By eating meat we share responsibility
for causing climate change, the destruction
of our forests, and the poisoning of our air
and water. The simple act of becoming
a vegetarian can make a difference
in the health of our planet.
Thich Nhat Hanh64
Of course, we’re important to ourselves and to a handful of other people, perhaps even a big handful. We may have a small or large family, one we’re close to or not, a tribe of tight friends or a few acquaintances, neighbours and colleagues, buddies we play sports with or friends who work out together – all the other humans with whom we share bonds. To a greater or lesser degree, many people around us are important.
Besides those folks, who else do we care about? Surely we care about other people, even if we’ll never meet them. We care if they suffer, if a typhoon strikes their community or if an earthquake shatters their school. We wait anxiously for news about men trapped in mines or girls kidnapped by extremists or a baby fallen down a well, though we’re often thousands of miles away. Conversely, when we hear of someone who has faced extreme difficulty but is still triumphant – the Stephen Hawkings, Nelson Mandelas, and Malala Yousafzais of our world – a deep chord of hope and goodwill rings inside. Though our feelings for strangers are less intense than for our own circle of friends and family, we care.
What about animals – pets, strays, livestock on farms, animals in the wild? Again, we tend to cling tightly to those animals whose lives entwine with our own. Some see pets as family. Kids raising animals for slaughter often name them and accept their eventual deaths as inevitable. A few individual animals become media stars, and the entire world hears about Willy, the whale who needed saving; Ham, the first ape in space; or Elsa, the lioness in the movie Born Free. We sometimes get angry about the carnage caused by trophy hunters and can be appalled over and over by reports of the massacre of almost entire species. Animals are important.
The millions of plants that inhabit our forests, mountains, plains, farmlands, and deserts matter both because of their inherent beauty and because no other form of life could exist or thrive without them. So we naturally care about plants, too.
The Earth itself matters – the vast waters and lands, the air around us, the core that extends almost 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles) below us.65 Earth and sky stun us with their wonder, beauty, and power.
We see that much of our material world is crucial. How important is our non-material world – the feelings and thoughts that compel us daily to act or react, to move or remain still, to speak or hold our tongue? Do we value our own inner lives enough to actively cultivate the happiness and contentment everyone wants? Most of us do. We want to take care of what lies within us as well as what lies outside us. As we nurture feelings of gratitude and compassion, we are often naturally inclined to serve others. Seeing all of humanity as equally deserving of respect and dignity also shapes our responses to people and events. These feelings and actions help answer the question “What’s important?”
As humans, whatever we cherish, we work to preserve and nourish. Being vegetarian is one of the most important ways we help both the diverse world around us and the peaceful world within us to thrive.
Is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” enough?
We’ve heard about landfills twenty storeys tall and millions of tons of plastic polluting our oceans. We’ve seen the smog that clings to cities. Perhaps we’ve put on a mask before going outside or avoided our favourite swimming place because it’s become polluted. Ordinary folks and Olympic competitors both face dangers in sewage-laden waters. Record-breaking heat waves and mega snowstorms plague our planet. These problems are intensified by waste ‘greenhouse gases’ created not only by the burning of fossil fuels, but also by the methane produced by grazing animals.66 Across the globe, people are banding together to reduce the mountains of garbage, to reuse what we can, and to recycle what we can’t reuse. Will these efforts be enough to save us from our own waste?
The situation is dire, but not hopeless. Across the world, people aren’t just sitting still waiting for disasters to pile up until we’re completely inundated. The United Nations has an Environment Programme to help us understand and solve the complex problems facing the whole planet. Governments worldwide have set up technical, educational, and hands-on programmes that make a difference. Laws are being passed to help – for example, banning free plastic bags at checkout counters. Some communities have a deposit/refund scheme for plastic bottles to make sure they’re recycled. There are programmes to recycle old cell phones. Schools have recycle boxes in classrooms. As individuals, we’re becoming more and more aware of the opportunities we have to help through small, simple things such as taking shorter showers, turning off lights we don’t need, and recycling newspapers.
Yet the impact of these efforts is dwarfed by the positive impact of being vegetarian. Some researchers state that every environmental problem on the planet could be solved or dramatically improved if the world turned from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet.67 How could they make such a claim? Let’s explore the facts.
