Never did I think that hope for the future of our planet would come from the world’s biggest fast-food villain. I know, it may seem like a stretch, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this apparently small step.
The negative effects of industrial farming and meat consumption are well-documented. For the individual, the health consequences are becoming undeniable. Processed red meat (such as hot dogs, sausages and yes, unfortunately, bacon) are now classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, in the same murderous company as tobacco and asbestos. Fresh or cooked red meat has been bumped up to a Group 2A carcinogen, with many studies linking it to increased rates of various deadly cancers.
In addition to these personal health concerns, widespread meat production leaves us with serious moral questions and devastating environmental consequences. This article by George Monibot at The Guardian is an informative and scathing take on factory farming, a compelling critique of the moral and practical failings of our practice of raising and killing and eating animals on a mass scale.
When we learn that approximately twice the amount of land is used for raising livestock as is used for growing food crops, yet that for “every 100 calories of human edible cereals fed to farm animals, just 17-30 calories enter the human food chain as milk or meat”, we begin to get a view of just how much our habit of meat consumption is absurdly wasteful. Especially when we consider how many of our fellow humans are still are left without food every day.
The ways in which we negatively transform our landscape and ecosystems to maintain this way of feeding ourselves is astounding. From habitat and biodiversity loss (90% of Amazon rainforest deforestation has been for meat production), to soil erosion (estimates predict running out of usable top-soil in 60 years), to pesticide toxicity and water pollution, we are literally disfiguring and poisoning our planet and ourselves, all just to continue having easy access to $2 cheeseburgers.
It’s not sustainable. And it’s not reasonable. We in the west have been raised in a new world of previously unknown plenty, taking what used to be a luxury (eating meat) and making it a supposedly cheap commodity. But it’s not cheap. There are countless hidden costs, from negative health effects and corporate subsidies that government budgets must assume, to insidious environmental externalities that are never included in the price tag we think we are paying.
This model was built in a time when we thought burning oil was harmless and the Earth was indestructible. But now we know differently. And if China or India or Africa move their populations towards this western standard of living and eating, then we will be in very serious trouble.
And that’s why the McDonald’s headline was good news. When a corporation of that size – one whose image and success was built on limitless cheap meat – decides it’s a good business decision to replace a meat product with a vegan one, it shows that the numbers make sense. It means that there are enough consumers asking for something else, enough of the population moving away from meat for all the moral and practical reasons mentioned above.
According to a report compiled by the Vegan Society, the number of UK residents now living on a plant-based diet has more than tripled since 2006. And according to a report from Global Data, the US has seen a 600% increase in people identifying as vegan.
This trend towards plant-based living, along signs that China is investing heavily in artificial, lab-grown meat, is a positive sign that education and information is having real-world effects, changing people’s perspectives on what is available and acceptable and ethical.
The problems are still very serious and the stakes ultimately high, but through conversation and evolution we may be able to shift ways of thinking — and eating – and in turn, help heal our planet.
Jason Najum is a freelance writer and editor. Follow him @jasonnajum