Meat Is Killing The Planet (Part 2): The Carbon Chasm

Forget the floating pigs (I know you are eager to forget the floating pigs). Perhaps the most compelling planet-saving rationale for giving up meat is the massive carbon footprint generated by the global meat industry. When people think about reducing their personal carbon footprint (if they think about it), they usually turn their thermostats down, buy fuel-efficient cars, and shut off lights when they are not using them. All good things to do.

But a choice that people don’t usually think about–and that has an outsized impact on their personal carbon footprint–is meat-eating. Numbers are inherently slippery, but one recent study concluded that the contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to global warming contributed by a vegan are about 40% less than the GHG contributions of a meat-lover:

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America’s most prominent vegan?

So in some ways, choosing to eat meat is like choosing to have a few Hummers in your garage, cranking your heat and AC up, and leaving all your lights on. Most environmentally conscious people would be appalled by a neighbor that lived like that. But somehow meat doesn’t enter into the carbon equation when people are thinking about their personal impact on the planet. And it should because it is such a major factor.

So think about getting rid of those Hummers on your plate. And if you are worried that your friends and family will scorn you for going vegetarian or vegan, I’ve got good news for you. America, despite it’s meat-celebrating culture, is warming up to the meatless:

About half of American voters view vegetarians favorably, and less than a quarter view them unfavorably. Vegans are viewed less positively, but still have significantly more than a third of American voters seeing them favorably. Generally, women, Democrats, and younger respondents have a more positive opinion of vegetarians and vegans. These are among the results of a poll of 500 registered American voters conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a North Carolina-based firm, from February 21st to 24th. The survey asked what respondents like to eat, what they think of fast-food, which chain restaurants they like most, and a number of other food-related issues, as well as key demographic information.

So you can be healthy, planet-friendly, AND popular (though apparently you’ll need to go easy on the vegan righteousness). And there will be fewer dead pigs floating in the rivers.


The Story Of Bill And Lou, Meat Eating, And The Future Of Humanity

This is very well said. From Dr. Lori Marino, of the Kimmela Center For Animal Advocacy, in a compelling deconstruction (via the sad story of two oxen called Bill and Lou) of the belief that meat-eating is in any way sustainable:

The reason the planet and all of its inhabitants are in such a desperate state is because our species has continued to exploit everyone and everything without compassion. Killing other animals reinforces that insensitivity and the very attitudes that have led to global destruction. We are currently facing the sixth mass extinction event, human overpopulation and starvation, and devastating planetary destruction from rampant ecological exploitation and climate change. The same insensitivity that leads to lack of concern for Bill and Lou as individuals has led us to the brink of global devastation. They are intimately related and anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous. Every individual currently in factory farms is Bill and Lou and factory farms are not only engines of unspeakable suffering for the luxury wants of our species but are contributing substantially to global warming.

Check out the Kimmela Center’s Facebook page here. And blog here.

End Times For Meat?

Asks Time’s Josh Ozersky

Catte Feed Lot CAFOSure hope so. Ozersky explains that the future for meat is looking grim:

But while the bacon panic wasn’t real, there is a crisis in our meat supply and it’s no joke. We produce a lot of meat, but we feed a lot of Americans, and more all the time, thanks to the simple laws of multiplication, along with the simple addition of immigration. There is a drought, so there is less grain and corn for the animals to eat. Most of the producers are marginally profitable at best, and Americans refuse to pay more for meat than they do for Froot Loops, despite the fact that no one has to raise and feed and kill and process Froot Loops. I’m not kidding about this: go to the supermarket and see how much a package of pork chops cost, or half a chicken, and then compare that price to a box of Froot Loops.

All the things that consumers have, rightly, come to fear and distrust about the meat industry are a result of this problem. Hormones, to make the animals grow faster? Check. Antibiotics, to allow animals be cramped and crammed and stressed without dying of infections? Check. Farrowing crates and beak clipping, so as to squeeze more meat more efficiently out of factories? Check. Even the vile pink slime that everyone hates so much is simply a product, literally, of the beef industry’s need to get maximal yield out of each animal. We all love happy animals on small farms, but there’s no way to feed Americans living in or near poverty, as well as having tons of meat to export to China and elsewhere. The result is that producers are bumping off animals as fast as they can and getting out of the business before feed costs get worse and they are forced out. That’s where the bacon shortage comes in. Less pigs, less pork, less pork bellies for yummy, smoky bacon.

