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United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: If We're Not Veganizing Them, are They Really Sustainable?

From Lee Hall on
May 2023

Our current crisis of sustainability asks us to transform humanity from Earth’s incessant tyrant into a respectful contributor. Veganism is a unifying principle that enables us to consider all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in a radical and yet practical way. To my mind, no blueprint for sustaining our fragile biosphere could have greater impact. 

UN development goals
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For-profit companies and charities alike are jumping onto the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (#SDGs). We all want to self-identify as sustainable people. But most want to hang onto that good-ole biblical prerogative: human dominion.

As long as we cling to our conceited attitudes about the living world, I’d posit, the SDGs will be a farrago of platitudes, not true human progress.

Let me offer 17 reasons why.

On Sustainable Development Goal 1: No Poverty.

The UN calls out Covid as the latest global poverty driver. What lies at the roots of pandemics?

Whether Covid started with a lab leak or a wet market, it began with zooanthroponotic transmission. Humanity’s encroachments into nature and our tendency to confine animals aren’t good for us. Disrespect for other animals undermines both conservation and public health.

And if we want to talk about sustainably addressing poverty, we must get to the point and really start talking about animal-free agriculture.

On Goal 2: Zero Hunger.

An acre of land growing plants as food can produce more protein, by orders of magnitude, than grazing plots can.

Bonus: Growing crops for direct food, not feed, is a matter of food sovereignty. Today, financially stressed regions devote vast resources to grow feed crops for wealthier buyers.

U.S. dietary geopolitics have an especially alarming track record. For example, as geographer Natalie Koch observes:

“…American farmers helped kick-start the Saudi dairy industry. In the 1940s the U.S. State Department sent Arizona farmers to Saudi Arabia and coordinated two Saudi royal visits to Arizona to tout the state’s spectacular desert agriculture. The unsustainable alfalfa and dairy enterprise that Saudi Arabia set up in the wake of these visits drained the kingdom’s groundwater, sowing the seeds for Saudi companies to look to Arizona for cheap water.”

Meanwhile, individuals are encouraged to “help” hungry people through send-a-cow charities like Heifer International. It’s a recipe for dependence.

Pulses fix their own nitrogen in the ground, thereby helping their growers avoid dependency on commercial chemicals. Small farmers, even in drought-prone areas, can grow pulses. Animal-free agriculture is people’s agriculture.

On Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being.

For a multitude of reasons, growing food crops directly beats feeding crops to animals and then eating the animals. For our health, and the Earth’s.

And then there’s mental health. Does beating animals into submission so we can chew them up do anything for human peace of mind?

Animal processing workers are additional victims of the violent enterprise. In general, these workers are socially vulnerable and underserved in healthcare, including psychological care.

Animal agribusiness wrecks natural lands and waters, and the indigenous life that depends on them. It imposes selectively bred animals on the landscape. It immiserates its farm-bred beings, taking their young and their lives. Like war, this customary torment sends out ripples of harm, and distorts our sense of our place in the world.

On Goal 4: Quality Education.

History is taught in the dominator’s language. This has marginalized racial justice teachings. It has perpetuated domination dynamics and violence rather than healthy communities. It has sidelined serious environmental work as well. In their attitudes about the liberation of nature, schools have always fought wokeness. Even in environmental courses, animal liberation principles are shunned. They’re regarded as unwelcome challenges to mainstream agribusiness and administrative “stewardship” of (dominance over) land, water, air, and life.

No doubt: Quality education connects people with opportunities. If this is to relate to a sustainable human culture, though, the syllabus must include habitat studies and materials that question human supremacy as well as racial and gender-based hierarchies.

On Goal 5: Gender Equality.

Should any hierarchy go unexamined? Why should anyone be forced into a group to serve someone higher up on the socially constructed ladder?

Through the course of domestication, a slow form of selective breeding, we chronically usurp autonomy from other animals. This makes it possible to bring them into human society, and to relegate them to the ladder’s lowest rung.

