The Cow in the Room: Protecting Animals Protects Us All

By Ida Eva Zielinska

A man calling for plant-based eating as climate action holds a poster near the COP26 venue. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team


Looking back at COP26, the 26th United Nations Annual Climate Change Conference that took place in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021, one can surely applaud its principal successes: For instance, the pledges of over 100 countries to both curb methane emissions by 30% and end deforestation by 2030. One can also commend the goals set, even though their scope came short of expectations.

Furthermore, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and others advocating plant-based diets to combat climate change were greatly disappointed that a critical topic was missing from this and previous COP summit agendas. Raphaël Podselver, Head of UN Advocacy at ProVeg International, one of Tzu Chi’s partners on this front, summed up the reasons precisely at one of the three press conferences the organizations co-hosted at COP26:

What hasn’t been acknowledged despite scientific consensus on the matter is the role of animal agriculture being a main driver of both methane emissions and deforestation. And what has not been discussed here in Glasgow, is the potential of plant-based proteins to mitigate the impact of food systems on the climate crisis. A substantial proportion of the total deforestation worldwide is caused by animal agriculture. We also know that methane from livestock accounts for 32% of global methane pollution – that is comparable with methane emission coming from the fossil fuel industry, which represents 35%. But despite those alarming numbers, a shift towards more plant-rich and less resource-intensive foods is desperately missing from the COP26 agenda.

Raphaël Podselver, Head of UN Advocacy at ProVeg International, a principal partner with Tzu Chi in its plant-based diets advocacy, moderates at all the press conferences co-hosted by the two organizations. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s push for widespread adoption of plant-based diets is part of its Environmental Protection agenda, and rooted in the practice of compassion for all sentient beings. Given that advocacy for vegetarianism and veganism is an integral part of Tzu Chi’s missions and work worldwide, it has brought this perspective to COP summits since 2012, when it joined the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Tzu Chi volunteers consistently promote plant-based diets when providing charity aid, disaster relief distributions, and beyond. Additionally, Tzu Chi launched the global Ethical Eating Day movement in Paris at COP21 in 2015. The day of awareness drive invites people to pledge to be vegetarian for a day each January 11, and has inspired over 1.2 million new pledges since 2019. And in 2020, Tzu Chi USA established the Very Veggie Movement (VVM), which aims to unite people around the causes of animal rights and environmental protection. This initiative has garnered 60 partners so far.

At COP26, the Tzu Chi Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Action Team joined forces with ProVeg International, Four Paws, and the Humane Society International to host a series of press conferences to raise public awareness of the critical environmental benefits of plant-based diets. Hopefully, this would also help push animal agriculture onto the core agenda of future COP summits. Each of these partner organizations works on behalf of animals and promotes dietary transformation in their own way.

ProVeg is a leading international food awareness organization whose mission is to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040. Four Paws, a global animal welfare organization for animals under direct human influence, strives to reveal suffering, rescue animals in need, and promote the reduction, refinement, and replacement of animal products. The Humane Society International works globally to rescue and protect dogs and cats, improve farm animal welfare, protect wildlife, promote animal-free testing and research, respond to natural disasters, and confront cruelty to animals.

November 2 marks the first press conference in Tzu Chi’s push for plant-based diets at COP26, with three additional events to follow. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

As part of their joint public awareness-building efforts, Tzu Chi and the three NGOs held a first press conference on November 2: “Achieving the Paris Agreement and Preventing the Next Pandemic: The Case for Transformative, Climate-Resilient and Healthy Food-Systems,” moderated by Raphaël Podselver from ProVeg. The speakers illuminated various aspects of this broad topic, even in terms of averting future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, meaning transmitted between animals and people, such as COVID-19.

Dr. Martina Stephany represented Four Paws, an organization highlighting that factory farming is the leading cause of animal cruelty worldwide and a major contributor to numerous global problems. She explained that on top of this, “factory farming is most likely the next breeding ground for pandemics.” The NGO recently published a study about pandemics as part of which they asked 29 scientists their views as to the best approach from now on: Symptom control, preparedness, or prevention?

