COVID Is Shutting Down The Meat Industry

Just as the virus shut down car culture and traffic, it is shutting down meat processing:

Tyson Foods, one of the U.S.’s biggest meat processors, didn’t mince words in a full page New York Times spread that ran Sunday, in which they warned, “the food supply chain is breaking.”

“As pork, beef and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” John Tyson, Chairman of the Board of Tyson Foods, wrote in a letter published as an advertisement. “As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

Tyson then goes deep Orwell by adding that millions of animals will be “depopulated.” Apart from the cruelty, apart from the fact that industrial meat production will be a source of future pandemics, apart from the fact that meat is a climate disaster, Americans will now get a chance to discover that that daily life without gobs and gobs of meat is…fine.

If COVID-19 Doesn’t Force Us To Re-think Meat…

Pig Farm
(Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals)

Then every future pandemic is on us. Sorry, but it is true. Because the way we farm, hunt, sell and eat animals is a massive underlying vector.

Zoonotic viruses almost always leap to humans directly from our livestock or from wildlife, the slaughter and hunting of which bring susceptible human hosts in particularly close contact with live animals and their infected tissues and fluids.

Both farmed and caged wild animals create the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. Extraordinarily high population densities, prolonged heightened stress levels, poor sanitation, and unnatural diets create a veritable speed-dating event for viruses to rendezvous with a weakened human host and transcend the species barrier. In fact, we know that this happens routinely—it’s a simple throw of the dice for one of these leaps to coincide with subtle adaptations that allow the virus to transmit more efficiently from human to human. Swapping host species often allows pathogens to take a more sinister turn, causing severe illness or death in their new host despite only triggering mild symptoms in their animal reservoir.

Time and again, zoonotic viruses emerge from these contexts: wave after wave of avian flu, swine fluNipah virus … the list goes on.

Of course, this is reason #363 why humanity needs to shift to a plant-based diet. But it is a major, and at the moment, highly relevant one. After this is all over, will anyone pay attention?

Eating For The Planet

I’ve been a big advocate of using your personal choices to reduce your climate and environmental footprint–because you can and it DOES make a difference. So I am happy to see this sort of research:

Maya Almaraz, a postdoctoral researcher who works with Houlton at UC Davis, said she wishes she had a magic wand that could make everyone understand just how powerful their food choices can be.

“A lot of people feel really helpless when it comes to climate change, like they can’t make a difference,” said Almaraz. “What our research is showing is that your personal decisions really can have a big impact.”

Different foods have vastly different carbon footprints. Swap your steak for fish, for example, and you get an eight-fold reduction in emissions. And if you’re game to switch that to beans or lentils your emissions drop to near zero. It really gets interesting when lots of us start making similar changes.

Go forth, and eat wisely, and maybe others around you will be inspired to do the same…

Food And Sustainability In 11 Charts

Or, “How To Ruin Thanksgiving But Save The Planet.”

There is no human activity which affects the planet more than what we eat and how we produce it. I’ve long argued that the single biggest thing any individual can do to reduce his or her impact on climate change, land use, water quality, soil loss, and biodiversity is to change what’s on the plate. Fewer calories, less protein, much less or (even better) no meat and animal products, and organic. That’s the simple formula for radically reducing the human footprint and giving the natural world a chance.

Here, courtesy of the World Resources Institute, is a visual explanation of that argument. Print it out and take it to Thanksgiving dinner!

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Sustainable Is Also Healthy

In my recent Outside story about sustainable eating I didn’t get into the question of whether foods which are easier on the planet are also healthy (or healthier). So this Washington Post story, which looks at whether there is scientific consensus or disagreement, on a number of dietary choices, caught my eye.

Check out this summary chart. Looks to me as if there is pretty solid scientific consensus on the health benefits of a more plant-based, low environmental footprint diet.

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It reinforces what I believe about plant-based foods. They are a three-fer: 1) Good for you; 2) Good for the planet; and 3) Good for animals.

I find that logic overwhelming, which leaves taste and habit as the only real barriers to a plant-based diet. And good recipes (and chefs like Dan Barber) can easily obliterate those barriers.

Diet And The Planet

1920px-ecologically_grown_vegetables

After writing about eating seafood more sustainably, my editor at Outside and I figured we might as well go Full Monty and broaden the question to take a hard look at eating more sustainably in general. So I dove into lots of research on how our food choices affect the planet, and you can read the results here.

