A vegan’s musings on Earth Day

April 22, 2022

by Janna Remigio

I used to buy organic food, vitamin supplements, and hair care products in eco-friendly containers. I thought I was doing my part in saving Mother Earth. Well, I was actually, but that is just part of my journey towards meaningful change. Time, after all, isn’t linear.

I have recently turned vegan. I’ve chosen to be one for animal welfare, thinking that I can’t love two or three kinds of animals and eat the others while saying “Itadakimasu” before meals. Itadakimasu means thanks for the food and for all the living things that make meals exist.

I have immediately felt the benefits from being vegan – from health to learning the lifetime skill of cooking my own meals, and to not feeling guilty each time I say Itadakimasu.

But I’m realizing now that ‘animal welfare’ is a narrow perspective, given the larger context of people and planet.

In recent years, the prices of fruits and vegetables in the Philippines have been one of the main contributors to inflation. This phenomenon is a confluence of several reasons, mainly opening up agriculture to commercial exploitation while government withdraws its support for our farmers. This leaves us with pricier fruits and vegetables than what our agricultural Asian neighbors have to offer to their respective populations.

The country has one of the most inorganic agricultural systems in Asia, being the original laboratory of Green Revolution under the Marcos dictatorship. What we practically have is chemical farming, with 99% of our farms forced to use harmful chemicals for corporate profit. We even host the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the peddler of agrichemicals and hybrids of agribusiness transnational corporations (TNCs).

This economic order has devastated not only our ecology but also farmers’ livelihoods, and now streams down on us as quite an unhealthy and expensive choice. Or do we even have a choice?

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is being hypocritical in talking about sustainable diets while acting blind to this economic order. It says, “Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” The FAO recommends to have mostly plant-based diet and to consume fish from sustainable stocks only and reduce red and processed meat and highly-processed foods.

Yet, isn’t it the same institution, along with other United Nations (UN) organizations, that are mum about the use of agrichemicals, environmentally destructive fishing gear and aquaculture, corporate plantations, as well as the promotion of genetically modified (GM) crops? Has it ever come out to condemn the policies of dumping agricultural imports, corporatization of agriculture and monocultures, or even land use conversions? Has it ever confronted TNCs?

While it talks about ‘sustainable diets’, in the same breath, FAO official Henning Steinfeld for instance said in an interview, “It’s unlikely that meat consumption will be phased out anytime soon. Demand will continue to grow where country consumption is still low.” Of course the FAO would have that sort of projection, lest it hurt the business of livestock and poultry TNCs and meat traders and processors, as the vast majority of the global population remain meat eaters.

Global agri-food systems accounted for 16.5 billion tonnes or 31% of the 54 billion tonnes of emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in 2019, according to FAO statistics. Of these, 7.2 billion tonnes came from within the farm gate, 3.5 billion from land use change, and 5.8 billion from pre and post production processes. In terms of single gases, globally, the agri-food systems generated 21% of carbon dioxide emissions, 53% of methane, and 78% of nitrous oxide. The last one is more associated with the use of agrichemicals and land use changes.

There is no updated data on the definite contribution of the livestock sector – the last one claiming to be around 14% of global GHG emissions. Out of this figure, the single largest contributor that is directly attributed to livestock raising is enteric fermentation at 39%, or the production of methane in the rumen, the “fore-stomachs” of ruminants such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels. Manure storage follows at 10%, while manure excreted and applied to soil is part of the entire agricultural process (at 45%) for the livestock sector, including land use change, application of agrichemicals, agricultural operation, feed processing, and transportation.

There is the tendency for meat TNCs to downplay the contribution of the livestock sector to the climate crisis, but it is enough to say that it eats up land and agricultural resources and poisons the environment. To illustrate, to produce a single burger patty, vast tracts of forests have to be cleared, tons of agrichemicals have to be applied on land and used as feeds, and tons and tons of fossil fuels have to be burned. Just for that burger patty to reach your plate. This is not to mention that thousands and thousands of farmers and peasants have to be displaced from their land and paid low wages and go hungry just to deliver the meat.

I shall remain vegan, but the next time I say Itadakimasu, I shall put the farmers, peasants and workers right at the heart of my gratitude.

There exists a complexity to achieving sustainability and harmony with nature. I have a long way to go. For now, here’s a poem with one punctuation mark:

Something can be despicable
while it remains implacable
No matter how much we distract
ourselves from it, it will protract
more than storms that on our walls weep
while it hurls the garbage to heap
to see through each fleeting juncture
what our hands can manufacture.