Ed Winters, activist and vegan educator, spoke with community members on the hidden costs of our food choices on Tuesday, Oct. 18. Winters discussed the changes needed in our food systems and choices in order to reduce our carbon footprint.
Winters, a vegan, spoke with students about how he was raised eating meat. Consuming meat, dairy and eggs was a part of his diet for the first 20 years of his life, he explained. In his family, vegetarians and vegans were seen as “strange people,” Winters explained, saying his parents are still of this mindset.
He believed that vegans were “crazy, extremist, militant people who had no sense of humor.” This is because he did not understand what people could have against dairy and eggs. Going vegan was a “shock” to Winters because of the “disdain” that was associated with vegetarianism.
Winters explained another huge part of his journey to veganism was having a pet; as a child they did not have pets in his family. According to Winters, the closest he got to an animal was when it was digesting in his stomach. There was a turn in Winters’ life when he turned 21, when he read an article about a chicken truck crash. A truck carrying chickens to a slaughterhouse had gotten into an accident, leaving multiple chickens dead or severely injured. When reading this, Winters said he came to empathize with the chickens in the crash—something he had never done with an animal before.
Winters joked that at the time fried chicken was his favorite food, so he hadn’t wanted to emphasize with the chickens. At the moment he felt conflicted, saying that he had thoughts of animal suffering and cruelty and his values around these issues. The article made him realize that while he felt sympathy for the animals in the crash, he hadn’t had the same sympathy for the chickens killed to produce his favorite food. This experience made him go vegetarian, but he kept milk and eggs in his diet, Winters explained.
Next in his journey, about eight months after going vegetarian, Winters watched a documentary. The documentary, according to Winters, was “depressing” because it was over an hour of watching things get done to animals that “we do not want to see.”
At this same point in time, Winters got his first pet—a hamster named Rupert. Rupert was a “sassy little character,” according to Winters, and he taught Winters how animals could have personalities and are unique individuals. Rupert didn’t like his hamster wheel—a toy that hamsters are meant to universally love—but he loved broccoli. However, if you tried giving Rupert kale he would get mad, and Winters explained that he could see exactly what Rupert was thinking. Understanding that animals are unique individuals solidified Winters’ resolve to become a vegan. Winters said he realized that his food choices impacted others and caused harm.
Winters said that while his initial journey to veganism was for ethical reasons, he began to become educated on the environmental cost of food choices. He went on to explain how animal farming relates to the climate crisis. According to Winters, it is important to not lose focus on what we are talking about when we talk about the climate crisis: the focus should be the experience of others, Winters explained. The climate crisis is important because there are climate-exacerbated events that are impacting others and causing their suffering.
“The reason why we care about the climate crisis is not because these things are happening to our planet—and that’s bad in and of itself—but because what’s happening to our planet is going to cause others to suffer,” Winters said.
Some notable examples Winters identified of people suffering because of climate-related disaster events include the recent flooding in Pakistan and Hurrican Ian in Florida. Winters explained that being more sustainable would lead to less suffering in the world from climate events like these.
To become more sustainable we have to change how we live, Winters said to community members, and we can start by changing what we consume. Agriculture is one of the leading industries producing harmful emissions. If emissions were from agriculture alone, with no other industries contributing, it would be impossible to lower the warming temperatures by 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. This statistic was used in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 as a top priority.
Animal farming is the part of the agriculture industry that disproportionately harms our environment, according to Winters, because of its emissions and land use. Winters cited a statistic from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): 41.8% of the land in the 48 contiguous states used for farming is for animal farming. In addition, only 4% is used for plants intended for direct human consumption. “That is a staggering amount of inefficiency,” Winters commented.
Growing plants for direct food consumption, according to Winters, is more efficient and produces more crops while using less land. Globally, if we switched to plant-based diets we could free up 76% of land used for farming. With this space freed up, Winters suggested that we “return the land to nature,” which could help reduce our carbon footprint.
Winters explained that consumers have the opportunity to impact how much animal farming occurs in the US; if there is no demand for meat products then the animal farming industry would not need to produce so much.
This could also be applied to seafood demand, as many fisheries overfish, leading to deficits in marine ecosystems. Winters explained that it would be beneficial for the planet as well as for the experience of people if we let the earth heal. By giving land that was deforested for animal farming back to nature, it could help reduce our carbon footprint. The same could be applied to marine life, if we let the oceans repopulate. Allowing just 1% of phytoplankton to repopulate would be the equivalent to planting 2 billion mature trees, in terms of the amount of carbon that can be sequestered, Winters explained.
Winters is the founder of an ethical vegan British fish and chips shop as well as an ethical vegan clothing brand. He is a media and design fellow at Harvard University, and this is his second talk at Brandeis.