Respect for the autonomy of all living, aware beings is, I suspect, a prerequisite to “gender equality.” But is it equality, or is it self-determination, that matters? We all want to live on our terms — not the terms constructed for social control.

On Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

Water shortages and pollution alike are lessened where we eat non-animal foods. Raising farm animals takes a lot of water. So does sanitation to manage food-borne pathogens related to commercial animals.

Contaminants from animal agribusiness can seep into groundwater, impacting drinking water systems. And as global warming drives flooding hazards, exposure to contaminated floodwaters increases. Imagine how much simpler sanitation would be without the heaps of manure and toxic sludge we add to our surroundings because we rear animals for no good reason.

There are plenty of alternatives. Let’s start with lentils, “the protein equivalent of meat.” Anyone familiar with an Ethiopian vegetable platter, or even a lentil soup, knows what culinary champions these little legumes are.

On Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy.

Energy should meet our needs affordably. It should make people and communities stronger. And it should go easy on the Earth and habitats.

Producing sustainable energy is a major challenge, with global impact, says the UN. Yes, and one major reason is humanity’s high-carbon food system. We use vast amounts of energy to produce, process, transport, and preserve animal flesh, eggs, and dairy products — and to provide the feed.

“Most governments shy away from providing clear recommendations” on divesting our diets from animal products, says food-systems researcher Marco Springmann — despite these products’ “exceptionally high emissions and resource use.”

We must insist on dietary advice aligned with energy and climate facts.

On Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Economic growth at the expense of decency is treacherous. And is any task more indecent than animal breeding and animal killing?

Economic growth at the expense of the Earth’s habitat and resources is both arrogant and misguided. We’d do well to value frugal, efficient use of resources and grow food, not feed. It’s hardly possible to keep increasing the footprint of grazing, aquaculture, and feed crops worldwide and be serious about sustainability. This, the UN has known for years.

Humanity loses nothing of real value by shifting away from breeding, feeding, and killing animals. And there’s potential for a fairer kind of affluence through direct, crop-based food systems. For sustainable and decent agriculture, let’s leave other living, feeling beings free of it.

On Goal 9: Infrastructure, Innovation & Industrialization.

Ah, innovation! Jackfruit BBQ ribs and cultured cashew cheese jump to mind. Or maybe even vertical, organic, hydroponic farming. But the UN is thinking mainly about getting everyone computers and bank accounts, and stimulating tech solutions for the very problems that were caused by…industry.

The UN says:

“In developing countries, barely 30% of agricultural production undergoes industrial processing. In high-income countries, 98% is processed. This suggests that there are great opportunities for developing countries in agribusiness.”

Wait. Great opportunities in over-processing foods, just like high-income countries do? That’s how the UN looks at sustainable development? No surprise, then, that UN. org has managed to lament a pandemic-related decline in air travel.

Where’s the blueprint for adopting a less-processed, more community-based future? Where’s the wisdom to learn from the traditional arts of crop growing?

On Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities.

Animal agribusiness hooks whole nations on feed, fertilizers, and veterinary pharmaceuticals from mega-corporations. If we’d value what we could all grow, people would achieve greater independence, and maybe something approaching equality.

Some people will need to move to find a decent quality of life and sustenance that others take for granted. So it’s good to see support for policies that “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people” among Goal 10’s sub-targets.

Yes, let’s make migration simpler and fairer for all of us. And let’s remember that border walls and barbed wires deprive us all — human, wolf, bat or antelope — of our natural ability to move across the surface of the planet on which we were born. Shouldn’t we all have this basic animal right?

On Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.

According to the UN, 70% of us will live in cities by 2050. And we’ll all need access to nutritious food.

Better access would involve support for farm stands and farmers’ markets. And the best access would mean gardens in or near every community space — every restaurant, every place of worship, and every school.

