A philosopher talks plant-based diets
“Being able to make more sustainable choices with one’s diet is one of the most direct ways to impact one’s environmental footprint.”
Plant-based foods are all the rage right now, and researchers estimate that their popularity will only continue to grow. Nearly 10 percent of Canadians have adopted a vegan or vegetarian diet, according to a study from Dalhousie University. The growing hunger for non-meat proteins can be easily seen by the release of A&W’s Beyond Meat Burger, which sold out country-wide in a matter of weeks.
Philosophy professor Howard Nye at the University of Alberta has been eating meat-free since high school. After reading Peter Singers’ “All Animals Are Equal” and Animal Liberation, Nye became convinced that vegetarianism was something he wanted to adopt into his life. Today, he studies the ethics and environmental effects of animal consumption, as well as the philosophy of the mind.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Wow, so you’ve been vegetarian or vegan since high school. Do you remember what you were feeling when you decided to take the jump?
I remember being compelled by the moral importance and the effect that I could make on the environment, even if there’s only a small chance of making a big difference. This, of course, is a big motivator for me for doing things like trying to bike and taking public transit instead of driving and getting solar panels and things like that. So I found the philosophical considerations extremely, practically relevant.
And why did you decide to go further and adopt a vegan diet?
One of the things I think is great about philosophy is being able to get the insight to be able to think as critically as possible in these general ways that can really help you sort out the absolutely concrete, practical things. So when you buy dairy and eggs — that actually has a causal effect on the male chicks getting ground up, and the laying hens having these miserable lives and then being killed shortly after it. So my decision was a combination of understanding the empirical reality of dairy and eggs, but then also getting clear on my contributions by buying those kinds of products.
Why do you think people should consider adopting a plant-based diet?
I guess one of the great things about food is that it’s something we’re all constantly making decisions about. So making decisions about your food or switching to a plant based diet — that’s something anyone can do. And it actually tends to be less expensive and healthier in many cases. Unlike things like putting up a solar array where you have to have a lot of money to invest, it’s extremely accessible and it’s extremely high impact.
What are the problems you see with animal agriculture? Can you spell some of that out?
Animal agriculture is just such an enormous source of environmental harm. Even by conservative estimates, animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gases than all transportation emissions combined. It’s the leading contributor of methane — which, if we’re going to get climate change under control — in the short run, cutting methane emissions is a great way to do it, because they cycle out so fast.
One of the governing dynamics about why animal-based diets are so environmentally destructive is because most of it involves feeding grain to animals instead of eating grain directly, which is just inherently an inefficient process. So we have to clear way more cropland to feed animals than just eating vegetable crops ourselves. Over 90 per cent of Amazon deforestation is because of a combination of clearing grazing land for cattle, and then just growing feed crops to feed the cattle.
What do you think about new plant-based proteins, such as the Beyond Meat Burger?
I’ve long thought that synthetic meat could be a very helpful way to get a lot of individuals away from harmfully produced animal products. And my understanding was, at least once they got the technologies going, they could be enormously environmentally better than standard animal agriculture.
But the number of individuals who are going plant-based and vegan, and the demand for these products has been enormous. There are still worries about how fast it’s growing, and whether we can cut out the methane emissions by just convincing enough people to go plant-based. I hope we can.