Today is Earth Day, a day which is not and never was about non-human animals. The only species that Earth Day is about is humans. The reason we do address this day is that the AR community tends to adopt some of the environmental rhetoric. This is of course not at all new, but it became more prominent in the last couple of years due to the relative rising awareness of climate change.
The motivation behind it is unquestionable, AR activists are recruiting ecological claims as a tactical move, trying to tap into a more consensual topic, for the sake of animals. What is questionable is whether animals are benefiting from this use.
The use of egocentric and anthropocentric arguments in veganism advocacy is notoriously popular in the Animal Liberation movement, and we have a multimedia article about that problematic issue called Even the Most Selfish Argument. This is not the main concern we discuss in this post. It is also not about the fundamental differences between Environmentalism and Animal Liberation, an issue we have broadly discussed in another multimedia article called The Anthropocentric View of the Environmentalists.
In this post we focus on the more immediate and practical effects of environmentalism and the environmental rhetoric on nonhuman animals, some of which are already happening, and others are expected in the coming years.
As you know humans excel at resisting any substantial changes in their beloved habits, and instead settle for half-baked, partial options, which are often no more than lip service. They usually recruit their ingenuity so they would have to change their ways as little as possible. When it comes to dealing with climate change and sustainability issues, some of those moves may even end up causing more animal suffering around the world.
Less GHGs, Many More Victims
The increasing awareness about the environmental harms of factory farms should have functioned as an external boost for veganism. However, despite that even according to minimalistic estimations, greenhouse gases produced by industrially exploited animals represent 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gasses emissions (with the famous 2006 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow estimated it as 18% of global greenhouse gases, and WorldWatch institute place the figures at around 51%), and despite that a 2014 British research, published in Climate Change journal, found that a vegan diet has about half the greenhouse gas emissions of medium-meat diets, we don’t see the environmentally-required expected shift.
The vast majority of humans don’t care that nonhumans suffer all their lives so they can enjoy a piece of their flesh, and humans choose to keep eating nonhumans even when they are told it also hurts them and their own children.
When vegans read reports about the environmental impacts of factory farms they rightfully see an argument to go vegan. When non-vegans read these reports, they look for reasons to nevertheless not go vegan. When they are told that meat is bad for the environment, they hardly ever stop eating it. In the better case they reduce their consumption, in the worse they do nothing about it, and in the worst case, they ask themselves “which meat harms the planet the least?”
Several studies have compared the environmental effects of the most common animal exploitation industries according to several categories such as: land use, energy use, pesticides use, acidification, water pollution, and GHG emissions. They found that as a general rule, ruminants (cows, sheeps, goats, and bisons) have the biggest environmental impact.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the production of “red meat” generates, on average, four times more greenhouse-gas emissions than an equivalent amount of chickens flesh or fishes flesh. The study also argues that “red meat” is so resource-intensive, that if all humans cut their consumption of it by one-quarter, the reduction in greenhouse gases would be the same as shifting to a 100% locally sourced diet.
Statistical bits of information such as this are all that humans want and need to hear in order for them to consider themselves environmentally friendly despite taking the most negligible behavioral change – eating fewer cows.
Another article states that “Beef’s environmental impact dwarfs that of other meat including chicken and pork, new research reveals, with one expert saying that eating less red meat would be a better way for people to cut carbon emissions than giving up their cars.”
And that “The popular red meat requires 28 times more land to produce than pork or chicken, 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions.”
The bigger harm of these studies is not that they permit humans to make do with reducing their cows consumption, but that they greenwash chickens consumption, and that is why we claim that asking “which meat harms the planet the least?” is the worst case.
In the earlier mentioned study chickens and turkeys were found to be the least environmentally harmful. And another recent analysis on chickens’ exploitation in the U.S. found that producing a calorie of chicken flesh required about 5.6 calories of fossil fuels, compared to reported figures of about 14 calories for pigs, and 20 to 40 for cows.