Quenching our thirst for water
Gulp down a glass of cool water, soak in a hot bath, dive into a refreshing pool. Use water to cook or clean or grow a garden. Whether we get it through a pipe, from a well, or from a dirty puddle, we must have water. However, when pollution spoils wells, rivers, and oceans; when oil and gas drilling contaminates water tables; when salty sea levels rise and affect shoreline soils; when animal wastes run untreated into waterways, we deprive ourselves of the clean water essential for life. We are both spoiling and using more water than can be replaced or refreshed by natural cycles, so clean water is becoming more scarce as the population increases. What can we do to make sure that worldwide we have enough water for ourselves and our families?
Being vegetarian is a clear, powerful step in that direction.
Raising animals for food accounts for 27%–33% of all the fresh water consumption in the world.
Let’s look at some examples of how raising, feeding, transporting, and killing animals degrade our world’s waterways. The full picture is disturbing, yet we need to see clearly the effects of our choices. Though many of us maintain images of placid, beloved animals kept on small farms, patted and scratched, given names and led around hay-strewn barnyards, the reality is brutally different. The ways in which animals are kept and killed have changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Increasingly, around the globe, most of the production of meat is done by ‘factory farms’. Their mission is to maximise profits.
One of the consequences is water consumption and pollution. In the documentary Cowspiracy, which explores the devastating impact of animal agriculture on Earth’s resources, co-director Kip Anderson reports that raising animals for food accounts for twenty-seven to thirty-three percent of all the fresh water consumption in the world.68
In addition, animal agriculture plays a leading role in creating aquatic ‘dead zones’ – areas below the surfaces of oceans, large lakes, and rivers that lack enough oxygen to sustain most plant or fish life. The waterways of Earth are estimated to contain 400–1,000 such dead zones, each spanning hundreds or thousands of square miles.69 Sewage, fossil fuels, and industrial wastes contribute to their creation, and some occur naturally; yet it is animal agriculture that deals the single most fatal blow. Inevitably, the millions of kilos of manure and chemical fertilizers spread annually on land used to grow crops for animals make their way into the waters of the world.
As an example, let’s look at hog farming for pork products in the United States. A 200 pound pig produces an average of about fourteen pounds of faeces per day.70 What’s a company to do with the tons and tons of waste produced by the more than 80,000 pigs that the average farm has?71
A pound of soybeans takes 250 gallons.
The modern solution is barns with slatted floors that allow pig waste to seep into an underground tank. The waste is drained to massive open lagoons that are often as big as several football fields and that “emit toxic gases such as ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, and methane.” These foul-smelling lagoons of faeces and urine are holding ponds. When they’re full, the waste – and the “dangerous microbes, nitrate pollution, and drug-resistant bacteria” that such waste contains – is sprayed over nearby farmlands as fertilizer.72
Although hog waste can be a good soil conditioner when applied at reasonable rates, factory farms produce many times more excrement than the land can absorb. The spray, applied too frequently, causes runoffs into streams and rivers, contributing to algal blooms and fish kills, and poisoning groundwater with nitrates. These nitrates contribute to miscarriages as well as serious health problems for babies.73 In addition, the stench of this toxic spray fouls entire communities.
Just as our image of a few contented animals wandering bucolic barnyards is no longer reality, the romantic notion of ranching – with its broad plains and blue skies, weathered cowboys, and cattle lowing as they amble across the prairie – has given way to the mass production of beef. More and more, helicopters are used to round up cattle. Raising cattle for meat is big business with devastating consequences. Everywhere, turning cows into burgers devours massive quantities of water and pollutes water supplies.
For every pound of beef sold, nearly 2,500 gallons of water have been consumed.74 Producing a gallon of milk from a cow requires 1,000 gallons of water; a pound of cheese uses almost 900 gallons.75 Compare that to the 250 gallons needed for a pound of soybeans or 25 gallons for a pound of wheat. We begin to see how using animals for food uses much more water than growing food from plants.76 Not only does a cow drink large amounts of water – anything from 3 to 30 gallons per day depending on various factors – growing the plants consumed by livestock requires immense quantities of this natural resource.77 Almost one third of all the fresh water in the world is used to irrigate crops grown solely to feed animals.78 More water is needed for the animal foods alfalfa and hay than is required for all the vegetable and fruit production of the United States combined.79 While lakes are drained and governments dispute water rights, we spend this essential resource to create meat.
