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Ecology, Farming Practices

Veganism and the Environment

Cows Grazing by Mt. TaranakiThere are many reasons for choosing the vegan way of life: Ethical, spiritual, environmental, and physical. My own motivations are a combination of the above, but one aspect that I would like to focus on here is the environmental consequences of meat and dairy production.

Many commentators (indeed, many of my vegan friends!) consider this to be a secondary consideration. They believe that it is the suffering of the animals concerned that must take primacy. Perhaps this is the purists’ dislike of anthropocentric considerations slipping in to what ‘should’ be a movement for the rights of animals. Perhaps it is a form of ‘green fatigue’ brought on by the recent trend to frame any lecture or article – on any subject and however strained – in terms of ‘climate change’.

In any event, this is indicative of the moral issue specialisation that is prevalent particularly in universities, but also in public discourse generally.   Each specialist sees their particular discipline or specialty area as a panacea for all the world’s ills, or at the very least the most urgent concern of our times. This is perhaps a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that this leads to some interesting paradoxes: ‘environmentalists’ who eat meat and wear leather, animal rights activists who consider environmentalists to be criminally unconcerned with their animal relatives, vegans who say that ecological approaches are a ‘waste of time’. I have even met people who are undoubtedly committed to the defence of animal rights yet display the bitterest antipathy towards their fellow humans, even to the extent of advocating physical violence towards them. I leave it to you to consider the attendant irony.

It is my view that in a larger sense, animal rights, environmental, and ecological issues are all interrelated and all have a common denominator – the schizophrenic and destructive relationship between humans and non-human nature. We are all fighting a common lack of concern for that which lies outside of what dominates public and political discourse as the ultimate aim of human endeavour. That aim is the growth of Gross Domestic Product.

The industrial farming of animals for meat, wool, and dairy production are cornerstones of the New Zealand economy. For this reason, public discussion – when it does take place – of the environmental destructiveness of these industries is conducted in rather hushed tones. The suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of living, thinking animals each year in New Zealand is presented as an inevitable and necessary by-product of the continued functioning of the national economy. A well-funded, highly motivated, and influential farming lobby have had no small part in directing media discussion. A prime example of this is the public treatment of the infamous ‘fart tax’ that was proposed by the Government in 2003 (an attempt to put some price on the large amounts of methane gas New Zealand’s livestock produce, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Of course, ‘fart tax’ is a total misnomer, as the methane emitted by ruminants actually comes from the other end of the animal – as the most elementary fact-checking on the part of reporters would have revealed – making the measure more accurately a ‘burp levy’. Nevertheless, the name stuck and the measure continues to be treated as something of a political joke.

Another source of concern is the degradation of our waterways from agricultural fertilisers, stock manure and urine, and the effluent flushed into rivers and streams by dairy processing plants. Agricultural pasture makes up almost 40 percent of New Zealand’s total land area and occupies about four times the area of planted forestry and all other modified types of land cover combined. In recent years, the move away from low-intensity to high-intensity land use such as converting from sheep farming to dairy or deer farming has increased the amount of pollutants released into already heavily compromised water bodies.

Visitors to New Zealand are often struck by the odd terraced appearance of many of our rural hillsides. This is a result of the ongoing erosion of fragile, deforested land.  Much of that deforestation is a result of native bush being cleared for grazing pasture. It is certainly not helped by large, cloven-hooved animals clambering up steep hillsides.

We are generally insulated from these realities and it can be hard to make the connection between the use and abuse of living, breathing, sentient animals and the broader consequences when we walk past acres of scrupulously cleaned, brightly-lit refrigeration cabinets containing polystyrene and plastic wrapped portions of bloodless meat. Yet, a staggering 65 percent of the energy consumed by supermarkets in New Zealand is for refrigeration, almost all of that is for the refrigerated storage of meat and dairy products.

The choices we make now affect us not only in the present but for generations to come. Next time you are out shopping, consider that not using plastic bags may make marginal differences in our shared environment but if you really want to make a significant change, take a closer look at your shopping list.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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