Beef has made a lot of headlines over the past year. First slaughterhouses really struggled during the early days of COVID—they had shutdowns, slaughtered massive numbers of animals, and saw terrible health outcomes for their workers. More recently, supply chain and rising cost concerns, ransomware attacks, being removed from recipes and increased competition from meat alternatives have been in the news.
It might seem as though change is afoot when it comes to meat consumption. But to me, this is misleading. It’s not even the animal-related conversation that I think we should be having.
Environmentalists should do more about animal welfare.
Given all the progress we’ve made building broad environmental coalitions and momentum on important goals, like net-zero, it seems to me that the wellbeing of animals should now be a bigger part of the environmental conversation.
More specifically, I think environmentalists should be more attentive to preventing unnecessary suffering by animals. We should do more to ensure that wild and captive animals experience a good quality of life and a humane death. Even if the environmentalist movement is not ready to make animal welfare a top priority, it can be much more sympathetic to the plight of animals.
Why should environmentalists focus on animal welfare?
It’s the morally correct thing to do. Let’s start with the obvious. Protecting animals aligns with environmental values. Animals are an integral component of the earth’s ecosystems that we are fighting to protect. That’s why we claim to care about all species and focus on endangered species and biodiversity. Further, we know that animals have feelings and experience pain. But many animals suffer terribly and unnecessarily at human hands. That should be intolerable.
It would address various and significant environmental risks. Bad animal welfare practices exacerbate the very climate, biodiversity, water, and environmental justice challenges we are actively trying to solve. It is self-defeating to allow these practices to continue unfettered.
Take, for example, the waterways in Iowa. Nitrogen pollution—flowing from Iowa’s factory farms to the Gulf of Mexico—has increased by about 50% over the last two decades, despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to deter it.
And what is causing this pollution? The vast majority comes from animals confined in factory farms and feedlots. This pollution not only contaminates Iowa’s water and causes great human health risks, but it also builds up in the Gulf to such an extent that there is an area called the “dead zone” where few living creatures can survive because the pollution has deprived the water of sufficient oxygen. It’s the size of New Jersey.
This is a problem that I don’t think environmentalists can ignore.
So why hasn’t animal welfare been a higher priority for environmentalists?
I can think of a few possible reasons (and I’d love to hear if you have others).
To some, it seems off strategy. To these people, the goal is clear: focus on the environment and the environment alone. Anything else is a distraction—even if it ultimately has a direct effect on the end result.
There is a reluctance to challenge the current practices of environmentalist supporters. Many environmentalists and supporters still have meat-oriented diets. Some of them also enjoy sport hunting and fishing. These are ingrained elements of our culture that can feel hard to change. And we’ve worked so hard to bring people into the environmental fold; the last thing we want to do is alienate anyone.
Related: There is a nervousness about upsetting the broad environmentalist coalition. The combined efforts of every part of the environmentalist movement have gotten us this far, but the network is still nascent. Adding new priorities runs the risk of fragmenting the delicate alliance.
There is a reluctance to challenge the business models of environmentalist supporters. There are important businesses providing invaluable support to the movement. These include industries that would be directly impacted by a focus on animal welfare, such as ranching, farming, and the food industry as a whole. We don‘t want to lose this support and engagement.
All of these are fair considerations. But they shouldn’t be a complete block to action. We’ve seen obstacles like this before and we know how to overcome them.
My recommended, no-regret next steps:
Explain. We need to do a better job clearly highlighting the links between inhumane animal practices and bad environmental outcomes. Get the discussion going. Build awareness. Be fully transparent. The truth shall set you free.
Support. We should enthusiastically support the plant-based food business. In addition to being loyal consumers, we can lobby for more R&D support from the government and to eliminate silly regulations that get in the way. We should also credit traditional business leaders, like Tyson, when they move to get on the right track. This is also a huge business opportunity for the United States! The plant-based meat industry is expected to be worth almost $15 billion in the next six years. It’s just the type of solution The Instigator likes: win-win-win.
Model. We may be reluctant in this case to tell other people what to do. But we can use our own practices as opportunities to model better behavior. We should serve only plant-based meals at environmental events. Or, if that is too big an ask, we should make the default meal selection one that is plant-based; meat can be the special diet request. Let’s make our practices consistent with our values and show everyone else it’s not as hard (and way more delicious) than they assume.
Improve. We should campaign against sport and trophy hunting. We may not be ready to eliminate all hunting practices, but we can certainly improve them. Take, for example, lead ammunition. We know that lead ammunition can harm scavenger animals, and pollute or even poison, meat eaten by humans. So why not champion safer alternatives?
Push. Change doesn’t happen without a little instigating. We have to push our ESG leaders to prioritize animal welfare, broadly defined. After all, it is striking that Nike maintains a favorable ESG score even while it kills kangaroos for soccer shoes!
Advocate. The Sustainable Development Goals should much more assertively acknowledge animal welfare as a global priority. Let’s advocate for its inclusion.
As some of you may know, I am a long-time vegan, even pre-dating my TNC days. If it were up to me personally, all of this would be a much higher and more urgently felt priority. But I am a pragmatist, and I recognize the delicate balance it takes to achieve any policy outcome. We need to first build greater awareness and start with what feels manageable.
The good news is, change can happen fast. We just have to make it happen. If we start with the measured steps I laid out above and accomplish them, we can ratchet up. I suspect we will be pleasantly surprised. The country just might be more ready for this change than we think.
Need more reasons to be concerned about animal welfare?
Mink farms can be COVID-19 super spreaders.
Meat and dairy account for about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Trophy hunting is on the wrong side of history.
Factory farms lead to significant environmental harm.
Testing drugs for humans on dogs usually makes no sense.
“Ag-gag laws” hide the cruelty of factory farms. It's usually not a good sign when you worry that your business practices will outrage citizens.
One More Thing
As I have noted in prior issues, specific books have had a significant impact on me. I read Dominion by Matthew Scully shortly after it was published in 2003. The book powerfully denounces all instances of animal cruelty. I stopped eating meat immediately after reading the book. Later I became a vegetarian and later still a vegan. I’ve never looked back. Scully’s background makes him an interesting advocate. He is very conservative—he served on President George W. Bush’s team, was an editor for The National Review, and is a devout Christian. The book is truly powerful—beautifully written, highly logical, riveting but not easy to read.