All of them agreed that we should look much more towards prevention because everything else is not cost-effective and not really sustainable. These scientists came from various fields, and they all agreed that animal welfare is significantly underestimated at the moment when it comes to pandemic prevention. And they said the first thing is, ‘we need to end factory farming, and the second thing is, ‘we need to drastically reduce the number of animals farmed globally.'

Dr. Martina Stephany, representing Four Paws, highlights the dangers associated with factory farming, including the threat of future pandemics. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

Claire Bass, Executive Director at Humane Society International, presented the organization’s Forward Food campaign in the UK. The venture is making progress in encouraging and enabling the catering industry and institutions serving millions of meals daily to put more plant-based foods on plates and menus. They do this in part by training and inspiring chefs to create delicious and nutritious plant-based cuisine. Initially, it can feel like an uphill battle, she said:

Often when we start working with [chefs at] institutions, they’re quite resistant and don’t really want to cut meat from their menu. But, when our chef shows them a tool kit to expand their creativity with plant-based cooking, by the end of the training, they’re all sold, and they can’t wait to get going and to serve up new, exciting, and tasty plant-based dishes.

It’s also a question of where to place the plant-based options on a menu. “For too long, we’ve seen that companies were looking at plant-based options as kind of the periphery of menus. So, there will be a special extra section, you know, ‘this is only for vegans or only for vegetarians,’ and that shouldn’t be the case because plant-based food is for everyone,” she explained. Instead, Forward Food promotes an “architecture of choice” within menus, positioning plant-based options within “the normal” so meat-eaters won’t immediately assume, “well, this isn’t for me.”

Claire Bass (right) from the Humane Society International outlines progress in getting plant-based meals on menus and encouraging chefs to explore vegetarian cuisine. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

Bass concluded on an encouraging note, sharing, “If we look at the shift in the UK that we’ve seen in plant-based menus over the last, even three years, it’s been phenomenal. Everywhere you go now has got plant-based options on the menu. And that trend is only going to increase the more products that come on the market and the more appetite there is from consumers. So, we’re heading in the right direction; we’ve just got to get there faster!” 

Dr. Ming Nan Lin, Vice Superintendent of one of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s seven hospitals in Taiwan, built on this positive tone. He revealed how Tzu Chi’s institutions are at the forefront of systemic adoption of plant-based diets, a subject he also touched on at other press conferences during COP26.

Dr. Ming Nan Lin (left), from Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital, shares that plant-based meals are the only food served at Tzu Chi hospitals in Taiwan. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

And, on November 4, Dr. Lin would introduce the health benefits of plant-based eating at a press conference co-hosted by Tzu Chi, ProVeg, and the Humane Society. “It’s Time to Address the Cow in the Room: We Want Diet Change, Not Climate Change!” was its cry and as the size of the audience and round of applause at the end indicated, the public is ready for change, even though politicians may be lagging far behind.e Superintendent of one of Tzu Chi Medical Foundation’s seven hospitals in Taiwan, built on this positive tone. He revealed how Tzu Chi’s institutions are at the forefront of systemic adoption of plant-based diets, a subject he also touched on at other press conferences during COP26.

The press conference “It’s Time to Address the Cow in the Room: We Want Diet Change, Not Climate Change!” draws much interest at COP26. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

Diet Change to Deter Climate Change

After an introduction by conference moderator Raphaël Podselver, representing ProVeg, as the first speaker, Shawn McKeeny from the Humane Society didn’t mince words as he expressed dissatisfaction about the absence of animal agriculture on the COP26 agenda.

COP26 has been framed as the race to zero but in its refusal to set ambitious targets and strategies to meaningfully reduce the climate impact of animal agriculture, it’s more like a gentle Sunday stroll.

This critique is warranted, especially if people are ready for a paradigm shift in our global food system. “Recent years have seen an exploding consumer interest in plant-based eating in multiple world markets, as the environmental, human health, and animal welfare benefits of reducing meat and dairy have become mainstream issues,” McKeeny pointed out

Shawn McKeeny (left), from the Humane Society International, and Dr. Ming Nan Lin (right), from Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital, present a variety of arguments for why adopting a plant-based diet is advisable and necessary. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

According to a survey by Euromonitor International, the world’s leading provider of global business intelligence, market analysis, and consumer insights, “42% of consumers globally are restricting certain animal-based products and looking to diversify their diets with more plant-based options,” he added. Concurrently, “leading retailers and manufacturers the world over responded to the plant-based boom, launching a variety of plant-based options, and there is increasing investment into protein alternatives.”

