Op-Ed: University must address animal agriculture

Sunday, September 17, 2017 - 5:17pm

This academic year, we have already witnessed two record-breaking hurricanes, a massive fire in California and devastating floods in South Asia. “Climate change” is the word on everyone’s lips. Here at the University of Michigan, we go to great efforts to ensure that we’re doing our part to combat climate change and promote a healthy earth. We are, after all, the Leaders and the Best. But why is it that when it comes to addressing the largest cause of global climate change, the University is just following the crowd? 

The largest cause of global climate change is, by the way, the animal food industry.

As a progressive, forward-thinking institution that prides itself on its environment and sustainability efforts, the University should be a societal leader when it comes to acknowledging and responding to the devastating relationship between animal foods and climate change. Instead, the University decidedly ignores the huge role animal food plays in perpetuating climate change.

Study after study points to animal agriculture not only as “bad for the environment,” but as the single biggest factor hurting the environment. Georgetown J.D. candidate Christopher Hyner wrote an excellent article, entitled “A Leading Cause of Everything,” for the Georgetown Environmental Law Review, in which he states that “animal agriculture is a leading cause of many major environmental problems we face globally and domestically—most importantly, climate change. … This means that animal agriculture must be a central element of our efforts to mitigate climate change.”

I encourage all of you to read Hyner’s article. But for those of you who will inevitably form your opinions without doing sufficient research, I will briefly touch on the grave implications of animal agriculture. In South America, cattle ranching is responsible for 75 percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. At least one-third of public lands in the contiguous United States is devoted to animal agriculture. Animal agriculture is also the number one consumer of fresh water in the U.S, according to Hyner's research.

Fifty-one percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock and their byproducts, and replacing livestock products with more sustainable alternatives would have more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions than replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. According to calculations made from Worldwatch Institute's research, even if we were to eliminate fossil fuels entirely, we would still reach our 565 gigaton CO2 emissions limit by 2030, just from the animal agriculture industry.

On a more positive note, cutting animal foods out of your diet would decrease your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions to one-seventh of what they were while eating meat. Even the United Nations has stated that “a global shift toward a vegan diet is vital to save the world from the worst impacts of climate change.”

Veganism is one of the most powerful tools we have for combatting climate change. Yet, from the University’s standpoint, it’s nothing but a personal dietary choice.

The U.S. government ignores the danger of animal foods because it has incomprehensible vested interest in the animal agriculture industry. Subsidies, legislation and regulation play a major role in our access to animal foods and are the only reason we can purchase them at such low prices, as is outlined by David Robinson Simon in his book “Meatonomics."

It hurts my heart to believe that the University would turn a blind eye to the disastrous implications of the animal food industry for those same reasons.

To the environment’s detriment, the University’s sustainability and climate change efforts don’t mention veganism at all. For example, the University expresses a desire to “pursue energy efficiency and fiscally-responsible energy sourcing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions toward long-term carbon neutrality.” To do this, it focuses on things like decreasing vehicle carbon output, even though a larger percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions is directly attributable to livestock production than is attributable to the entire transportation industry (according to United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization).

In another case, Planet Blue expresses a goal of purchasing more food from “local and sustainable sources,” but it fails to provide a comprehensive definition of “sustainable” other than stating the farming practices that it considers to be such. It would be helpful to understand how it determines if meat, eggs and dairy are sustainable; The New York Times notes that meat labeled as “sustainable” is often even worse for the environment. The word “vegan” is only mentioned in passing on the Planet Blue website and is never once mentioned on the website for the Graham Sustainability Institute.

The University has a unique position of power. If “reduced consumption of animal foods” was one of the school’s climate change goals, other institutions would likely follow suit. It could start a precedent of reducing climate change in the most effective way possible. The University truly has the opportunity to be the “Leader and the Best,” and yet, in what is arguably one of the most critical issues ever, it is settling for mediocrity.

Hannah Harshe is an LSA sophomore.