As well as reducing available water, how does animal agriculture contribute to the poisoning of our water? As Living the Farm Sanctuary Life reminds us, “Exhausting our natural resources is one problem. Poisoning them is another. Many of the vast tracts of land harvested exclusively for animal feed are riddled with the pesticides and fertilizers used to grow GMO (genetically modified organisms) crops as rapidly as possible.”82 These chemicals seep into groundwater, find their way to rivers and oceans, create toxicity for animals and plants and foul our waterways.
How much water does it take to make:A turkey sandwich? 200 gallons
One egg? 100 gallons80
1 lb of broccoli, cauliflower, or brussel sprouts? 34 gallons
1 lb of tomatoes? 26 gallons
1 lb of asparagus? 258 gallons
1 lb of eggplant? 43 gallons
1 lb of artichokes, cucumbers or lettuce? 98 gallons81
Factory farming of pigs and cattle has disastrous impacts on clean waters worldwide. What about poultry production? How does the feeding, maintenance, and slaughter of chickens, turkeys, emus, ostriches, guinea fowl, Japanese quail, ducks, and geese – mostly kept in captivity – affect our water supplies? Consider the two most commonly eaten birds, chickens and turkeys. Worldwide each year, over 50 billion chickens are slaughtered.83 In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 239 million turkeys were killed in the USA alone.84 Aside from the cash cost, what is the environmental cost of this staggering destruction in terms of water?
All poultry have to be fed and watered. Manure has to be stored; carcasses from diseased birds have to be disposed of; poultry has to be processed through water-intensive slaughterhouses. All of this uses or pollutes water. ‘Manure management’ has had specific scrutiny. A study done by the United Nations reports that “Pollution of soil and water with nutrients, pathogens, and heavy metals is generally caused by poor manure management and occurs where manure is stored.”85
In addition to localized problems of odours, flies, and rodents, antimicrobial agents used to treat animal diseases often end up in surface and ground water. The same report says 67% of water samples collected were contaminated with antimicrobial residues, possibly leading to an increase in antibiotic resistance for humans and animals.86
Raising livestock = razing rainforests
Prepare to be surprised, and not in a happy way. Our planet is being overwhelmed by the resources needed to feed, water, and slaughter the animals we eat. While hundreds of millions of humans – about one in nine – suffer from malnutrition87 and billions of us crowd into human-friendly habitats, 30 percent of the land surface of the entire planet is dedicated to growing food for or sheltering animals! Another statistic only adds to our dismay: we use 70 percent of all agricultural land for livestock production. Yet, according to the United Nations, “livestock products” (meat and dairy) only account for “one third of humanity’s protein intake.”88 By any calculation, this isn’t a good return on the Earth’s investment.
Aside from gobbling up land and consuming and degrading water resources, what other environmental effects stem from livestock production? Unfortunately, none of the answers to this question is positive.
The devastation of our forests, particularly rainforests, is due to several factors, such as harvesting wood, extracting minerals, constructing roads, and creating land for destitute farmers, but the worst offender is the livestock industry, largely the beef industry.89 To visualize one small portion of our disappearing forests, look around and mentally map out an area about 2.5 meters by 2 meters (about 8 feet by 6.5 feet). That much of the rainforest is wiped out to produce one quarter-pound hamburger.90 Rainforests – often called the lungs of our planet – are being sacrificed to the tastebuds of humans. Once covering fourteen percent of the world’s surface, by 2015 they had been reduced to about six percent. They could be totally gone in the next 40 years.91
The fertile ‘green band’ around planet earth – the wide belt which straddles the equator between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and receives the most sunlight – is crashing down under the roar of chainsaws or falling victim to slash and burn agriculture. We are left with ravaged land that in turn contributes to the ravishing of Earth. Because forests absorb and store CO2 (twenty to a hundred times more carbon than the agricultural crops that replace them) and they release that CO2 when they die, their rapid death on a vast scale contributes to global climate change.92 Also, the canopy of trees creates shade for the land beneath, and when that canopy is wiped out, our Earth heats up.
Disturbingly, when these forests disappear, they take with them innumerable plant and animal species often found nowhere else in the world. Rainforest researcher Leslie Taylor reports that:
- A single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than are found in all of Europe’s rivers.
- A 25 acre plot of rainforest in Borneo may contain over 700 species of tree – a number equal to the total tree diversity of North America.
- A single rainforest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than the entire United States.
- One single tree in Peru was found to harbour 43 different species of ants – a total that approximates the entire ant species of the British Isles.
- Less than one percent of the biodiversity of tropical rainforests has been studied for possible human uses.
