The Awareness Gap

There is an almost complete lack of awareness of the cruelty involved in the raising and killing of animals for food,
as well as the consequences for the environment, says Trent Grassian


“The greater the threat, the greater the gap in knowledge, the more urgent and more impossible is the decision.” – Ulrich Beck

Eating animal-derived foods is quite literally destroying the planet and our health, and causing immeasurable suffering. Yet virtually every component of this threat seems to be invisible to modern consumers.

Conversations about climate change predominantly focus on fossil fuels and transportation, even though the consumption of animal foods is capable of destroying the planet without any help from other industries. Without changes to current consumption levels, emissions from dairy and meat will likely exceed the threshold for achieving 2°C of climate change. Even in the United Nation’s ‘ideal’ scenario sector emissions would continue to increase at least 19 percent by 2050 if we continue to ignore the ever-increasing over-consumption of animal foods.

It is easy to forget that eating meat, dairy and eggs is destroying our planet when we don’t even see the animals being used to produce these foods. Just where are the animals that create these emissions? Sure, I see a handful of sheep or cows while riding  the train through the British countryside, but these represent a minuscule proportion of  the 100 billion animals killed annually for human food.


Not only are the animals we are eating hidden from view, but so are the risks inherent in these foods. Ulrich Beck refers to the modern ‘risk society’ as a place where risk is not only ‘omnipresent’ but often unknown or minimised. As people go about their daily lives, buying pre-packaged, pre-processed foods, the underlying effects to health, the environment and the animals are hidden and largely invisible.

The key to changing the world is spreading knowledge. A greater understanding of the roles animal foods play in individual and global harm is our greatest tool and within the past two decades these risks have begun to receive some much-needed attention and research. As Beck states:

‘Only a strong, competent public sphere ‘armed’ with scientific arguments is capable of separating the scientific wheat from the chaff and of reconquering the power of independent judgment from the institutions for regulations technology, namely, politics and law’.

Right now, the ‘chaff’ often not only masquerades as the ‘wheat’, but it often over- shadows it entirely. While there remains a general lack of knowledge about animal agriculture’s massive risks, what is known is often mixed with rampant misinformation and bad science. For instance, a 2015 study claiming lettuce was worse for the environment than bacon received widespread attention globally. Numerous responses (e.g. Erik Marcus’) showed the research to be meaningless, measuring emissions per calorie so that healthy foods would appear worse. Nonetheless, the impact of such faulty ‘findings’ cannot be discounted.

A 2015 study found that just 12 percent of Dutch and 6 percent of Americans surveyed were aware of the substantial environmental impacts of consuming meat. As research has shown, people tend to lack knowledge about the connections between climate change and animal agriculture, while believing that their own consumption does not have any particular effect on global emissions.

A general lack of knowledge is perpetuated by the ‘ livestock policy vacuum’, whereby ‘[t]he dearth of policies and funding to tackle livestock emissions stands in marked contrast to the abundance of government support afforded to meat and dairy producers’. The result can be described as a ‘ cycle of inertia’: governments fear the potential consequences of trying to affect consumption patterns; governments don’t act; people thus are unaware of the problem; so government doesn’t experience pressure to act; and so on.

By increasing your knowledge you can not only change your own actions, but inspire change in others, in retailers and in public policy.



This article is part of the Creative Commons and is free to publish under a CC licence.