Issues

The Worst Thing You’re Doing for Animal Rights and the Environment

Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Nathan Runkle is the founder and president of Mercy For Animals, a foundation that fights for humane treatment of animals. For two decades, Nathan has overseen the organization’s growth into a leading international force in the prevention of cruelty to farmed animals and promotion of compassionate food choices and policies. Here, he demonstrates why we should all care about animal rights.

Most of us care about animal welfare. Whether we empathize most with dogs and cats in shelters, endangered wildlife, or orcas in captivity, the vast majority of us agree that animals matter and animal cruelty is wrong. In fact, a 2015 Gallup study found that a third of Americans believe animals should be given the same rights as people.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that most animal cruelty in America is legal – and that most of us pay for it at least three times a day. The truth is that the factory farming industry now raises and slaughters more than nine billion land animals per year in the U.S. alone. That’s more animals killed every year in America than there are humans on the planet.

The Animal Welfare Act, the main federal animal welfare law, doesn’t provide an ounce of protection for animals raised and killed for food. As a result, factory farmers can legally snap birds’ fragile legs into moving shackles, drag their heads through electrified water, and slit their throats while the animals are conscious. They can castrate pigs without anesthesia, and at most farms, slam piglets’ heads against the floor as the standard method for killing “runts” – all with impunity.

Systematic torture, in the form of overcrowded sheds and isolating cages and crates, is also all too common. The worst are battery cages for egg-laying hens, veal crates for baby cows, and gestation and farrowing crates for mother pigs. Trapped in such confinement systems, animals raised for food are deprived of natural conditions and behaviors, and many can’t even turn around or spread their limbs for nearly their entire lives.

If all that animal cruelty doesn’t make you lose your lunch, consider this: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the livestock sector is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide pollution and the single largest source of potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. Translation: Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change. We can screw in all the squiggly light bulbs we want and ride our bikes to work, but if we’re eating burgers for lunch, we’re doing more to harm the environment than if we switched from a Prius to a Hummer.

Animals release some greenhouse gases themselves, but the entire fossil-fuel-burning industry – complete with semi-trucks, extensive machinery, and factories – deserves the blame. The livestock sector is also among the most wasteful of Earth’s increasingly scarce water. These factors, plus the immense farmed-animal waste that pollutes community waterways and ecosystems surrounding them, endanger future human and nonhuman life alike.

Animal agriculture isn’t just polluting our world; it’s also polluting our bodies. Our country’s largest health crises are all linked to consumption of meat and other animal products. One in three people is obese, one in four will die of heart disease, and nearly forty percent of people will receive a cancer diagnosis. Science irrefutably shows that plant-based diets could prevent and even reverse most cases of these illnesses. In other words, the solution is right under our noses: on our plates.

Numerous studies from top universities and independent researchers have found that eating animal products promotes cancer in many forms. Vegetarians are about forty percent less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters, especially breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Eating animal products, which are high in cholesterol and saturated fat, also substantially raises the risk of heart disease. Forward-thinking doctors are prescribing a whole-food, plant-based diet to prevent and even cure our country’s biggest killer. A diet high in animal protein also raises risk of diabetes by twenty-two percent, while a plant-based diet significantly lowers the risk. I could go on and on about all the health benefits of a plant-based diet, but suffice it to say the research is clear: Animal products threaten our world’s well-being.

It may seem hyperbolic to suggest that a single practice – eating animals – is responsible for most animal cruelty, environmental degradation, and global public health threats. But we can’t deny the science. We know animals feel pain and suffer, we know the causes of climate change and pollution, and we know what’s ailing our own bodies.

The good news is that a major shift toward plant-based diets may be as close to a silver-bullet solution to many of the world’s biggest problems as there could be. By simply leaving animal products off our plates, we can prevent animal suffering, lighten our environmental footprint, and even lengthen our own lives. If enough of us made this shift, we could change the world.

Now all we need to do is trust that our own capacity for change is greater than we think.