BY: ALEX BROWN
In 2014, filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn released Cowspiracy, a controversial documentary exploring one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions: animal agriculture. The narrative drove home a widespread apprehension to confront the issue. Many preferred to push blame onto oil companies and corporations. Others seemed tied up economically (in 2012, animal agriculture represented $346 billion dollars of total output in the U.S. economy). To many, despite the evidence, the documentary seemed just as conspiracist as the tittle suggested. But a recent study from the Oxford Martin School suggests that animal agriculture—driven by a culturally meat-centred diet—is in fact a leading cause of climate change.
The study, lead by Dr Marco Springmann, concludes that embracing vegetarianism on a wide scale could cut “food-related greenhouse gas emissions” by up to 70%. According to the Guardian, greenhouse gas emissions “related to agriculture and food production are likely to account for about half of the world’s available ‘carbon budget’,” meaning the volume of emissions we can release without inducing catastrophic warming. These numbers represent a terrifying truth for a multitude of environmentally concerned North Americans and activists: the power is in the hands of the individual.
Some of the main reasons that animal agriculture is responsible for such a significant portion of emissions and environmental degradation is due to animal-produced methane, re-routed water sources and agriculture used to raise livestock, which could be repurposed for human consumption. This is compounded by the greenhouse gas released by slaughterhouses and other factories used to process meat.
If Springmann’s research is correct, it means that preventing climate change from reaching a level of global catastrophe is primarily the responsibility of the individual to re-assess their diet. It may be more satisfying, and much easier, to blame corporations and protest oil companies—which, granted, they deserve—but it is decidedly more effective to embrace social change on the level of the individual by tweaking the culture of our national diet. Aside from reducing the impacts of climate change, Springmann poses a number of intriguing benefits to the plant-based diet.
Springmann’s study also investigates the health benefits of embracing a plant-based diet, asserting that over five million premature deaths could be quelled by 2050 if a more wholesome diet is embraced. Widespread adoption of vegetarianism could tack an additional two million on to that number. Also, according to Springmann and his team, embracing plant based diets could “reduce global mortality by 6-10%.”
More than just environmental and health benefits, the study concludes that the economic benefits of switching to a plant-based diet could result in an increase of “1-31 trillion US dollars, which is equivalent to 0.4-13% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2050.” Springmann also contends that healthcare costs could be slashed by 1 billion dollars by 2050 by embracing his proposed diet.
Despite the stark impacts of animal agriculture, the prospect of America—a culture deeply invested in gastronomically wasteful and meat-centred food—making an immediate switch seems grim. To make a dent in carbon emissions, change must occur on a fundamentally individual level. It seems a bleak prospect for a nation of keyboard warriors and a generation often cited for proponents of “slacktivism.” If America has any hope for making a radical and widespread switch to a plant-based diet, it will likely rely on the ability to make vegetarianism cool.