- When tropical rainforests are lost, the number of plant, animal, and insect species lost with them is staggering – estimated at over 137 species every single day.93
These rainforests have been the pharmacies and foodstores of the world for thousands of years. What are we losing that we don’t even know we’re losing? What invaluable cures, delicious tastes (like chocolate, coffee, bananas, ginger, coconuts, avocados!), and intriguing insects will be destroyed before we even know of them? Currently, we take advantage of a large pharmacopeia of rainforest-based remedies, from the Madagascar periwinkle plant (used in treating childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease) to quinine from the bark of the chincona tree (effective against malaria) to annatto tree oil extract (used to protect skin from ultraviolet rays, and in insect repellents and blood pressure and diarrhea medications). When forests are bulldozed or burned, an undiscovered potential is crushed and burned along with the foliage.
Eating beef contributes directly to this destruction. Though the grocery stores or fast-food outlets may be thousands of miles from the verdant rainforests, we can draw a straight line from them to the scarred acres left behind when trees are cleared to grow cattle feed. The burger we buy comes at a much greater price than the money that exchanges hands over a counter.
We don’t understand the price the world is paying to eat meat. While visiting Ecuador in the mid-1980s, I met briefly with a scientist studying rainforest plants for possible medicinal uses. He worked in conjunction with the renowned Missouri Botanical Gardens, to whom he sent plant samples for study. This impressive scientist told me that he found a previously unknown plant – at least unknown to non-natives – about every three weeks. The staggering loss of potential goes hand in hand with the staggering loss of rainforests.
These facts are depressing enough, yet unfortunately only part of the story. The cascade of rainforest devastation rips through our biosphere like the falling trees themselves. When forests are gone and land is laid bare, the cycle of water absorption and release is disrupted. In a healthy canopy of trees, about three quarters of the rainfall returns to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration (leaf cells releasing water vapour). The returned water moves away, cools, and is converted to rain. But after deforestation, cleared land returns only about a quarter of the rainfall. This means much drier surrounding areas, and the circle of destruction widens.94
Other lands endure flooding. With plant life gone, the denuded earth can’t cope with heavy rains, triggering mudslides and floods. Excess water runs into the ocean instead of seeping through the soil to replenish aquifers we all depend upon.95
Most of this devastation is to clear land for cattle pastures and animal feed crops that won’t grow again after just a few years. Rainforest soil is quickly depleted. Where forests are lush, we think the soil must be incredibly fertile. It isn’t. Tropical soil by itself isn’t fertile; it has little organic matter and almost no ability to store nutrients. Instead, tropical nutrients are quickly cycled back into the sheer mass of living and decaying plant matter.96 Once that vegetation is gone, the land yields crops for only one to four years97 then becomes essentially barren. Expensive and potentially toxic fertilizers and pesticides can extend the productivity cycle, but eventually agribusinesses and farmers move on to kill another section of rainforest for pastures and crops to feed cattle to feed people.
If you’re eating, stop for a minute. We’re talking now about livestock farts, faeces, and belches. Not a pleasant subject, but one that’s a lot worse for the planet than it is for anyone munching a meal. The methane produced by these discharges is a major contributor to global climate change.
But how on earth does digestion and elimination in cattle contribute to climate change? Let’s back up a moment and explore what ‘global climate change’ means.
We’re talking about the big picture of shifting weather patterns around the world. In general, the Earth and its oceans are getting warmer, rainfall patterns are shifting, sea levels are rising, and storms of all kinds – snowstorms, cyclones, hurricanes – as well as floods are becoming more extreme. Some of us have felt the force of a record-breaking gale, or heard family elders describe how the weather was different when they were young. We’ve seen pictures of mountains no longer covered with snow year-round or island nations struggling with high tides that threaten their existence. We’ve seen footage of blizzards stranding whole sections of our country; perhaps we’ve experienced the changes ourselves. While our world has never stood still, the pace of alteration has accelerated from a slow crawl to a dangerous gallop.
Climatologists have been reliably keeping track of global temperatures since 1880, when instruments became available to record precise weather data. The sixteen hottest years on record have all been since 1998.98 2017 was expected to be even hotter than the previous record-breaking years.99
Why is the weather all around us changing so much?
The sixteen hottest years on record have all been since 1998.