Other popular publications are of the top 10 foods with the biggest environmental footprint. The results are:
Eggs and chickens’ flesh are already presented as better choices of protein for health reasons, now there’s a pseudo ethical motive added to them.
Humans tend to look for the least demanding “solution” for problems, so offering them to only reduce some of their consumption and feel better about themselves would end in some of them reducing some of their ruminants’ flesh consumption which is the most environmentally harmful and considered the least healthy too, and probably switching to other kinds of flesh. Eating fewer ruminants is already seen in many places in the world, usually concurrently with an increase in chicken and fish consumption. There are many reasons for that, mainly ones which have to do with the price, (since humans first and foremost care about themselves, and think very short-term). But even among the somewhat less egocentric – when given an option to feel better about themselves and more righteous while doing very little, or to feel even much better about themselves and even more righteous but while doing a lot more (in their eyes) – most choose the first option.
All the findings about the environmental harms of factory farms should be more reasons to go vegan, but since humans love compromises, don’t mind inconsistency and avoid definiteness, it serves as more reasons to eat fewer cows and more chickens. This obviously means more suffering individuals, as chickens are much smaller. It’s estimated that the flesh of 200 exploited chickens amounts to the flesh of one exploited steer.
The vast majority of humans don’t ask themselves “should I stop eating meat?”, but if anything, they ask “which kind of meat causes the least climate change?”, and the answer unfortunately prompts more chickens flesh consumption. So chickens, who are already the most numerous land victims on earth, which are bound to the severest genetic manipulation and to the harshest living conditions, will be even worse off.
Not only that the connection between environmental harm and animal consumption doesn’t convince humans to go vegan, it may convince them to consume more animals.
Of course, there is something naive about attributing to ecological concerns such a strong role in humans’ consumption. We wish it was possible to say that environmental issues play such a significant role in humans’ behavior. Obviously the main reason for the horrible rapid increase in the global “production” of chickens – more than 12-fold in the last 50 years – has very little to do with environmental concern and a lot to do with the price and availability of chickens flesh, as well as with a good (but false) healthful reputation. Still, chickens’ green label, as false as it is, plays some role in the global flesh consumption, especially in the last decade, and maybe in the decades to come which would probably be even worse than this one.
No Real Values in Value Added
The tendency of individual consumers to shift from cows flesh to that of other smaller animals might get another push from policy makers, as initiatives to tax meats – “red meats” in particular – are being contemplated.
Over the past few years, especially since the Paris Climate Agreement, there’s been a growing call from press articles, think tanks and academic circles to tax meat. Even three 3 parliaments – the ones of Denmark, Sweden and Germany – have already started debating about the implementation of it. While the suggestions vary in the rates of VAT (Value Added Tax) on different animal products, most place particularly high rates on the flesh of ruminants. Citing that cows makeup most of global “livestock’s” greenhouse gas emissions, their strain on other resources such as water and land, and of course the health risks to flesh consumers – from diabetes, heart diseases and cancer – cow’s meat is predicted to get particular high tax. Some suggestions place it as high as a 40% rise in “red meat” prices. This means consumers are even more likely to buy more “environmentally friendly” chickens, which are predicted to have a much lower price increase of roughly 10%, if the consumption of their flesh is even taxed at all.
Though still theoretical, it must be noted that today more than 180 jurisdictions tax tobacco, more than 60 tax carbon emissions, and at least 25 tax sugar, so charging VAT on meats wouldn’t be a first.
Of course some initiatives are much more ambitious and might be immensely positive, calling for a flat tax rate for all meats (or even all animal products), but they are the minority. Unfortunately such a wide tax hikes is far less politically viable – while taxing of mainly “red meats” (which already have a bad reputation) is something that some voters in some places, are more likely to accept.