Small businesses, community-based organizations, chefs, health providers and health-food shops can all offer fertile ground for cultivating sustainable cities. Food systems starting from community gardens are compact, energy-efficient, clean, and conducive to local self-sufficiency.

On Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.

Authentic sustainability is about more than us. It respects the natural world, of which we are simply a part. The assumption that other beings are put on this planet as our resources ought to be obsolete; and in the vegan ethic, it already is. Veganism, by definition, would reintegrate other animals “within the balance and sanity of nature.” Animal husbandry — “whose effect upon the course of evolution must have been stupendous” — would become “almost unthinkable.”

What a refreshing change that would be. Animal ag is based on complex, highly profit-focused international feed markets. It’s tied to deforestation for feed crops and for grazing. In contrast, a vegan commitment values everyone’s basic right to sustenance, and to a respectful relationship with Earth’s biological communities. This is responsible consumption and production.

On Goal 13: Climate Action.

Cattle farming emits about 10 times more greenhouse gases per piece of animal flesh than farming pigs and chickens. Pig or chicken farming, in turn, emits about 10 times more than growing lentils, peas, or beans.

Meanwhile, our animal-breeding habit is a key driver of extinctions.

In an obscene feedback loop, climate crisis is making remaining habitats inhospitable for free-living animals. Consider the migratory shorebirds who, on account of an earlier spring season in their northern breeding grounds, miss the peak availability of insects and other food for their young. Increased heat along migration routes and resultant storms can delay migrations and kill migrating birds in flight. Meanwhile, our ever-expanding fish farming enterprises in coastal waters threaten the birds’ southern habitats.

On Goal 14: Life Below Water.

Goal 14 aims to “conserve and sustainably use” the waters but we really need to stop touting so-called sustainable seafood and halt the looting and pillaging of the rivers, lakes, and seas.

Where do we start on the global scale? End subsidies. Trawling, with its massive greenhouse gas emissions, is heavily subsidized. Spanish fleets in the Atlantic, Japanese firms in the tropics, trawlers from China, Taiwan, Korea — all subsidized.

Where do we start on a personal scale? If we have the privilege of choice, the best we can do is to shift to an all-plant diet. Which, as it happens, reduces the pollution of the waters. Animal farm runoff (chemicals and farm animal waste) contribute to massive dead zones that kill legions of marine beings.

From sea turtles to penguins, non-target animals, too, would be spared if humans would stop thinking of aquatic animals as food.

On Goal 15: Life on Land.

The sheer weight of animal husbandry on the land is mind-numbing to contemplate. Our purpose-bred land mammals outweigh naturally evolving mammals many times over. And of the biomass of all the world’s birds, 71% are the property of poultry farms.

snowy Wolf

Stop breeding cows and other animals, and we could stop pushing the free-living communities out of their own habitats. And we could end the grotesque wars on wolves and other predators, and the worldwide ruin of prairies and forests for grazing and feed crops.

The human quest to dominate the planet and its conscious beings caused our sustainability crisis. If we really want to address the crisis, animal-liberation thinking must inform our discussions of life on Earth.

On Goal 16: Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions.

With Goal 16, the UN endorses representative decision-making and reprehends “threats of international homicide, violence against children, human trafficking and sexual violence.” Right on.

Can we also draw attention to the trafficking of, and violence against, nonhuman beings? Can we articulate a need for habitat-conscious institutions?

Of course, when people have recourse to peace and justice ourselves, we are freer to accept non-exploitive relationships with biological communities. But we’ll need institutions and community role models to call on humanity to stop antagonizing other living beings.

On Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals.

Creating partnerships for the Goals means bringing governments, businesses, NGOs, teachers, students, and others together in collaborative work. The piece you are reading now is one starting point for communicating vegan values to those partners.

Our current crisis of sustainability asks us to transform humanity from Earth’s incessant tyrant into a respectful contributor. Veganism is a unifying principle that enables us to consider all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in a radical and yet practical way. To my mind, no blueprint for sustaining our fragile biosphere could have greater impact.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.

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