Jasmijn de Boo, Vice President of ProVeg International, picked up the thread of why such change is much-needed, saying that the pioneers of the plant-based eating movement “have long known that eating animals is not very efficient. It takes too many resources, causes environmental damage, and global inequality.” She cited recent data, saying that “the production and consumption of animal-based products are among the main sources of emissions from the food system and account for about 20% of global emissions.” However, the demand for change is disproportionate globally:

As the Western world consumes around 80% of the world’s resources, North America and Europe, in particular, have a moral obligation to do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. If we want a just and fair transition to a livable planet and meet the deforestation and methane cut goals announced just a few days ago, Europe’s animal consumption should actually be reduced as follows: Meat needs to be reduced by 79%, milk and dairy by 74-83%, eggs by 68%, and fish and seafood by 65%. These are bold targets indeed. We urge leaders to take decisive action as we’re running out of time. But we can do this. Plant-based, cultured meat, precision fermentation, algae, fungi are all part of the solution. We need diet change, not climate change.

Jasmijn de Boo from ProVeg International highlights that we must drastically reduce animal consumption to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

Representing Tzu Chi, Dr. Ming Nan Lin, Vice Superintendent of Taiwan’s Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital, spoke next and shed light on what such a shift in diet can mean in terms of health. He began by sharing his and other healthcare professionals’ experience that so many patients today suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, chronic heart disease, strokes, etc.

These multifactorial diseases are influenced by dietary patterns and physical exercise, among the most effective factors to control them. Moreover, “In my years of research on plant-based diets and health, there is a clear link between the instance of non-communicable diseases and a poor health status with the amount of meat consumed on a daily basis,” Dr. Lin added.

While Dr. Lin said that many scientific papers show the benefits of plant-based diets on health, Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital also started conducting plant-based studies in 2007, with over 6,000 subjects. The hospital has published 12 papers so far, which show that a plant-based diet will help patients become healthier. Dr. Lin also revealed that recent 2021 studies showed an association between plant-based diets and a reduction in the severity of COVID-19 diseases. Thus, “a vegetarian diet is very helpful not only for common non-communicable diseases but also in COVID-19,” he shared.

To conclude, Dr. Lin urged everyone to take up Tzu Chi’s invitation to make an Ethical Eating Day pledge and explore where even a single day of being vegetarian can lead:

A thousand-mile journey starts from the first step. If we start and become the change we want to see in the world, then we can hope that we have a better tomorrow.

Bernat Añaños, the co-founder of Heura Foods, one of the leading plant-based food companies in Europe, spoke next and highlighted how choosing a meat-free diet might not be as difficult as some may believe. Companies worldwide are showing that plant-based “meat” is possible in terms of taste and texture, being much more sustainable and healthier at the same time. In the view of the industry, while other sectors have progressed, meat production has stalled, or worse:

Animal meat is obsolete. It doesn’t make any sense in this century. It is one of the only sectors that didn’t evolve. We are actually worse because we treat the animals worse; we put them in very small places, with all the problems antibiotics are creating, etc. So, we’re making it worse while in all the other sectors, we’re making steps ahead.

Moreover, given that “60% of emissions created by the food system comes from animal agriculture while they just provide 18% of the calories worldwide and just 37% of the protein,” this is a highly inefficient model for feeding the world, he said. And yet, according to Martinez, the good news is that “you can reduce your footprint as an individual by 73% by ditching dairy and meat.” Plant-based meat is available, and we have information about the impact of animal meat consumption. So, in his view, having these two, “if we don’t move forward on this, it’s irresponsible.”