Key takeaways:

  • your food choices are the easiest way for you to dramatically shrink your environmental footprint
  • eating less or no meat has the biggest impact on dietary sustainability
  • if you want to maximize both your nutrition and the environmental benefits of your diet, eat more pulses/legumes: lentils, beans, etc.
  • we worry way too much about whether we are getting enough protein. We get plenty, even if we are vegetarians, and eating more protein than we need is very costly to the environment
  • going vegetarian can halve your impact on climate, and land and water use; going vegan can reduce it by around three-quarters (I was impressed by the extra environmental bump you get from going from vegetarian to vegan).
  • eating organic has a demonstrable benefit to soils, waterways and climate.
  • one of the biggest environmental tragedies related to diet is food waste–which in the US is a shocking 40%. That also makes reducing food waste in your home a huge opportunity to shrink your environmental impact.

So, to sum up, if you really want to eat more sustainably: Eat less or no meat, and eat  organic and locally whenever possible. Stop eating so much protein, and stop eating so much in general (overeating is costly to the planet and your health). Oh, and stop wasting so much food!

Counterarguments: Do Vegetarians Kill More Animals Than Meat-Eaters?

“Hey, all you vegetarians! What about me?”

Yes, argues an Australian professor Mike Archer:

To produce protein from grazing beef, cattle are killed. One death delivers (on average, across Australia’s grazing lands) a carcass of about 288 kilograms. This is approximately 68% boneless meat which, at 23% protein equals 45kg of protein per animal killed. This means 2.2 animals killed for each 100kg of useable animal protein produced.

Producing protein from wheat means ploughing pasture land and planting it with seed. Anyone who has sat on a ploughing tractor knows the predatory birds that follow you all day are not there because they have nothing better to do. Ploughing and harvesting kill small mammals, snakes, lizards and other animals in vast numbers. In addition, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year.

However, the largest and best-researched loss of sentient life is the poisoning of mice during plagues.

Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.

At least 100 mice are killed per hectare per year (500/4 × 0.8) to grow grain. Average yields are about 1.4 tonnes of wheat/hectare; 13% of the wheat is useable protein. Therefore, at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef.

Well, it’s definitely an interesting argument. But it relies on a number of factors, which don’t always apply. For example, the numbers would be much different for grain-fed beef (i.e. the majority of beef), because the grain being produced for cattle feed will also kill lots of mice and other field species.

Also, while Australia may be rich in natural grasslands, there has been enormous clear-cutting and habitat-destruction involved in creating landscapes around the globe that are suitable for livestock production.

This argument also assumes widespread use of poisons and pesticides in the plant farming. Organic farming almost certainly kills many fewer animals.

It focuses on wheat, and wheat protein. More protein dense crops, such as soy or quinoa, would alter the balance.

In short, this article compares the least-cruel, least-destructive form of cattle farming against the most-cruel, most-destructive form of plant farming.

Still, the central point–that even a vegetarian or vegan diet is not cruelty or blood-free–is correct. I have never assumed my vegan diet somehow means my eating habits are free from murder. But I have little doubt that being vegan is much less cruel than eating the factory-farmed meat that gets slapped down on the vast majority of plates around the globe.

And while I have always understood that there are forms of livestock farming that are much less cruel than factory farming, the proportion of meat produced globally with these methods is vanishingly small. More important, while some forms of livestock farming are much less cruel than factory-farming, there is another perhaps even more compelling reason to favor plants over meat (which is not addressed by the argument Archer is making): the disproportionate impact on the climate of meat-eating.

Climate change is arguably the greatest killer of all. And that is a very powerful argument against meat-eating even if the immediate cruelty trade-off is not quite as obvious as most vegetarians and vegans might assume.

A Drone Program That’s Easy To Love

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1926278254/drone-on-the-farm-an-aerial-expose

Journalist Will Potter wants to use drones to monitor factory farms, especially in states that have adopted ag-gag laws:

The agriculture industry is waging an international campaign to create a media blackout. In response to a series of investigations by animal-welfare groups that has resulted in criminal prosecutions and consumer outrage, the industry is promoting new “ag-gag” laws that make it illegal to photograph factory farms and slaughterhouses. About half a dozen US states currently have these laws, and now this censorship model is being adopted internationally.

So how should journalists respond to investigative methods and sources being criminalised? Just as the best response to governments banning books is to encourage reading them, the best response to banning photographs is to encourage more photography. It’s time for journalists to send in the drones.

The factory farm lobby is already fighting the idea and trying to extend ag-gag prohibitions to the airspace over big farms, a push given some urgency after a Texas drone hobbyist inadvertently recorded a tide of blood flowing from a slaughterhouse into a nearby river (the slaughterhouse was shut down).

Naturally, that only makes Potter all the more determined to open up a top-down view of the world of factory farms. And he is winning lots of support. His Kickstarter campaign seeking $35,000 to fund a drone fleet hit its funding goal in just five days, and donations eventually topped $75,000.

