Species rights, environmentalism, and our human ecology are entering a new era. We are connecting the dots between the necessities of a vegan new human ecology (see www.greenvegans dot org) and problems that include human overpopulation, environmentalism, destructive economic systems, the plight of the poor, species rights, and social and economic justice. What follows are sixteen installments from “This Is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology” / How we find our way to a humane and environmentally sane future. Each installment will be posted at www.thisishopethebook.com. Though “This Is Hope” covers many subject areas using 730 citations, these modified excerpts focus on Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and the damage it has done to our understanding of ecosystems and the food choices needed to protect them.
More than 70 percent of the Mississippi basin’s botanical agriculture yield, most being corn and soybeans, is grown to feed livestock. It has destroyed 99 percent of the original prairie ecosystem. This watershed area extends from Montana to Minnesota to Ohio and Louisiana. Soil, livestock sewage, and manufactured fertilizer are transported off this land by rain, wind, and melting snow. Contaminants flow from stream to river to ocean from mile after square mile of corn and soybean fields and large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This pollution and eroded soil are transported down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, this excess nitrogen fertilizer and animal waste fuels explosions of plant life.
Eventually, algae growth explodes and along with other organisms die in massive numbers before sinking to the sea floor in the Gulf. As this organic matter decomposes, it depletes oxygen in the water. Bottom-dwelling fish and individuals from countless other species suffocate and a dead zone is created. Little if any life escapes death. This year, the dead zone is forecast to be the size of New Jersey.
Simon Dinner writes in the periodical “Global Environmental Change” that the dead-zone-producing nitrogen fertilizer flowing to the Gulf of Mexico would be cut by over half if humans adopted a vegan diet. He concluded that the dead zone in the Gulf would disappear. Imagine if we could test his conclusion and watch how much the land, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico would respond to our vegan human ecology. Certainly, the damage would be substantially reduced.
Earth is pockmarked with more than 400 oceanic dead zones of our doing. They affect 245,000 square kilometers and double in number every 10 years because of human activities usually related to agriculture. In 2006, a dead zone formed to cover 1,200 square miles of ocean off the coast of Oregon where 80 percent of the water column was affected. The seafloor was carpeted with dead fish and invertebrates. This is one of the few documented instances where a dead zone occurs naturally and cyclically.
But naturally does not take into account an important detail: Climate change is altering weather and wind patterns that strongly influence the strength and direction of oceanic currents. A change in the currents that bring oxygenated water into potential dead zones can be disastrous to marine life. Those currents also mix warm water at the surface with cold water upwelling from the depths and bring the appropriate nutrients for marine species. The distribution of temperature influences not only the amount of oxygen but also which species are present and the ratio of species to others of the entire food web.
This is just one way animal agriculture impacts ecosystems and the viability of our future. First, agricultural runoff creates dead zones that harm ecosystems. Second, animal agriculture’s greenhouse gasses (GHGs) add significantly (26 to 51%) to global warming. Global warming alters the wind and water currents that normally bring oxygenated water into dead zones. The same GHGs emitted from animal agriculture that warm the atmosphere melts glaciers and Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. This melted water is fresh, not salty. The added freshwater alters the ocean’s salinity, especially near shore. Because freshwater is less dense than saltwater, it lies on top. This increased layering of ocean water, combined with changes in weather and wind patterns, may further affect major oceanic currents.
Since these currents distribute cooler and warmer waters around the globe, they influence weather patterns that impact the yields of food crops. This cycle of destruction started in the agricultural fields and returns there. Animal agriculture is responsible because most of the world’s plant crops are fed to farmed individuals from other species. Animal agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global agricultural land used. Livestock graze 22 to 26 percent of Earth’s ice-free surface.
GHG-spewing hamburger-eating carnists (the people and culture behind the eating of animals, a term coined by Melanie Joy, author of “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows” are changing oceanic currents and weather patterns a hemisphere away. They determine crop yields, grain prices, and the prevalence of hunger. With dead, climate-ravaged soil, it will do little good to own or till land that is dry, hard-baked pan. From oil to meat to cars, a growing segment of humanity is enriched while ecosystem health and biodiversity declines. More and more of us gorge ourselves in midst of insufferable poverty where at least 48 percent of humanity lives on less than two dollars per day.
The neo-omnivore movement is proposing a wholly unsatisfactory and unworkable response to these issues. They deny the extent to which we must change our behavior and foolishly cling to the current human ecology that idolizes meat. They deserve special consideration. Next: Michael Pollan’s book, “Omnivore’s Dilemma”.