The answer lies in understanding the phrase “greenhouse effect.” The sun constantly bombards us with radiation (including heat). The Earth would get really hot, really fast, except that some of that heat is sent back into space. If all the heat escaped, it’d get way too cold. We need a balance. Land, oceans, and greenhouse gases such as water vapour, methane, ozone, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides trap some of the escaping heat, keeping temperatures moderate. This is essential for plant and animal (including human) life to flourish. Without such heat retention, earth’s average surface temperature would be a freezing minus six degrees C (21 F) and not the current warm fifteen degrees C (59 F).100
But because the amounts of these heat-trapping gases have skyrocketed in the last hundred years, our atmosphere is getting warmer and warmer.101 Less heat can escape through the thickening cover of these gases, which means that more heat is reflected back to earth. It’s something like a man snuggled under a cosy quilt, feeling just right. His body heat has warmed the space around him. While some heat escapes through the quilt, most of it stays comfortably underneath. Adding more and more greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere is like throwing on another – and another – quilt. Then the man goes from just right to uncomfortably hot, because too much warmth is trapped under the quilts.
So where do these greenhouse gases come from, and what do any of them have to do with livestock, particularly cows?
Livestock activities contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined.
These gases come from many different sources – from simply breathing, from heating our homes, from driving vehicles, from using fertilisers in our gardens. All of these routine activities and many more create greenhouse gases. Remember, we need these gases to keep the planet from becoming too hot or too cold, so in the right amounts they are good for life.
Animals also contribute to greenhouse gases. They breathe, belch, fart and defecate, producing tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).
We’ve known for years that burning ‘fossil fuels’ (oil, gas, coal) for transportation and energy is heating up our planet. We’ve been urged, for environmental reasons, to get out of our cars and onto our feet or bikes and to use mass transit (bus or rail) whenever possible. This is important because transportation exhaust (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide) worldwide is responsible for thirteen per cent of all greenhouse gases.102
However, we’ve seldom heard that, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock activities contribute an estimated eighteen per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than all the planes, trains, trucks, automobiles, buses, and boats in the world combined!103
These shocking figures are created, in large part, by the process of converting animals into meat. Turning animals into food for humans requires, of course, the animals themselves – billions of animals used to feed billions of people. In addition, land is needed to shelter and feed them, fertilizers are heavily used on their food crops, those food crops often have to be transported to where the animals are, manure must be managed (or not), and the animals have to be shipped to market and then to slaughterhouses.
Each of these activities contributes to the greenhouse effect, especially the animals’ production of methane and nitrogen oxides, which are far more toxic for our atmosphere than the CO2 we’ve traditionally thought of as the most destructive greenhouse gas. In fact, nitrous oxide has “296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide” and it “stays in the atmosphere for 150 years!”104 Methane is eighty-six times more potent than CO2 in terms of global warming potential over a twenty-year period.105
And livestock pass a lot of methane. While methane is the by-product of many human-related and natural processes – for instance, the breakdown of plant materials in wetlands, landfills, and rice paddies – livestock are a major source of this gas.106 Cows produce approximately 250–500 litres (66–132 gallons) of methane per cow per day. With an estimated 1.5 billion cows in the world, the math becomes mind-boggling.
A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces about the same amount of waste as a city of 411,000 people. Worse, while human waste is often treated before discharge into water systems, animal waste is either minimally treated or untreated.107 Nitrous oxide is also produced in vast quantities by animal agriculture, by both the fertilizers used in growing animal feed and the manure and urine excreted by those animals. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations tells us that “livestock account for 65 percent” of nitrous oxide emissions created by human-centred activities (such as raising animals for humans to eat).108
With all these greenhouse gases spewing out and piling up, no wonder Earth is feeling the heat.
While creating more fuel-efficient gas, diesel, hybrid, or electric vehicles is good, we can reduce greenhouse gas production immediately by reducing our use of animals for food. We don’t have to wait for technologies, governments, economic policies, and industries to catch up. Eliminating meat from our diets results in a greater reduction of methane, a more urgent need than reducing the CO2 from our vehicles. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for at least a hundred years, but methane remains around twelve years (some sources say even less – eight to ten years).109 We can’t wait a century to start healing the planet. Choosing to be vegetarian means that each of us can quickly – perhaps within just one or two years, as numbers of livestock decrease – do our part to reduce harmful methane.110
We know that our choices have consequences, intended or not. When we examine global climate change, we understand how choosing to eat meat affects our soil, water, and air. Nearly everyone agrees that we must do something now to avert increasing environmental disasters. While nations discuss, dispute, and negotiate, we, as individuals, can act. We can choose not to support the meat industry – the single largest source of greenhouse gases.