I have never been a fan of drones, whether they are used as an anti-terrorist weapon, as an annoying and privacy-invading thrill for hobbyists, as a tool of law enforcement, or to further invade the lives of wild animals. But it has to be said that there are some uses that are quite inspired (anti-poaching, for example), and this is definitely one of them.

Coming soon to a factory farm near you: anti-drone missile batteries?

The Mystery Of Mark Bittman

I am a fan of Mark Bittman’s thoughtful columns in the new York Times. He often writes about animal welfare and the impact of livestock on climate, and understands better than most the connection between factory-farming, meat-eating, and these issues.

What I find puzzling is that, knowing as much as he does about the catastrophic impact of meat and livestock on both the planet and well-being of animals, he can’t quite bring himself to advocate a vegan diet. Sure, he urges readers to eat less meat, and to avoid factory-farmed meat. But he can’t quite quit meat himself, or make the case for a plant-based diet to his readers.

I know, I know, eating less meat is much better than eating lots of meat. And, yes, Bittman is a proponent of a Vegan Before 6 diet. But just because you don’t eat animal protein before 6 doesn’t really mean you can’t–or won’t–eat plenty of meat. You could have a steak per night on that diet. To me, a Vegan Before 6 approach is a little like advocating to an alcoholic a “Teetotaler before 6” strategy. How do you think that would work?

The impact of this failure to really go where his logic takes him permeates Bittman’s writing, and it makes it kind of frustrating to read. There are few people more eloquent about the negative consequences of our meat addiction for the planet, for animals, and for human health. But he takes himself and his logic right up to the edge of the obvious conclusion (we, the planet, and billions of animals would be much better off if humans transitioned away from animal protein and toward a plant-based diet) and….stops.

A good example is Bittman’s (almost) excellent recent column on last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March.” Once again, Bittman does an excellent job, referencing the views of George Monbiot and the incisive new book by Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” explaining how humanity must address climate change and the scope of the unfolding disaster demands that we change the way our economies and our politics works.

I agree with that. But Bittman also uses the column and the scale of the People’s Climate March to riff on the importance of grassroots action, and the power of the individual. I also agree with that. Then Bittman outlines the various responses the planet can adopt to climate change:

There remain several possible responses to climate change. One is stupidity: “There is no crisis.” (A subset of this is to acknowledge the crisis privately, but deny it or choose to ignore it publicly.) A second is hopelessness: “It’s all over.” (Sadly, many of my friends fall into this category.) A third is blind faith in technology, as if it were easier to modify the power of nature than to change a system that resists not only radical change but even tinkering.

But a fourth is action, a fight to regain democracy (a.k.a. “who is government for?”) and begin to remember quaint little slogans like “the greatest good for the greatest number,” to recognize that the payoff for seriously fighting climate change is not only the survival of our species (and others) but a better society. As Naomi Klein says, “Climate change isn’t just a disaster. It’s also our best chance to demand and build a better world.”

Notice what is missing (again)? Confronting the power of corporations in our politics and changing capitalism would be great. And it is necessary. But what is the single most powerful choice an individual can make right now to address climate change? Yep, you got it. Choosing not to eat meat. You don’t need legislation. You don’t need international treaties. You don’t need a revolution. You just need to make one basic change in your lifestyle. And if enough people had the courage and awareness to make that change, the climate disaster would be dramatically reduced. That seems like a sacrifice worth making.

I plan to get a lot deeper into this argument in the near future. But it is surprising and frustrating to me that even someone like Mark Bittman, who knows these issues inside out, cannot quite bring himsefl to draw the obvious conclusion.

In his column, Bittman quotes Monbiot as saying that with regard to addressing climate change governments “propose everything except the obvious solution.” I kind of feel the same way about Bittman and any number of prominent leaders in the climate and environmental movements.

Can Test Tube Meat Replace Dead Cows?

James McWilliams has his doubts:

David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

You know the meat industry will jump on that infection and allergy point, and scare the bejesus out of any consumer who is tempted to try lab meat.

But I think McWilliams’ point that processed lab meat is not really that different from processed soy gets to the most fundamental point, which I raised yesterday: if the choice it to simply move on from meat and cultivate a new diet and culture around delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine,  or contort oneself in all sorts of complicated ways to try and find complicated and highly processed (and dubious) substitutes for meat, isn’t it um, easier, to simply go for the veggies?

I know, people will say meat is culture, our bodies crave animal fat, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And that it is not that easy to simply move humanity past meat. But what if eating test tube meat leaves you with a craving for the real thing? What if test tube meat has other health and environmental side-effects? That doesn’t sound like an easy solution either.

To me, the simplest approach–just stop thinking about meat and meat substitutes as food–is the most promising approach. I am amazed at how quickly my body and mind stopped craving meat. And in fact I now, through some strange evolution of my body and its senses, find meat actively unappealing. It just wasn’t that hard.