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Every year as Earth Week approaches, I cringe in anticipation of the “go green” drivel that is sure to abound. If I’m not careful, I might thoughtlessly pick up one of the newspapers littering the seats on the bus and be bombarded with appeals to save the earth by buying an LED lightbulb, a low-flow showerhead or some other nifty green product that, in its use, would reduce my ecological footprint by approximately 0.00001 per cent.

With rabble’s Vegan Challenge, it’s refreshing to see the focus shift to a question with far greater consequence than the type of light bulbs we’re using or whether our sunscreen is biodegradable: whether or not we buy into the industrial meat industry.

Because the evidence clearly suggest that the large-scale, industrial production of meat, eggs and dairy is one of the worst contributors — if not the very worst — to just about every major environmental crisis you can think of. (Peter Singer provides a good overview here.)

Large-scale industrial plant agriculture is also destructive, of course. But because a large proportion of the crops grown worldwide become livestock feed, cutting meat, egg and dairy consumption is one way to cut back on monoculture soy and corn plantations too.

Some quibble with the environmentally based appeal for us to drop animal foods from our plate by arguing that, under some conditions, consuming animal foods creates a lower ecological footprint than eating plant foods.

They’re right. Locally hunted caribou meat is obviously a better option than flown-in tofu when you live in a remote northern community. My jar of peanut butter, factory-processed using peanuts grown nowhere near me, probably packs a heftier ecological footprint than the eggs that guy down the road obtains from his tiny backyard flock of compost-fed chickens. And so on.

But for most of us, these arguments don’t have much relevance within the context of a grocery store aisle. That’s where the vast majority of people in the (over)developed world obtain most of their food. And it is where, as a general rule of thumb, an overall shift towards plant foods makes the most ecological sense.

That’s not to say that everyone — or anyone, for that matter — needs to “be” vegan. The notion of veganism as a personal identity is not, in my opinion, very helpful. It sets up an all-or-nothing proposition where we must decide between vowing to keep any trace of animal food from ever touching our lips, or just throwing our hands in the air and walking away.

(It’s a bit silly. Can you imagine if someone told you that they’re a “recylcist,” which means they never, ever put something recyclable in the trash? Let’s say you usually recycle as well, but because last Tuesday you threw a piece of paper in the garbage bin at the bus stop, you’re not a recyclist anymore. You might as well get rid of your blue box, because who are you kidding? You failed, you’re a garbageist!)

Wouldn’t it be better for a large number of people to dramatically reduce their purchase of animal foods, than for a tiny minority of people to attain vegan perfection?

So instead of focusing on identity badges and strict rules governing every single morsel we put in our mouths, let’s keep our attention on the reason we’re doing this. The modern animal agriculture industry is trashing the planet. We need to keep talking about that and pushing for an overall shift away from supporting the industry. All year, not just for one week in April. Even if we occasionally eat cheese.

Lori Theresa Waller

Lori Theresa Waller

Lori Theresa Waller is rabble’s new labour beat reporter, a co-op position supported by the Canadian Auto Workers union. As a freelance writer, Lori has written about environmental and social justice...