I remember being a seven-year-old kid and going fishing. I’d dig for wiggly, gray worms, pick up a cane pole, grab an empty bucket, and stroll with my brother and sister down the dirt road in front of our house to see if the fish were biting. We’d plunk down onto the wooden bridge that crossed a small creek, dangle our feet over the side, and fold a worm in half to stick it good and firm onto a sharp hook. (Actually, that was a pretty gruesome business that I always tried to get my brother to do for me, but he generally told me not to be a sissy and wouldn’t help.) After letting the line drop gently into the water below us, we’d wait.
On a day we thought was lucky, that wait wouldn’t last long. A five or six inch perch would go after its meal and get a hook tangled up in its mouth. That was our cue to quickly jerk the line up and yank that fish onto the dry bridge, away from the water it so desperately needed to return to. The perch would bend itself into a bow shape, flopping first one end and then the other, lifting its small body off the boards, going through the desperate motions of dying. I’d ignore my own fluttering heart, grab it with two hands, and toss it into the bucket – usually squealing pretty loudly all the while.
After carrying our pail back home, the job of cleaning the catch had to be done. Slit, cut, clean – a grisly experience, and I was happy that my dad did it for me.
If we continue current fishing practices, some scientists say that we’ll have fishless oceans by 2048.
As repugnant as this memory seems to me now, at least one good thing can be said about our fishing trips: no matter how much we fished, the water still had fish left in it.
That may not be true by the year 2048.111 We can scarcely comprehend empty oceans – with whales, sharks, dolphins, seahorses, shrimp, clams, eels, jellyfish, algae, kelp, anemones, and soft coral disappearing, along with the other estimated 230,000 marine life species.112 Yet some scientists tell us it’s a fact we are facing if the fishing practices of today continue.
How did the situation get so dire? To understand that, we need to examine today’s fishing industry, whose interactions with fish “have come to resemble ... wars of extermination,” according to the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia. Industrial fishing is vastly different from a kid with a pole or a crew in a small boat with a net, and that difference has been devastating for sea creatures. When a single vessel has the ability to haul in fifty tons of ocean animals in a few minutes, the situation is absolutely unsustainable.113
Because the mid-levels of our oceans have been over-fished for decades, large scale fishing operations are more and more directed to the floor of the ocean – hence, “bottom trawling.” One of the methods of commercial fishing that causes both extensive environmental damage and ghastly pain to sea creatures is ‘beam trawling,’ the most destructive form of bottom trawling. Large, weighted nets – as much as 40 feet high and as wide as a rugby field – are dragged across seabeds, scraping up everything they encounter. In the drive to capture profitable fish, like hake or sole, these nets destroy many, many other species – such as coral, sponges, sea fans, kelp, anemones, mantas, eels, jellyfish, and deep-water sharks. Because this beam trawling happens out of sight – as much as 6,000 feet below the water’s surface – the devastation often goes unnoticed. However, one environmental organization has declared “if the same technique were used on land, it would be like dragging a vast net across the countryside – crushing trees, farms, and wildlife in the process – to catch a few cows.”114
The nets are shaped like huge bags whose mouths are kept open by heavy beams and whose sides are elevated by metal frames. These beam trawlers “smash and crush everything in their paths.”115 As they gather thousands of fish in a single sweep, the fish at the bottom of the net are crushed by the weight of those above them. When a full net is reeled upwards, the rapid changes in water pressure can cause trapped fish to suffer in several ways. Their swim bladders, used for buoyancy, may overinflate; stomachs and intestines may be pushed out of their mouths and anuses; eyes can squeeze out of their sockets. Those fish that arrive on a trawler’s deck still alive flap and struggle for minutes as their gills collapse and they begin to suffocate out of water. Fishermen continue the killing, which can be done using several different methods. Cutting off heads, tearing gill arches so that fish bleed to death, knocking them on the head, or electrical stunning are common ones. Species that aren’t intended for sale are thrown back into the water, mangled, dying, or dead.116
In fact, the majority of fish caught in these kinds of nets are unwanted by the fishing industry, which calls them ‘bycatch.’ The numbers of bycatch discarded are vastly greater than the numbers of creatures kept. The general public is completely unaware of this. We can wonder what the effect might be if sushi restaurants put a sign next to a roll of tuna sushi that said, “If this plate were to hold all the animals that died for this serving, it would need to be five feet long.” What if a family sitting down for dinner of trawled shrimp from Indonesia saw a label that let them know the truth – that “twenty six pounds of other sea animals were killed and tossed back into the ocean for every one pound of this shrimp?”117 Or imagine someone sipping sharkfin soup from a porcelain bowl, and wonder how that person would feel if he knew that 90% of what were once vast numbers of large predatory fish are now gone.118 These are the appalling percentages, the enormous wastes – part of the true cost of industrial fishing.