Bernat Añaños from Heura Foods states that eating animal meat doesn't make sense in this century, and we could vote it out with each meal. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

“We vote three times a day as humans, the ones that have the pleasure to have food on our tables, and we can decide which impact we have in the world,” Martinez said to conclude. That vote is about more than emissions, health, and sustainability, too. “We’re deciding which is the future of animals, and I think we have to start changing the relationship we have with animals.” Perhaps facing the gruesome scope of what our global carnivorous habit demands can help spur change:

In a year’s time, we slaughtered more than 77 billion animals and it's only for human consumption.

The Way Forward

Pleas for increased awareness and behavioral change continued on November 9, when Tzu Chi co-hosted another press conference and side event with ProVeg International. The speakers touched on how systematic action by organizations, industry, and governments can support consumer diet transformation, while a grassroots movement can equally lead the way.

Juliette Tronchon (second right) and Raphaël Podselver (second left) represent ProVeg International at the press conference on November 9, with Hsin Ling Liang (right) speaking for Tzu Chi and Patrick O. Brown (left) for his company Impossible Foods. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

As the moderator, Juliette Tronchon, Policy and Public Affairs Specialist International at Proveg, opened the press conference. Raphaël Podselver, also from ProVeg, spoke next and called for political action, saying, “Governments can create enabling environments for consumers. We need to get the price of meat and dairy up, and we need to get the price of vegetables and plant-based products down. But we need government support with concrete policies that favor the plant-based sector and plant-rich diets in general.” And he once again expressed the hope to see plant-rich diets featured as a multiple-problem solution on the COP27 agenda.

Hsin Ling Liang, a Tzu Chi SDG Action Team Member, was the following speaker and first explained that promoting and inspiring a dietary transition to plant-based eating is embedded in Tzu Chi’s aid, activities, and institutions. “At the organizational level, Tzu Chi’s premises, for example, hospitals, universities, schools, and community spaces, all supply [only] plant-based meals,” Liang shared. Additionally, moving from internal institutions to public spaces, any food that Tzu Chi distributes as part of charity aid or disaster relief never contains meat, and the Foundation has created innovative plant-based instant meals to supplement those supplies.

Liang then described another ongoing Tzu Chi initiative at the societal level, a three-week health challenge: “We engage with health professionals and restaurants, eateries, to tailor 21 days of vegan food for our participants. After 21 days, most participants experience positive changes physically and mentally and become more aware of their diets. The movement actually reflects the significance of peer support in dietary transition.” Tzu Chi also has a grassroots program in the UK whereby volunteers showcase vegetarian cooking in people’s homes, allowing them to discover new tastes.

Hsin Ling Liang presents Tzu Chi’s institutional and community-based efforts to support a dietary transition to plant-based eating. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

To sum up, Liang stated that in Tzu Chi’s view, every single person counts along the path to societal change:

To drive a wider dietary transition, we believe in the power of one, and one to infinity. Through the process, we believe innovation in social learning and peer support can facilitate a proactive transition.

Next on the panel, Patrick O. Brown, Founder, and CEO of Impossible Foods, equally championed instigating a dietary shift through innovation, especially given the lack of progress in policy:

It’s I think pretty clear to everyone here at COP that the actions that are now being contemplated and negotiated by the official parties will fall far short of what’s needed to meaningfully impact the disastrous trajectory of climate change that we’re on, and what we really need is much more dramatic action, and fast. It would be great if this would come from international consensus and government policies, but despite good intentions, I’m sure, it’s highly unlikely to happen any time soon and not in time. So, the change is going to have to come from the private sector and innovation, not from policy, or at least most of the change.

In addition, to Brown, it’s clear that “no countries are going to ban animal agriculture or meat consumption, there’s essentially no chance.” But, there’s a free-market consumer-driven approach that one can apply instead, and this understanding drove him to start Impossible Foods, which develops plant-based substitutes for meat products. As their website states, the philosophy is that “The best way to reduce your carbon footprint, limit global warming, halt the collapse of biodiversity, save wildlife and ensure enough clean water for all of us is to ditch meat from animals.” 

Thus, Brown set out to invent and perfect a technology to make the best, most delicious, healthy, affordable meat, fish, and dairy foods in the world, and no one will ever want to buy the animal products.” Furthermore, Impossible Foods intends to scale this technology to “effectively make animal agriculture obsolete by 2035.” “I picked 2035 because I thought we could realistically achieve our goal […], and it needed to be urgent, so that’s what we set as our target,” he added.

