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London based Vegan burger company Biffs Kitchen handing out samples of their pulled jackfruit burgers during Plant Powered Expo 2020 at Olympia London on February 2, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

London based Vegan burger company Biffs Kitchen handing out samples of their pulled jackfruit burgers during Plant Powered Expo 2020 at Olympia London on February 2, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Getty Images)

The Plant-Based Diet That Our Planet Urgently Needs

The gulf between what people say they understand is necessary and what their actions continue to prove otherwise is alarming. It is nowhere more evident than their dietary choices.

Simon Whalley

As Covid-19 continues its spread around the world, with 8,993,659 confirmed cases and 469,587 deaths, the vast majority of the population is taking the advice of scientists deadly seriously. Of course, as with everything nowadays, there is a minority of tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists who believe all these deaths are being faked and that Bill Gates and all the world’s scientists are in a giant global conspiracy to kill us all.

The majority of the global population fortunately are still preserving their sanity and continuing to follow the advice of the experts our taxes pay for. Unfortunately, following the advice of scientific experts in their fields seems to be limited to a problem that is threatening our lives in the current moment. When it comes to problems that are not life threatening this week or perhaps next, the majority of humanity is still acting in willful ignorance.

When it comes to the much larger and existential threat posed by the climate crisis and the annihilation of biodiversity, the experts, who are doing their best to warn us of the impending dangers, are being ignored as they have been for the past thirty years. Even those who would categorize themselves as liberals are continuing to bury their heads in the sand.

The gulf between what people say they understand is necessary and what their actions continue to prove otherwise is alarming. It is nowhere more evident than their dietary choices.

As people mock Trump supporters and others who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing, these same people resolutely refuse to change their diets, even in the face of the biggest threats ever to face our species.

The number of reports being published, warning us that our diets are not only threatening the spread of Covid-19 and other zoonotic diseases, but largely responsible for the climate emergency and also the sixth extinction that is unfolding all around us, grows by the day. But, as people mock Trump supporters and others who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing, these same people resolutely refuse to change their diets, even in the face of the biggest threats ever to face our species.

Virus researchers are convinced that Covid-19 came from a wet market in Wuhan, China, even if the paranoid wearers of tin are convinced otherwise. The disease is continuing to spread due to the way we treat animals with slaughterhouse workers all around the world testing positive. In Wales, 100 out of 560 workers at a single plant have tested positive, while in Germany, where things were largely under control, 1,300 out of 7,000 employees at a single facility tested positive, forcing all employees and their families into quarantine. This led to the R number in Germany increasing from 1.79 to 2.88 in just 24 hours. In general terms, keeping animals in filthy cramped conditions, feeding them a concoction of antibiotics and growth hormones, and then slaughtering them in even dirtier slaughter houses is a recipe for creating a new disease.

With 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases being zoonotic, meaning they are passed from animal to human, the impetus to change our diets should be clear to everyone. Scientists continue to warn us that humanities’ destruction of nature is responsible for diseases such as Covid-19. As the population continues to expand, and we continue to clear wild habitat to feed ourselves, we are coming into more and more contact with wild animal populations, putting them and us at risk.

This brings us back to our diets. Eating a diet high in animal protein requires vastly more land than a plant-based diet. Producing 1kg of beef, for example, uses 163 times more land than producing rice, beans or potatoes. To put things into stark context, 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon is being used to graze cattle and most of the rest is being used to grow soy beans for animals living in the perfect breeding ground for new epidemics, factory farms. In total, around 80% of available arable land is used for livestock farming, yet animal products provide less than 20% of our calories. As much as we try to ignore the voices of the experts, it is getting increasingly difficult. You have to drive your head further and further into the sand with each and every passing day. But, that is what people continue to do. Even those who consider themselves to be open minded liberals. They are anything but when it comes to their dietary choices.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that 60% of all wildlife lost is due to our meat centric diets, and the United Nations predict that meat consumption will double by 2050. How will nature cope with this demand?

It isn’t only land use that is affected by our decision to eat animals. Around a third of all freshwater is given to livestock around the world. This, at a time when aquifers and rivers are beginning to run dry, and one in three humans doesn’t have access to safe drinking water.

In their groundbreaking book, Project Drawdown, which focusses on the 100 best solutions to the climate catastrophe, three of the top five solutions are related to food, and all can be related to eating animals.

The climate crisis is also being driven in large part by our addiction to cheap meat. The U.N. states that 18% of all greenhouse gasses are caused by animal agriculture while World Watch reported in 2009 that this figure was inaccurate, and a better estimate is 51%. Whatever this figure actually is, it is likely somewhere in between, and how do we suppose to meet our targets of zero carbon by 2050 with meat consumption projected to double?

These are all questions that we need to honestly address. In their groundbreaking book, Project Drawdown, which focusses on the 100 best solutions to the climate catastrophe, three of the top five solutions are related to food, and all can be related to eating animals. They are reducing food waste, eating more plants and less meat, and restoring tropical forests.

It is impossible to eliminate all food waste, but we could make a start by eating the food that we feed to animals directly. For every kilogram of chicken flesh we consume, we have wasted between 2-5kg of edible food. When it comes to pig flesh, that rises to between 4-9kg and for cows it rises to a staggering 6-25kg of feed. This is hugely inefficient and completely unsustainable. Likewise, the only way we will be able to restore deforested land is by moving to plant-based diets which require significantly less inputs like land, water and fertilizer.

People like to say that eating animals is their right. Granted, this is a fact, just like each of us has the right to walk down the street and perpetuate violence on another person. Any of us could do this right now. Of course, there is likely to be a consequence, probably a police record or jail time. The same is true of eating animals. Yes, it is our right to choose, but this decision doesn’t come without consequences. The consequences are continued lockdown, planetary warming, water depletion, mass starvation and the sixth extinction.

When looking at the consequences, a healthy plant-based diet doesn’t seem such a bad choice to make.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

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