open pastures, and then, in contrast, a huge industrial facility surrounded by giant lagoons of waste products slowly leaching into the countryside, it seems like common sense that producing animal products on a small scale is better for the environment. However, the reality is far more complicated than these simple images suggest. The more fundamental question is whether any form of animal agriculture, if practiced on the scale needed to meet existing demand for animal products, is good for the environment, or sustainable.

We already know that humanity as a whole is living in a manner that is far from sustainable. In fact, it is estimated that our species is annually using resources at least 20% faster than the earth can renew or replenish. Those of us living in the wealthier countries are using up resources several hundred percent faster than the earth can sustain, with the extra load being absorbed via our extraction of resources from poorer countries. There are many signs that this imbalance is not only causing injustice and suffering on an unimaginable scale, but that it is also destabilizing our ecosystem. The most obvious and publicized of these signs are global warming and the depletion of fresh water. Scientists worldwide are offering us the same cautionary advice--if we don't make major changes in the way we live, there are going to be drastic consequences, not in the distant future, but much sooner than most of us realize.

A recent study carried out by United Nations scientists demonstrated that animal agriculture is the number one source of greenhouse gas impact, making a greater contribution to global warming than all cars, trucks, buses, air planes, trains, and ships combined. This effect is based on the unavoidable biological realities of animal agriculture itself, realities that are present in all modes of animal farming. Regardless of the scale of production, from the smallest farms to the largest industrial operations, the level of greenhouse gas impact per unit of animal products created is going to be in the same catastrophic range.

So, as the human population continues to spiral upward, and as more and more of the world's people are convinced to adopt a Western-style diet replete with animal products, the disastrous impact on the environment will only worsen, regardless of the method being used to produce these animal products. As it is, worldwide consumption of meat has increased five-fold in the past half century. If present trends continue, in another 50 years it will have increased a total of 15-fold.

Furthermore, the production of food for a diet based on meat, milk, and eggs uses several times more energy and water, and creates more toxic pollution, than that of a diet based on grains, vegetables and fruits. We can already see that the fight for dwindling supplies of oil is causing armed conflict around the world. Many experts on geopolitics predict that it will not be long before wars are fought over water.

Lastly, there is the issue of arable land. As it is, the rapidly expanding human population is constantly reducing the amount of land that is available for growing food, as well as rapidly deforesting the small percentage of wild lands that remain. Producing "humane" animal products uses at least double the amount of land that is required for the industrialized style of farming adopted by wealthy countries over the last several decades. In some cases, it takes several times more land to convert to "humane" methods.

So, while the immediate surroundings of smaller scale pasture-based farm operations may have less concentrated pollution and less soil erosion than that produced by large-scale industrialized farms, the reality is that vastly more high-quality farmland would be needed to convert existing production to "humane" farming. That amount of land is simply not available on the scale needed to meet the rapidly growing worldwide demand for animal products. It is also important to realize that as more wild lands are converted into "humane" farm land, more and more free-living animals will be displaced or killed, and more species will be driven to extinction.

So, when we step back and take a wider view of what is happening on our planet now, and what is predicted to happen in the future based on our current consumption and growth patterns, we're obligated to consider our individual role and responsibility. For the sake of the planet, as well as humankind, shouldn't we each aspire toward living in a way that, if adopted by everyone, would make our human civilization sustainable?

The reality is that moving toward consumption of "humane" animal products does not meet this standard. Instead, it is a time- and resource-wasting distraction, one we can ill afford in the midst of an unprecedented ecological crisis.

If we wish to preserve our environment, avoid endless wars over energy and water, and if we do not wish to obtain our prosperity at the expense of the exploitation of others, if we wish to do right by those of future generations, the time has come to re-evaluate the role animal agriculture plays not just in our own personal lives, but as a root cause of a number of planetary ills.

It has been demonstrated that human beings can be perfectly healthy living on a vegan diet based on grains, vegetables and fruits. Each time we take a step toward adopting such a diet we're acting as responsible global citizens by dramatically reducing our contribution to global warming, resource depletion, deforestation, pollution, species loss, poverty, and hunger, as well as animal exploitation. There are very few actions we can take as individuals that have such a tremendous positive impact, and negligible negative side effects.

Nevertheless, "humane" animal products are being sold to us as a means of doing something good, when in reality they perpetuate the very lifestyle that has brought our planet to the brink of ecological disaster. While these products may please our palate, they deceive our conscience, and simply do not solve any of the problems that need to be addressed by our species if we are to live on this planet in a just and sustainable manner.

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