To Ozersky, this means a future of expensive, unhealthy meat and abused animals. I would argue we already have two of the three (yes, meat is cheap). He seems to lament the prospect. However, he doesn’t really have much to say on what to do about it.

So I’ll help him out: when a product is getting more expensive, more unhealthy, more ethically execrable, and more environmentally costly (which Ozersky doesn’t really go into), then perhaps the public should stop consuming that product.

I know. Radical idea. But Is it really that hard for Americans and the rest of humanity to imagine a future that isn’t fueled by cheap, factory-farmed meat?

Mark Bittman Is Coming Out (Slowly)

It’s been interesting to track NYT’s food writer Mark Bittman’s growing preoccupation and alarm over the human, environmental, and animal costs of meat production and consumption. He’s not yet an all-out vegetarian crusader. But he seems to be getting there one column at a time.

Here, he calls on meat eaters to be heroes by….eating less meat. Okay, that’s not terribly inspiring, but he is quoting Bruce Willis in Armageddon, so at least he has the Apocalypytic context right:

Here’s the thing: It’s seldom that such enormous problems have such simple solutions, but this is one that does. We can tackle climate change without inventing new cars or spending billions on mass transit or trillions on new forms of energy, though all of that is not only desirable but essential.

In the meantime, we can begin eating less meat tomorrow. That’s something any of us can do, with no technological advances. If personal choice enacted on a large scale could literally save the world, maybe we have to talk about it that way. We could be heroes, like Bruce Willis in “Armageddon,” only maybe the sacrifice is on a more modest and easier scale. (You already changed your light bulbs; how about eating a salad?)

Well, “heroic” and “modest” don’t usually go together. So I’ll stick to my personal hope that one by one people simply decide to stop eating meat altogether, instead of eating the planet into fiery, supervirus-infected oblivion, one heaping platter of sirloin at a time (while aiding and abetting an animal Holocaust for good measure).

I’d urge you to read Bittman’s piece, anyhow, because even if his rallying cry is a bit timid, his summary of all the impacts of meat eating and production is concise and bracing. It came out of a request the NYT made, asking readers to defend the ethics of eating meat (Bittman was a judge who helped pick the winner and finalists). He writes:

A fascinating discussion. But you need not have a philosophy about meat-eating to understand that we — Americans, that is — need to do less of it. In fact, only if meat were produced at no or little expense to the environment, public health or animal welfare (as, arguably, some of it is), would our decisions about whether to raise and kill animals for food come down to ethics.

That seems odd to me, since it is exactly all of those things (cost to the environment, public health, and animal welfare), which are at the heart of any evaluation of the ethics of meat eating and production (especially factory farming).

Anyhow, it feels like it won’t be long before Bittman is writing about vegan cooking, and wondering why anyone eats any meat at all.

Factory Farms Are Killing You (Reason #463)

"Mmm, there's nothing better than tetracycline in the morning."

One of the most short-sighted and objectionable practices of factory farms (sadly, there are so many to choose from) is the massive use of antibiotics on healthy animals in an effort to stave off illness that might prevent getting them to the slaughter. And when I say massive, I mean massive. US factory farms pour some 30 million pounds of antibiotics into their animals every year (in contrast, humans consume just a few million pounds).

That’s a lot of antibiotics, and it is a practice that helps boost the profit margins of both Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. There’s a problem, though. A big one. Using such outsize quantities of antibiotics helps breed antibiotic resistant bacteria. And those hardy little bacteria kill lots of people every year.

The smart policy response is obvious: stop feeding healthy animals so many antibiotics. Europe, which so many American politicians like to scorn, has banned use of antibiotics in this manner since 1998. And what has the FDA, which has understood this problem since 1976, done? Nothing. Well, actually more than nothing. It just made a lot of farm and pharma lobbyists happy, and reneged on a commitment to ban the practice of feeding healthy animals antibiotics:

The FDA has been aware of the resistance problem for many years. In 1977, it decided to act on scientific evidence and order farmers to stop using penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals. The law required the agency to act immediately. But under pressure from Big Ag and Big Pharma (80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to healthy animals), the agency dragged its feet and did nothing, even though public health and environmental organizations, including the American Medical Association(PDF), urged it to act.