But what about fish farms, where a specific type of fish is raised for harvest without the problem of bycatch? Farm fishing, or ‘aquaculture’, where fish live in enclosures and are fed by ‘farmers’ rather than foraging for their food, is becoming more and more common. Would eating these cultivated fish ease our concerns about the suffering of netted sea creatures and the disappearance of species? Is a person scoring points for the environment if she wanders in a fish market, eyes the shiny wares laid out on thick ice, and looks for labels indicating a fish was farmed, rather than wild?
Let’s look at the environmental issues around raising and eating fish grown in pens rather than caught in open waters.
The two most common types of fish farms are 1) self-contained pens set up on land or 2) open-net pens anchored offshore with marine waters flowing freely in and out. Both types are replete with environmental problems. Growing large numbers of sea creatures crammed into a relatively small space comes with its own set of issues. These include antibiotics and fish faeces filtering through nets into open waters, sea lice from penned salmon infecting wild salmon, the extermination of natural predators like seals and sea lions that are attracted to open-net pens, and the fact that marine animals such as porpoises and dolphins get caught in the nets and are subsequently shot by aquafarmers.119 Additionally, fish that escape open-net systems can breed with wild fish and compete with them for food. Salmon and trout bred in captivity are genetically weaker than wild fish, causing concern among scientists, fishermen, and Native Peoples that escaped fish can introduce negative genetic traits and damage wild fish.
Fish that are raised in pens suffer some of the same inhumane conditions that crowded factory farm animals endure. They are crammed into small enclosures. These close quarters almost inevitably lead to about a third of the fish dying from disease. Living with the stress of such confinement, many fish respond by biting others, dismembering fins and tails. Creatures that under natural conditions have wide areas of oceans or rivers to navigate, who would perhaps migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles every year, can be given an area equivalent in size to a bathtub. In pens, they swim endlessly in circles and have been compared to captured zoo or circus animals pacing up and down their cages.120
How can we endure being a part of this? Without consumers craving the taste of these animals, the near annihilation of sea creatures could stop. Think of the beauty of all these species living without the massive human interference now involved in capturing them to eat. Of course, we aren’t naïve enough to think that all problems for marine animals, such as pollution or habitat loss, would disappear if people stopped eating them, but wouldn’t just letting them live be a great start?
An alternative: vegetarian, organic, and unprocessed
If we stroll the sidewalks of any city in the world, hurry through any airport, plunk ourselves down in any sports arena, wander in almost any food market – in other words, participate in modern life – we are surrounded by a culture of meat, by people who delight in talking about, cooking, and consuming dead creatures. Many of these people have heard of vegetarianism but have never even considered such a radical break with the habits and traditions of their cultures. Conversely, perhaps they’ve grown up vegetarian but are now wondering if the customs they were taught while young are relevant to life outside their family circle.
How are we to live? This ageless question still begs for an answer. And we all do answer it, whether consciously or not.
One conscious answer is that we respond to the suffering of fellow creatures with empathy and determine not to eat them. We respond to the devastation of our environment caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides and attempt to eat organically grown food. We nurture our own health and wellbeing and eat whole grain, unprocessed foods as often as possible. Health advocates and nutrition experts uniformly agree that foods with long lists of added ingredients – often unpronounceable chemicals, saturated oils and sugar – don’t have the same nutritional value as basic foods cooked with natural ingredients. With our food choices, we can create a life that benefits our health and expresses our values, a deeply satisfying life built on compassion. Then we can add gratitude, appreciating the fact that we have the urge, the ability, and the circumstances that allow us to live as vegetarians.
This is no small gift. We have found a way through the labyrinth of a world that tells us in a multitude of ways that killing animals for food is the essential order of life, that animals feel little or no pain, or that the pain they feel doesn’t matter. Through education and awareness, we have come to understand the ways in which vegetarian, organic, natural foods are good for our bodies and our Earth. We have many reasons to declare, shout, state, or murmur, “thank you.”