What follows is a sneak peek at Saryta Rodriguez’s next book project— a compilation of essays, from various contributors, exploring the many facets of the struggle for food sovereignty through a vegan praxis. This excerpt comes from the first essay: “Animal Agriculture,” by Saryta Rodriguez. Enjoy!

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It may be surprising to some readers that a work about food sovereignty — the right of humans to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems — should include a critical analysis of the impact of animal agriculture on our planet, fellow creatures, and ourselves. Indeed, many organizations seem to consider these topics divorced, or perhaps in direct competition with one another.

For instance, some promote veganism as easy to achieve without addressing the tangible realities of human hunger, income disparity or the systemic racism that results in a preponderance of food swamps (areas with an overabundance of unhealthy foods) in neighborhoods of color while all of the “good” grocery stores are in white or mostly-white neighborhoods here in the U.S.

One also commonly encounters the reverse: organizations and initiatives that promise to aid the poorest and hungriest among us humans, with absolutely zero regard for the role of nonhuman animals in this process — no mention, even, of how animal agriculture hinders the feeding of humans, much less the inescapable reality that animal agriculture is fundamentally unethical and habitually robs innocent creatures of their autonomy, their families and their lives.

I have come to understand (first as a food justice worker and now also as a vegan) that it is in fact not only useful to discuss animal agriculture when attempting to promote food sovereignty worldwide, but that it is essential to do so. Attempting to solve the problem of food sovereignty without taking into consideration the detrimental impacts of animal agriculture on us, others and the planet is like trying to understand how cancer spreads without knowing what a cell is.

One of the many ways in which animal agriculture hinders food sovereignty on a global scale is via appropriation of valuable resources that could otherwise be used to feed human beings. Animal agriculture actually uses up significantly more human-friendly food than it produces. Feed Conversion Ratios (FCRs) measure the amount of feed crops that are used to produce one “unit of meat” (in reality, one part of a nonhuman animal’s body which a human can regrettably choose to consume — against the nonhuman’s will, of course). They can be found by dividing a nonhuman animal’s food intake with their average daily weight gain.

I won’t bore you with all of the available data on this, but here are some quick facts:

  • The FCR for cow flesh, or “beef,” ranges in the U.S. from 4.5-7.5, according to a 2013 report. This means that, according to this source at least, it can take anywhere from four to nearly eight times as much weight in edible, natural human food such as grains and corn to produce one consumable “unit” of cow flesh.
  • Other sources paint an even more dismal picture. While Beef Magazine, among others, claims the ratio is 6:1 using live weight — the total weight of the cow when he or she is alive — in their conversions, when one uses edible weight (which excludes bone, skin and other non-edible parts of a creature), the ratio becomes 25:1. That’s an astounding twenty-five times as much edible human food being used to produce just one unit of someone else’s flesh for humans to needlessly consume.

It’s worth noting that the primary issue regarding world hunger is not that there is a lack of food to go around. As other essays, such as Waste, will attest, the issue is primarily that food is being improperly distributed and inefficiently used (one example: according to a report by the United Nations Environmental Programme, about one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted). So while we might already be able to feed many more people than we currently are by being less wasteful and more efficient in our practices, the fact of the matter is we could easily feed thousands more by moving beyond animal agriculture — an ancient and long-respected tradition that has nevertheless failed us, and continues to do so.

The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy, which I cannot recommend highly enough, did a brilliant job of highlighting the many ways in which animal agriculture devastates our planet. We’ll delve into that a bit further momentarily, but first I’d like to highlight animal agriculture’s offensive and detrimental appropriation of one particular resource: land. Nonhuman animals currently enslaved by animal agriculture account for approximately 30 percent of the Earth’s total land mass. The global human population is expected to reach over 9.5 billion by 2050, and global meat consumption is expected to increase annually through at least 2024. According to A Well-Fed World, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. devoted to solving world hunger through a vegan praxis, it is estimated that we will need two-thirds more land than the Earth actually possesses in order to meet the predicted demand for animal flesh and byproducts over the next 25 years.

Imagine, for a moment, what could be done with that 30 percent of all usable land right now to address hunger and improve food sovereignty! The land on which cows, chickens, pigs and other nonhumans who will inevitably be murdered in the name of “food” could be used instead to grow even more food for hungry humans — in some cases, anyway. In others, such as 80 percent of all the Amazonian rainforest destruction resulting from the demand for nonhuman animal farmland, this land could be rehabilitated so as to continue to serve its original purpose of housing and feeding the many nonhuman animals native to the region, who are being displaced, starved and in many cases rendered extinct by our unwarranted interference with their homes. While creatures such as the greater short-tailed bat have already gone extinct due to deforestation, these represent only one-fifth of the total number of species expected to go extinct in the coming years.

When we think about veganism and begin to challenge animal agriculture as the default method of human food production, we often hear about the plight of the farmed animal victims themselves — pigs, cows, chickens and others. In reality, the pool of victims of animal agriculture runs much deeper; not only are hungry humans around the world victims of this gross mismanagement of resources, but also nonhumans we consider to be “wild,” untamed or otherwise not directly enslaved by humans. Their land, food and safety are all in jeopardy because of animal agriculture — even if they are not personally featured on anyone’s menu.

This is one of many reasons that “humane farming” — the practice of providing nonhuman animals with ample living space, sunlight, food and other amenities prior to their murder — falls short. Not only do I, as you may have guessed, find this position ethically unsound and insufficient, but it is also impractical to think that we could ever possibly provide every single farmed animal on the planet with that much space without taking space away from wild creatures, who are equally entitled to autonomy and safety.

One popular question that arises among non-vegans when animal agriculture’s use of land is mentioned is, “Well, the animals have to live somewhere, anyway — where would they live instead? And how would that be any better?” Similar questions arise when discussing the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. The most important thing to understand in this regard is that virtually all of the cows, pigs, chickens and other farmed animals that exist today exist because they were bred. In other words, they were brought into this world unnaturally for the explicit purpose of feeding us humans. Were animal agriculture to be put to bed, breeding rates for all of these animals would surely drop, and eventually we would see a radical decrease in the total population of each.

For those who remain, the best option in terms of housing and security would be sanctuaries. Beyond the obvious ethical advantages of raising nonhumans at a sanctuary — such as that they will not be injected with hormones, not be confined to cages and never, ever be murdered— sanctuaries are also advantageous in that they do not pack as many nonhumans onto their property as possible, as is the case with animal agriculture. Naturally, animal farms have an incentive to raise as many creatures on their property as possible, so as to make more money. This results in higher concentrations of methane and other harmful, non-edible nonhuman animal byproducts than at a sanctuary, where the priority is not maximizing the quantity of nonhuman animals raised, but instead providing each with the best possible quality of life.