Activist discusses role of veganism in combating climate change
Ed Winters spoke on a panel about the ways plant-based lifestyles and farming can tackle the climate crisis.
As climate change becomes an increasingly urgent issue, climate-friendly lifestyle choices are gaining popularity. On April 6, the Center for German and European Studies hosted “Could Veganism Cool the Planet? A Conversation with Vegan Activist ‘Earthling Ed,’ Ed Winters.” Ed Winters is the co-founder and co-director of Surge, an animal rights non-profit organization. Following his introduction, Winters discussed the role of veganism in the climate movement with the founder of 350PDX, Adriana Voss-Andreae, Surge Project Manager Tatiana von Rheinbaben and 18-year-old climate and animal rights advocate Juliana Voss-Andreae. The event was moderated by Prof. Sabine von Mering (GRALL).
“When we talk about agriculture and we talk about food, we’re talking about one of the most important aspects in the climate crisis debate,” Winters said. Referring to an Oxford University report on global food emissions, he shared that by the end of the century, the agricultural sector alone will produce enough emissions to surpass the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Winters added that the animal farming industry is one of the largest contributors to global emissions, and scientists currently attribute 14.5-15% of all emissions to the industry. Though this contribution may seem insignificant, Winters compared it to the combined exhaust coming from transportation, which is 14% of global emissions, to provide context.
The animal farming industry has an impact on more than just emissions — “Going vegan is the single biggest way to reduce our impact on the planet,” Winters said, quoting Joseph Poore. Poore is the head researcher of a study titled “Reducing Food’s Environmental Impact through Producers and Consumers.” The study, which looks at the relationship between farming and the environment, has a specific focus on land usage. Winters referenced this work, noting that while roughly 83% of agricultural land is used for animal farming, only 18% of caloric intake comes from animal products. “What we have is a situation where a huge amount of land is being given to an industry that doesn’t provide us anywhere near as much as it needs to be considered an efficient and sustainable use of land.” In the United States, while beef production takes up half of the available agricultural land, it is only 3% of the population’s caloric intake, added Winters. Even the lowest impact beef results in six times more emissions and 36 times more land than plant-based proteins, Winters said in reference to a 2019 Harvard study.
On a global scale, switching to a plant based diet would free up an area of land the size of Australia, China, the European Union and the United States combined. Restoring the land dedicated to animal agriculture would also allow us to create carbon sinks to sequester about 8.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent on a yearly basis for 100 years, according to Winters.
“So, if you can diet to a vegan lifestyle, it can create a really fantastic opportunity for us to not only eliminate one of the biggest contributors of emissions but also create a solution for sequestering another 15% of emissions,” Winters said.
In response to Winters, Adriana Voss-Andreae shared her view of the climate crisis in relation to veganism. The climate crisis is a product of neoliberalism and imperialism, Voss-Andreae explained, and is deeply rooted in racism, individualism and speciesism. In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer elaborates on the concept of speciesism, a term that explains certain animals' lives being prioritized over others.
Voss-Andreae acknowledged that despite the rise of climate-related rhetoric coming from politicians, there is still a sense of defensiveness, even from leaders within climate movements, towards veganism. She hypothesized that much of this reluctance comes from people’s intimate connections to food, culture and traditions. In trying to understand this hesitation to incorporate veganism into the climate justice movement, Voss-Andreae asked Winters how humility and inclusivity can be built into the movement.
In the past, “You could kind of stereotype the person who was an environmentalist who had this idea of being this hippie wearing hemp,” Winters responded. Now, many people in the movement are genuinely invested in the well-being of animals and the future for their children. As veganism becomes normalized in society, it will also become normalized in politics, Winters said.
He added that this reluctance can stem from the fact that individual change often feels overwhelming. However, this does not exclude people, particularly affluent and semi-affluent people living in the Global North, from taking personal responsibility for the climate crisis. Winters explained the difficult position many leaders are in, on one hand seeking to be inclusive, and on the other hand demanding accountability.
Voss-Andreae zeroed in on this dynamic, acknowledging that even vegans contribute to exploitative systems. Many are frustrated with the hypocrisy of vegans who themselves are not perfect, but bear what many describe as a “vegan-er than thou” attitude. “What are your thoughts on these types of moral equivalency arguments and how do you address them?” she asked Winters.
Winters explained that environmentalists and vegans often lose credibility due to an appeal to futility. Once someone has been exposed as a hypocrite, the people opposing their argument feel a lessened responsibility to act. In this case, people feel less inclined to become vegan. Winters acknowledged that appealing to perfection is an unrealistic standard, but encouraged vegans to question the full scope of their impact on the world. “When we talk about veganism, we’re not talking about buying plants... Veganism is about a mentality. It’s about exploring our relationship and our understanding with the wider world,” Winters said.
Veganism is not just about non-human exploitation, it’s also about human exploitation, Winters said. One way to ensure that people are supported is through subsidies to help farmers transition into plant-based farming. With these subsidies, Winters explained that farmers could be publicly funded land managers and work to restore the natural world. In addition to subsidies for farmers, investments in technology like vertical farming and cell-cultured meat could help make plant-based options more accessible and affordable. Winters explained that some of the merits of vertical farming are that it increases the yield of crops, requires little space and is always organic.
From the perspective of a student, Juliana Voss-Andreae acknowledged the upsurge of veganism among young people and asked how students can make an impact.
Winters stressed the importance of building community and incorporating vegan advocacy into everyday life. When living with the time constraints of school or work, initiating conversations on a small scale is often the most realistic option.