Efficiency -Squeezing the Most from Each Victim
Since stop consuming animals is not an option humanity is willing to seriously consider, there are many initiatives aiming to turn animals’ exploitation “greener”. Overall, the main mean in developing more environmentally-friendly exploitation focuses on making the exploited animals more “efficient” at converting feed to flesh, and bodily secretion. More product for less investment.
Activists know the term efficiency is a euphemistic code for much more suffering, and more control over the animals by manipulating them and their surroundings. These methods include increased lighting, unnatural calorie-dense feed, antibiotic use, growth hormones, and of course – a manipulation which invades deep into the animals’ body by changing their genetic characteristics. Craving efficiency led to engineering animals who are deformed and crippled, with some organs extremely enlarged and others shriveled.
Of course, the industry already has an obvious motivation to push for more and more “efficiency” (profitability), but now it has a green-washed PR pretext and another drive to squeeze animals even further.
Here are several examples of the various exploiters’ efforts at the expense of cows, chickens, and fishes.
Heat Resistant Milk Producing Machines
Seeking to create “better yielding” animals, Bill Gates has donated $40 million to a research which intends to breed cows who can both produce high amounts of milk and survive in hotter and tropical climates. In his personal blog, Gates stated that a typical dairy cow in the US produces nearly 30 liters of milk every day, compared to the average cow in Ethiopia, which produces 1.69 liters per day. Gates wishes to “improve” cows by isolating desirable genetic traits from “high yielding” European ones, and tropical diseases-resistant African breeds. This of course means that cows will endure more pain and deformities as they are turned to more efficient milk production machines, and will be exploited in more regions of the world.
Gates addresses the limitations of such a project: “While there are legitimate questions about whether the world can meet its appetite for animal products without destroying the environment, it’s a fact that many poor people rely on cattle for both nutrition and income. I believe they should be able to raise cattle as efficiently as farmers in rich countries do. I’m optimistic that technology can improve the quality of African cattle.”
In other words, he is well aware of the fact that this line of work is no real solution to the ecological damage, but he is at ease with his compromise between causing environmental harm and satisfying humans’ desire for animal products (which according to him is a sort of human right). And of course, in his balancing act, the animals are an absent referent.
Tibial Dyschondroplasia for Better Sustainability
Chickens are the most extreme representatives of the industry’s ability to manipulate animals’ bodies in a way which fits the exploiters needs – convert feed more “efficiently”, and grow larger.
The historic differences between early 20th century chickens to the ones bred today are common knowledge for activists, but less known is the fact that this trend continues, and each year the “market weight” of chickens still increases. In the US, the latest figures from 2016 stood at 6.16 pounds, while 2006’s was 5.47.
Recent campaigns calling for exploitation of chickens from less deformed breeds, wishing to somewhat reverse this extremely violent trend, face the industry’s cynical green-washed excuses about the supposed unsustainability of this call. The National Chicken Council emphases that such a move would result in the use of more environmental resources due to the increase in feed and water (resources which go to grow unprofitable body parts), and due to the overall number of days it would take to raise the birds.
Other experts also admit that less crippled chickens who suffer less pain with each step, tend to move around more and therefore waste more energy, which is less efficient.
The NCC went on a media campaign, releasing public statements about a “study” regarding the financial and environmental costs of less deformities. While their figures were discredited (this “study” they’ve produced wasn’t peer-reviewed, had no authors listed, and was not conducted by an independent university body or impartial scientific committee, but by an industry insider), surly the “findings” – that exploitation of less crippled chickens is less sustainable – will be used by the industry to keep intensifying the exploitation. Of course such a twisted ecological claim can work in favor of the exploiters only thanks to humans’ habit of not caring about chickens.
Live Fast, Die Young, Convert Feed Efficiently
When it comes to efficiency, tragically for fishes, they are at the top of the chart. While cows’ rate is about 6-7 kg of commercial feed for 1 kg of marketable flesh, and chickens’ is 1.7 kg, the fishes’ rate is between 1.5 to 0.2 kg of feed per 1 kg of flesh (which seems physically impossible, but that is the case because the flesh includes water weight). Because they are mostly cold-blooded and buoyant in the water, fishes don’t burn energy generating heat and fighting gravity to move around. This allows them to be marketed as a sustainable option.
