Speciesism is prejudice


Green Left Weekly is committed to social justice and environmental sustainability, speaks out against capitalism, and sides with the marginalised and oppressed. But it is silent on the plight of the most oppressed group of all — non-human animals, notably those exploited by the animal agriculture industry.

The horrors perpetrated by intensive animal farming — hens de-beaked and crammed into tiny cages, broiler chickens rapidly fattened in crowded sheds and slaughtered at a few weeks of age, pregnant sows immobilised in steel crates — have been widely reported. Even where the welfare of animals is given some consideration, animal agriculture means incarceration, the suppression of natural behaviours and premature death.

These abuses are perpetrated systematically on billions of animals, but the vast majority of people continue to eat meat and dairy products, and wear leather shoes and wool clothing, seemingly unperturbed by what lies behind their consumer choices.

Such "speciesism" — the view that humans, by definition, are of greater moral worth than other species — is a well-entrenched prejudice. But it is as morally indefencible as racism or sexism, and potentially far more harmful.

The routinely exploited animals, cows, sheep, pigs and chickens are sentient beings with the capacity to experience pain and pleasure: they have the right not to be enslaved, abused and killed to satisfy human desires.

It is not enough to call for improvements in animals' welfare so that we can continue to exploit them with a clearer conscience. We must refuse to consume the products of the animal industries. It is a moral imperative for us to adopt a vegan diet and lifestyle.

Animal agriculture is charged with being one of the worst emitters of greenhouse gases. Producing protein from animals consumes significantly more fossil-fuel energy than the production of plant protein (more than 11 times as much, while being only 1.4 times more nutritious, according to a Cornell University study in 2003). It is responsible for CO2 emissions from the clearing of land for pasture and feed-crop cultivation, the transportation and processing of animals, and the refrigerated transport and storage of meat and dairy products. Of greatest concern are the significant emissions of methane from the digestive process in ruminants, and of methane and nitrous oxide (nearly 300 times as warming as CO2) from animal manure.

A recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Livestock's Long Shadow — Environmental Issues and Options, claims the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (measured in CO2 equivalent), a bigger proportion even than transport.

The FAO report also identifies a range of other major impacts, including the degradation and desertification of land through overgrazing and the destruction of marine ecosystems through phosphorus and nitrogen run-off.

Fresh water supplies, already under stress, are also seriously depleted and degraded by the industry. The Cornell study found it takes as much as 100 times more water to produce 1 kilogram of animal protein than to produce 1kg of grain protein. Supplies are further compromised through contamination of catchments with animal waste, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, and pesticides and fertilisers used on feed crops.

The ecological footprint of animal agriculture makes it an unsustainable method of producing food. Yet according to the FAO report, the production of meat and milk will be at double 1999-2001 levels by 2050, and already 33% of global arable land is used to produce feed for livestock. As more of the world's land and water resources are devoted to livestock production to feed the comparatively rich, less are available for crops to feed the poor.

The FAO report suggests increasing the efficiency of resource use, changing animals' diets to reduce methane emissions, recycling manure with bio-gas plants and introducing full cost pricing for water. Such measures are unlikely to make the industry sustainable. The most effective solution is a shift from animal- to plant-based agriculture and the widespread adoption of a plant-based diet. Anyone seriously concerned about the environmental health of the planet and the fair distribution of food resources has no choice but to be vegan.