Book Review: Eat for the Planet
Books and films promoting veganism typically advance three main arguments: animal welfare, human health, and the environment. Eat for the Planet, co-authored by Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone, deals almost exclusively with the latter.
The book’s message is simple: our dependence on industrial animal agriculture is destroying the planet and endangering the survival of that one species to which we are all so particularly attached—human beings. As the authors write, “We may be feeding ourselves, but we are also feeding our extinction.”
Laid out in a succinct, almost booklet-like fashion, the book outlines the various ways in which animl agriculture is driving the natural world to the brink. Though the authors often use friendly, full-page graphics to make the statistics-heavy material more accessible (in one instance the book features a poop-filled Empire State Building), there is no escaping the subject’s direness.
The first issue is land.
It turns out keeping 20 billion animals in agricultural bondage takes a great deal of space—45 percent of the planet’s land surface, according to the authors (other estimates, though lower, are still significant). Much of that is for crops used in animal feed.
It’s an inefficient system. For example, one acre of land can, when all factors are considered, produce an estimated 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 40,000 pounds of potatoes, or 30,000 pounds of carrots. Or it can produce 250 pounds of beef. With the human population expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, such ratios become important.
Another issue is fresh water. Put simply, there isn’t enough of it, and animal agriculture needs a lot of what we have. When factoring in water for feed, it takes an estimated 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 576 gallons for pork, and 468 for chicken. By contrast, a pound of potatoes needs only 119 gallons.
Dairy cows are even thirstier. When including feed, drinking water, and water for sanitation, you need an estimated 2,000 gallons of water to produce just one gallon of milk. Added together, the average meat-and-dairy-consuming person’s water footprint amounts to 4,200 gallons per day. It’s unsustainable. At our current rate, according to one United Nations report, 75 percent of the world’s population will be confronting water scarcity by 2050.
Then there’s climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) pegs livestock production’s portion of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions at 14.5 percent, with other estimates ranging up to 51 percent. Those emissions come from the animals themselves, from farming practices that rely on intensive petrochemical use in artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and from transportation. In total, calorie for calorie, animal protein production is about 10 times as fossil-fuel intensive as plant protein production.
Compounding the problem is widespread deforestation to create room for livestock and the farms needed to sustain them. The most egregious example is the Amazon rainforest, where 80 percent of deforestation is due to cattle ranching. So even as greenhouse gas-belching factory farms increase their sprawl, they demolish the forests that might capture and store those very same emissions.
Eat for the Planet is packed with such grim, useful information, and anyone interested in a quick primer on all the ways in which industrial animal agriculture is decimating the planet would be well-served to pick it up. Beyond the issues already mentioned, the book also describes the calamitous role factory farming plays in species extinctions and air and water pollution.
On the other hand, as good as this book might be for bolstering the arguments of a committed or even wavering vegan, it might be less successful in convincing a skeptic. After laying out reams of data in favour of their arguments, the authors at times overindulge their inner dramatists, often projecting, without citation, a future plagued by “global war,” genocide, and other atrocities if we don’t change our ways. If that’s true, they need to show their work. Transparent appeals to fear are rarely convincing. And besides, the facts alone are bleak enough.
Review by Will Richter. Will is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to Fair Trade Magazine. He lives in Vancouver, BC.