Also, similarly to land animals, today more and more fishes are bred in factory farms, euphemistically called aquaculture (in fact, since 2015 more fishes flesh comes from these intensive operations than from wild-caught fishing). Some of these farm facilities enjoy the backing of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and The Conservation Fund.
Of course, the controlled environment of a farm means more dominance over the fishes – and much more manipulation to make them grow faster, thus also be more “efficient” and greener. From the moment they hatch, farmed fishes endure a lighting regime that tricks them to eat more of a commercial diet designed for weight-gain. They live in crowded tanks or sea cages where they often face aggression from other fishes they cannot escape, and have to fight for food. The density leads to disease outbreaks and parasites which lead to immense suffering, but often the treatments against these maladies are also harmful to the fishes.
These intensive conditions which produce more flesh from each fish are known to cripple them. About 50-60% of farmed salmon and trout were found to have damaged ear bones, which leads to drastic hearing impairments. The fishes’ ear structure is also essential for their balance and navigation. Studies have identified this deformity to be the result of accelerated growth rates that were traced to high-nutrient feed and exposer to longer light periods. This illness has also been found in other farmed fish species such as carp, eel and red drum
The pressure for rapid weight gain doesn’t end with external environmental intervention. In another horrid resemblance to land animals, fishes are too the subject of genetic manipulation to increase “efficiency”.
Fishes’ domestication has been taking place for only half a century – salmon breeding programs to “improving” growth rates and body size started from the 1970s – but already it has led to dire results. Farmed salmon reach reproductive maturity faster (four years were reduced to three), have less genetic diversity, have different morphology and physiology, and exhibit changed behavioral traits such as higher aggression. Relative to their undomesticated counterparts, the offspring of farmed salmon have lower survival ability in the wild.
In 2015 the level of invasion into the fishes’ bodies took another turn for the worse, as for the first time the FDA approved the marketing of a GM animal – Atlantic salmon who has a gene from a Chinook salmon and a promoter sequence from an ocean pout.
This salmon can grow twice as fast as conventionally farmed Atlantic salmon, reaching adult size in some 18 months as compared to 30 months, and requires 25% less feed to grow to the size of wild salmon. The company which owns the legal patent for these fishes’ DNA profile boasts about how eco-friendly they are, claiming that “their product” could have a carbon footprint of up to 25 times less.
Already in 2017, five tonnes of GM salmon’s flesh was sold in Canada, while simultaneously, some 30 other species of GM fishes are in development around the world, as are GM cows, chickens and pigs.
Even before these new innovations, farmed salmon conditions were so abusively intensive that many of them – up to a quarter according to one study – were found to suffer from depression, as they float lifelessly in their enclosures (the industry refers to them as “drop-outs” or “loser fish”). These fishes were found to have much higher levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in addition to increased activation of the serotonergic system (the main neural system that regulates serotonin in the bodies of fishes and land animals, which is involved in respiration, sleep, hunger, stress response, mood and more). Its malfunction is associated with several mental illnesses, including major depression.
All this suffering is another aspect of “better efficiency”.
According to the FAO there are 567 aquatic species farmed around the world. Unsurprisingly, this UN agency recognizes aquaculture’s contribution to food security. The FAO backs farmed fishes as “a good source of protein, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and essential micronutrients”, and encourages the further development of “sustainable” facilities, especially in developing countries.
And even environmentally friendly “solutions” that are on the exact opposite direction of intensification, are still horrible. In the last couple of years there is a new “green” trend regarding tuna fishes consumption. ‘Pole-and-line’ is a tuna fishing method, in which tuna fishes are caught one at a time by hand, using a pole, line and hook, and it’s being labeled as greatly environmentally friendly since it reduces the risk of catching other marine life, such as turtles. This is what it does to tunas.
