Don't go vegan to save the planet. You can help by being a better meat-eater.

Daniel Payne, Opinion contributor

There are millions of self-described vegans in the United States; recent estimates suggest they are up to 3% of the population and possibly more. They have a host of reasons for justifying their animal-free diets. For one, they argue, animal husbandry is brutal and cruel toward animals; two, they claim that animal farming is ruinous to the environment. 

Vegans are not precisely wrong about all of this, but they're only half-right. It is true that industrial animal farming is ecologically destructive, that it is cruel and barbarous, and that many if not most of the animals unlucky enough to be a part of it suffer in ways that are difficult to comprehend. All of this is well-documented and undeniable. 

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that you have to go vegan. If you’re uncomfortable with animal farming, but are unwilling to adopt the vegan lifestyle, you don’t need to stop eating meat. You just need to eat better meat. 

Less abuse, more environmental care 

The steaks, ground beef and rib chops you buy in most supermarkets is the end result of a long chain of abusive farming practices. But consumers now have the option of buying better, cleaner, more humanely raised and less environmentally destructive meat. 

Today it is relatively simple to find beef, pork and chicken that has been raised locally, on pasture or in woodland, from animals that were allowed to live their lives according to the dictates of their biology, that were happy and content while alive, and that were eventually slaughtered with very minimal suffering. That kind of farming isn’t just good for animals, either. 

Norman Nick inspects grass-fed cattle at the Nick Ranch on July 25, 2006, near Santa Margrita, Calif.

Numerous studies indicate that this meat is better for you in every respect compared to the low-quality stuff one finds in the supermarket .The implication of these studies is that livestock that is allowed to live a healthier life will produce healthier meat.

Vegans, of course, generally object to eating any kind of meat on moral grounds. Yet you can make a solid moral argument that it's perfectly ethical for humans to eat animals. 

Healthier meat, healthier climate

Human beings are part of a long meat-eating evolutionary chain stretching back millions of years; our bodies and our physiology have been shaped countless millennia of a meat-rich omnivorous diet. There is compelling evidence that eating (and eventually cooking) meat essentially created modern human beings; all of that protein gave our ancestors’ brains distinct evolutionary advantages over lower primates and other mammals. Humans did not suddenly stop being part of the food chain just because we evolved; there’s nothing wrong with eating the way we evolved to eat, so long as it’s done appropriately. 

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Healthier meat also makes for a healthier local environment, which can over time lead to a healthier climate. At a time of growing concern about pending catastrophic climate change, this benefit can't be overlooked.

The industrial food chain is heavily dependent upon both monocultural agriculture (large-scale growing of a single crop) and fossil fuels. Mass-produced livestock eat a simple diet of just a few types of crops, and the whole industry requires massive amounts of fossil fuel to house, raise, feed, slaughter, package and transport all of those animals all over the country, all the time. The endless fields of corn, wheat and soy needed to supply this system, meanwhile, have an erosive effect on the soil in which they’re grown, generating significant runoff, poisoning local waterways and weakening the overall health of the biosphere.

Pastures can cut carbon emissions

Local pastured farms, meanwhile, not only eschew this destructive paradigm, in some ways they reverse it.  Well-managed pastures, in which native grasses are encouraged to grow through regenerative farming practices, can actually function as highly effective carbon sinks that suck up carbon dioxide and store or sequester it to keep it out of the atmosphere. And silvopasturing (raising livestock in pastures planted with trees) also serves to sequester carbon that would otherwise be released. can actually produce healthier forests, leading to more carbon sequestration. 

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Vegans make some good points regarding the brutalities and inefficiencies of modern agriculture. But eating responsibly and eating vegan aren’t necessarily synonymous. You can still eat meat while protecting and in some cases improving the environment. And producing this meat entails far less animal abuse than the industrial system. 

That’s a win-win. You don’t have to go vegan; you should just be a better meat-eater. 

Daniel Payne is an assistant editor at "The College Fix." 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change: Don't go vegan to slow it down, just eat better meat