Despite decades of working in the media in some capacity, many news items still shock me, but news that agriculture - particularly animal agriculture - is among the top three threats to Australia's environment, as outlined in the new State of the Environment report, is not one of them.
After all, it's common sense, right? When you clear millions of hectares of trees - which sequester carbon and house native marsupials - to make room for millions of grazing animals, who belch methane, require enormous amounts of water, and generate nitrogen-heavy manure, you're going to run into all kinds of biodiversity and emissions problems.
We didn't actually need the State of the Environment report to warn us that our appetite for animal flesh is ruining our home. Ever-worsening cycles of floods, bushfires, and droughts, coupled with steadily declining numbers of our unique native species, have served as the writing on the wall for decades, but it seems our meat-heavy diet has rendered us illiterate.
Over 340 million hectares of Australia's agricultural land (86.5 per cent) is used for grazing, feeding some 74 million sheep and 27 million cows.
Aside from the obvious impact this has on wild animals' habitats - leading to, among other things, the decimation of koala populations - breeding ruminant animals contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Methane, generated in the digestive tract of these animals, is up to 80 times more effective at heating the Earth than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years after being emitted.
Australia's farmed ruminant animals, a 2021 study found, contribute "30 per cent of the methane released into the Earth's atmosphere [by the country] each day ... [m]ore than any other single methane source".
In other words, you can't smugly drive a Tesla through a McDonald's drive-through to pick up a beef burger, because farmed livestock emissions are roughly equivalent to the combined exhaust output of every form of transport on Earth.
And it's not just about emissions. Animal agriculture is water intensive, too, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of global freshwater use, and it pollutes waterways with run-off including manure, blood, and chemicals - destroying ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef.
It's been said that getting your nutrients from animal-derived products is like running your water through a dirty rag before drinking it.
But it's worse. Unlike dirty rags, animals are individuals, capable of feeling pain, joy, and fear.
They value their own lives and those of their loved ones. Of course, simply eating nutrient-dense plants ourselves makes more sense than feeding them to animals first, but the fact that animals are sentient adds a new level of absurdity to this practice.
We're not only adding millions of environmentally destructive middlemen but also being deeply cruel to them along the way.
A landmark study from the University of Oxford found that a global shift towards vegan eating could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds and save some 8 million human lives.
Another study, conducted in 2022, found that if everyone adopted a plant-based diet, we could reduce agricultural land use by 75 per cent.
Any way you look at it, moving to exclusively plant-based agriculture is the only way to go.
It's a win for sentient individuals, who won't be subjected to egregious cruelty and violent deaths.
It's a win for humans, reducing our risk of colon cancer and heart disease.
And pressingly, it's a win for the planet, which is currently on fire - literally.
When your grandkids one day ask, "Why didn't you just eat something else?" do you really think "I liked the taste of meat" or "I could never give up cheese" will cut it? If you can't imagine yourself making that feeble excuse to a generation inheriting a scorched Earth, you must stop making it as you walk by the plethora of available plant-based upgrades to animal-derived products, reaching instead for climate-warming body parts.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the State of the Environment report, be empowered.
The planet's fate is on your plate.
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