Exploitation in More Layers
Not all intensive elements have to do with reaching larger bodies faster. Here is an example of another type of the industry’s increased efficiency, which is presented as an eco-friendly advancement.
Tyson Foods, the Biggest Industrial Meat Producer in the U.S, had started to test ways to produce less waste at its chicken farms. Tyson is not doing it for the environment but for its public image, and to save some legal costs and avoid fines (the company was recently forced to pay fines for dumping waste from a chicken processing plant into rivers).
One of the systems Tyson tests, is a vertical farming facility in which the chickens would be confined in a tower of cages – a structure that the corporation’s “sustainability chief” neatly names “basket towers”. The goal is that instead of manure piling up and then dumped somewhere, it gradually goes through the bottom of that system into a conveyor and off the facility.
This multi-tier assembly of cage units with automated feature of removing waste, which are already in use in various forms (such as net flooring systems which are mainly used in China and Thailand, and modern caged systems which are gaining popularity mainly in Russia and Turkey), is an even worse version of the common shed. The chickens live in an even denser space. This imprison system reduces the chicks’ locomotion and ground pecking and increases the time they spend sitting, which would aggravate the inherent dreadful physical condition of the chickens due to their genetic line.
In addition, a 4-tier system quadruples the density of animals in the shed, and so would increase the risk of diseases spread as well as severely degrade the air quality.
The cages’ wires cause more scratches and bruising, and since the cages are in a multilayer tower, natural light throughout both the multiple rows and tiers of cages (depending on their distance from the light inlet) is scarce.
The lack of any bedding in these systems means that the birds are unable to express natural behaviors such as dustbathing, ground pecking and scratching. Obviously these important behaviors, which their denial leads to stress, are deprived of chickens in the standard systems as well, but in these multi-tier assembly cage units when the birds try to practice these behaviors anyway they are hurt even more.
Tyson labels this system as the innovative and environmental “basket towers”, but what this new system actually means is that the living conditions of chickens in the flesh industry, probably the poorest animals on earth, may get even worse.
Experiments in Selfishness
In the making of this post we came across a vast number of animal experiments, some of which are mentioned along this review. We found it in itself very representative of humanity. For humans to have their cleared-conscious animal flesh, even more animals suffer all over the world, via university’s agriculture faculties or corporation’s development programs. For example, on the topic of cow feed alone, each year there are thousands of studies, examining which mixture and what additives lead to fewer methane emissions, compound from all sorts of oils, as well as algae, oregano, garlic, juniper berries, onion extract and green tea.
In itself, this cruel race to greener animal products is another indication of humans’ unwillingness to profoundly change their ways, and how their baby steps approach leads to even more suffering.
Ethical Climate Change
The connection between animal exploitation and environmental harms, especially climate change (which should have ‘changed everything’), should have made many more humans consider much more seriously going vegan, not to omit meat from their diet on Mondays. But even activists who are encouraged by every reduction in meat consumption, must be worried. Not only about the long term effects of perpetuating anthropocentrism and speciesism by appealing to humans’ interests when asking them to stop eating animal products, but that it might cause more humans to eat more chickens and fishes. The status of chickens is already at the bottom, the status of fishes is rock-bottom and the status of fishes who are fed to farmed fishes humans consume is beneath rock-bottom – claims about the environmental harms of eating animals can make it all even worse.
When not the suffering of individuals, nor the number of suffering individuals, is what matters, the use of anthropocentric and environmental rhetoric may end up hurting more animals, and even more than they are hurt nowadays, in both the long and short term.
Don’t get this wrong, this is not activists’ fault. Activists are not arguing that it is ok to eat chickens and fish, and they don’t tell humans that if they have to choose between cows and pigs or chickens and fishes, they should eat the later. Activists are explaining to humans that they are all sentient and none of them should be eaten. The problem is not that activists are giving humans the wrong message, the problem is that activists are giving humans a chance.