Patrick O. Brown, Founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, brings a wealth of research to support the environmental benefits of ditching animal agriculture. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

Being at the forefront of research and development of plant-based foods, Brown also introduced several encouraging factors about the impact of halting industrial meat production. He described how about a third of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere warming our planet right now came from animal agriculture over the past several hundred years, yet unlike fossil fuel emissions, these are reversible. The reason is that the carbon dioxide emissions from the livestock industry almost entirely trace back to the destruction of biomass that existed on earth before we cleared land for livestock.

Brown then explained that the CO2 from clearing biomass can be converted directly back into plant biomass through photosynthesis, “the most powerful carbon factor technology on earth optimized over billions of years.”  Based on one of his recent research studies, the amount of carbon dioxide one could capture by taking back and restoring the land currently dedicated to animal agriculture is the equivalent of about 22 years’ worth of current fossil fuel emissions. The optimum path forward is two-pronged:

If we can reach net-zero [fossil fuel emissions] and phase out animal agriculture over the next 15 years, the negative emissions will lower greenhouse gas levels to below what they were at the turn of the century in the year 2000. We can turn back the clock, not all the way back to pre-industrial times, but back to where we were in the year 2000 by those two actions. But that does not happen unless we drastically reduce or eliminate animal agriculture.

Taking a visionary approach, Brown added that this wouldn’t be bad for farmers, either. They currently rely on the billions of dollars from the government spent on supporting the animal agriculture industry, which is not self-sustaining from a business point of view. So, the simplest thing the government could do is to “just stop doing what they’re doing, propping up an industry that is incredibly destructive and would fade away into history of its own accord without subsidies.”

Subsequently, Brown brought up the hope and expectation by many that a functional carbon market will emerge over the next few years. In response, “the vast majority of the land currently being used to raise animals for food could produce much more income by restoring the original biomass and selling the carbon from that restoration.” 

In fact, in Brown’s estimation, if farmers recognized this potential opportunity, “they could be the heroes in rescuing the planet.” “Rather than being the problem,” he concluded, “they could be the solution to climate change and biodiversity collapse.” Overall, Brown’s far-reaching analysis brought a resounding dose of optimism to counterbalance the dire projections everyone heard throughout COP26.

To conclude Tzu Chi’s push for vegetarianism at COP26, the SDG Action Team held a final side event that afternoon, entitled “No More Omissions: Addressing the Ambition and Scale of Change Required in Global Food Systems.” The eight speakers were: Juliette Tronchon, Policy and Public Affairs Specialist International, ProVeg International; Barry Gardiner, Member of Parliament for Brent North under the Labour Party; Sabrina Ahmed, Senior Campaigns and Policy Officer, Vegan Society; Mia Macdonald, Executive Director, Brighter Green; Carina Millstone, Executive Director, Feedback Global; Nick Palmer, Head of Compassion in World Farming UK; Lana Weidgenant, Deputy Partnerships Director, Zero Hour; and Ashley Yong representing Tzu Chi. 

Six of the eight speakers pose for a photo: From left to right, Juliette Tronchon, Barry Gardiner, Sabrina Ahmed, Mia Macdonald, Ashley Yong, and Carina Millstone. Photo/Tzu Chi SDG Action Team

The eight speakers were: Juliette Tronchon, Policy and Public Affairs Specialist International, ProVeg International; Barry Gardiner, Member of Parliament for Brent North under the Labour Party; Sabrina Ahmed, Senior Campaigns and Policy Officer, Vegan Society; Mia Macdonald, Executive Director, Brighter Green; Carina Millstone, Executive Director, Feedback Global; Nick Palmer, Head of Compassion in World Farming UK; Lana Weidgenant, Deputy Partnerships Director, Zero Hour; and Ashley Yong representing Tzu Chi.

The panel upheld the impact of individual behavioral change, one person at a time:

We hope to promote deep down, individual behavioral transformation that we wish to see in everyone’s daily action. Never underestimate the power of individual consumption practices and also the potential potential potential of faith-based of faith-based organizations.


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