US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Pope Vegan the First?

A vegan organization’s publicity student contains practical Lenten wisdom.

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The vegans are organized! Or, they clearly know how to get media attention at least. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is well-known for its impressive publicity stunts, such as tracking down models and celebrities willing to pose fur-and-everything-else-less to raise attention for animal rights. In February a vegan organization similarly went on the hunt for a unique celebrity endorsement.

In a personal appeal to Pope Francis that ran in the New York Times, the Million Dollar Vegan campaign offered $1 million to a charity of the pope’s choice should he pledge to follow a plant-based diet this Lent. The campaign’s spokesperson is an endearing 12-year-old vegan activist, Genesis Butler of Long Beach, California. “Farming and slaughtering animals causes a lot of suffering and is also a leading cause of climate change, deforestation, and species loss,” Butler wrote, asking for a meeting in Rome so that she could make her pitch in person.

The vegan campaigners were clever—or Catholic—enough to cite pertinent admonishments on the care of creation included in the pope’s own “green” encyclical. “In . . . Laudato Si’, you stated that every effort to protect and improve our world will involve changes in lifestyle, production, and consumption,” Butler wrote. “I agree with all my heart and seek your support in tackling one of the largest underlying causes of the problems we face: animal agriculture.”

Vegans have already established a reputation for being, well, scolding, if not self-righteous. Ethical oversharing aside, however, Butler does have a point about the contemporary diet, at least in the world’s advanced economies, and its deleterious impact on the natural world. 

Cattle ranching is a blunt contributor to deforestation, often in some of the planet’s most fragile ecosystems. Getting meat to your plate means the movement of mountains of corn, soybeans, and other grains to meat-growing animals we Homo sapiens consume on a industrialized scale, to say nothing of the often cruel conditions endured by the animals who are the raw material of this production system. Animal feed in its turn is produced through the liberal deployment of fertilizer and pesticides; oceans of fuel are refined and consumed to bring feed to the animals and the animals to market.

According to an Environmental Working Group estimate, the United States alone requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer tossed across 150 million acres of cropland to keep its meat machinery running. That vast process generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, while the inevitable gaseous output from U.S. cattle is estimated to generate 20 percent of overall U.S. methane emissions, a significant contribution to greenhouse gas in the global environment.

Personally I am, alas, far away from giving up meat permanently, and it is hard to imagine a fellow from the land of the gaucho and the asada grill prepared to leave animal products behind for good. But the vegan challenge makes a worthy penitential option for a season typically directed at addressing bad habits and making amends.

A United Nation study suggests that the Earth is 12 years away from a perilous tipping point if more is not done now to confront global warming. Addressing that crisis will require large-scale interventions to move markets toward sustainable energy sources, but an effective response will also require thousands of small lifestyle adjustments, as suggested in Laudato Si’. A diet for a sustainable planet is a reasonable option to include among them. Here’s hoping Pope Francis answers this million dollar challenge.­

This article also appears in the April 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 4, page 42).

Image: Anna Peizer on Unsplash

Published: 
Thursday, April 4, 2019