With scientific appeals falling on deaf ears for decades, the Natural Resource Defense Council, joined by other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit last spring seeking to make the FDA follow its own rules. In a calculated attempt to undermine the legal basis for the NRDC suit, the FDA’s recent reversal simply nullified the original 1977 order, in effect wiping out 35 years of history and scientific research.

So there you have it: your (totally corrupted) government at work.

Your smart policy response? Stop eating factory-farmed meat. Even better, stop eating all meat.

Where’s The Beef?

You may not know it, but the single most powerful act you as a human being can take to fight global warming, fight the abuse of animals, and fight the outbreak of global superbugs like avian flu is to become a vegetarian (if you want to know why, read this book). How’s that for a three-fer?

So against that context, we have a good news/bad news situation to report.

The good news: Americans are eating less meat.

The bad news: Americans are still meat gluttons (we consume one-sixth of the total meat consumed annually by the planet, but represent only one-twentieth of the population).

(Source: Daily Livestock Report)

The NYT’s Mark Bittman digs into the data, and the possible reasons Americans are slightly reducing their meat consumption. At least part of the reduction seems to be that Americans are increasingly concerned about the moral and environmental implications of eating meat.

That’s a big deal, I think, because it suggests that awareness and knowledge (and not just cost) can change people’s attitudes about meat, and the frequency with which they eat it. And I hope to do a lot more writing about this because the consumption of meat has such a huge impact on so many critical issues.

The Meat Maze

It seems pretty clear that factory-farmed meat is an abomination: both for the animal and for your health. So pushing that off your plate shouldn’t be that hard.

The real conundrum comes with the choice between no meat or organic, free-range meat (with its image of happy, frolicking, four-footers gamboling across a green nirvana–before the axe cleaves swiftly and painlessly).

Professor James McWilliams has been trying to make the case for vegetarianism, and he is growing weary with the toil. He has long been arguing that organic, free-range meat is not the panacea that morally-conscious meat-lovers believe. He has troubled himself to point out the environmental and health costs of this sort of meat as well (they are an order of magnitude less than the costs of factory-farmed meat, but still…). And he finds that instead of putting aside their steak knives, most people are more likely to stab him with them.

Where I break from most conscientious consumers is in my decision to avoid meat from free-range animals and other alternative sources. This position hasn’t won any popularity contests for me. My occasional critiques of free-range animal farming have led to, among other things, threats by a butcher to separate me from a particularly valued appendage as well as frequent charges that I’m a hired gun for agribusiness. Both concepts are equally difficult to contemplate.

My typical line of attack on free-range systems has been to illuminate hidden or unpublicized environmental and health-related pitfalls—some minor, others not so—in an attempt to persuade ethically-minded consumers that although free-range might be better than factory-farmed, it is not the panacea so many make it out to be. But this approach, for a wide variety of reasons (many of them my own fault), has been a bust.

Turns out every study has a counter-study; every assumption a counter-assumption; every bold statement an angry butcher waiting on the other end to castrate, well, my argument. It took me a while to figure this out, but drawing on scientific literature to tarnish the supposed purity of free-range farming is, when you get right down to it, counterproductive. Paradoxically, by critiquing free-range animal products with the weapons of science, I’ve possibly inspired more consumers to eat more free-range meat than to give it up. It’s a dispiriting thought at best.

Prof. McWilliams is not happy with this result. So he’s giving up. Or at least trying a new line of argument. That line is that even though free-range animals live happier lives, we are still, in the end, taking their lives.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm?

"You plan to do WHAT?!"

This is a fine argument for anyone who stopped eating meat after they saw Babe. They are morally opposed to killing animals when other foods, like rice and beans, are abundantly available (or at least that is my story). The problem is that I don’t think Professor McWilliams is going to win many new converts with it. No one who happily tucks into free-range meat these days is unaware that the animal on their plate has been, um, killed. And they are okay with that.

Sadly, Professor McWilliams will have to go back to slogging away in the trenches of environmental and health-based argument. If people really understood the true cost of a hamburger (even a delicious, happy, free-range hamburger), that would affect their choices.

Or, maybe Professor McWilliams should just skip that part and instead turn his energies to getting the market to price hamburger according to its full ($200) cost. That would lead to a real revolution in meat-eating.

For those who are morally uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals for meat, but haven’t yet been able to stop eating it, I highly recommend listening to the views of Jonathan Safran Foer.

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