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Meat: the new diapers March 19, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m sure you recently-minted parents out there know about the diaper controversy. Disposable diapers create mountains (literally) of waste. So, maybe twenty years ago, environmentalists started to attack them as yet another example of Americans’ willingness to trade sustainability for convenience. In response, some well-meaning parents decided to go back to smelly, messy cloth diapers. But then people realized that the environmental impact of washing all those cloth diapers was no joke, either. It turned out the story wasn’t as simple as it first seemed, and it wasn’t obvious what a sustainability-minded parent should do.

The current outcry about the unsustainability of meat-eating looks headed toward a similarly unsatisfying end. Proselytizing vegetarians (among them Paul McCartney, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Peter Singer) are pushing a very simple story: if you want to stop global warming, you should stop eating meat. Credible support for this argument comes from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claims that meat consumption is a bigger contributor to global warming than transportation. Since that report was published, the meat-bashing momentum has snowballed, culminating in one subsequently discredited study claiming that meat consumption was responsible for 51% of all global warming emissions!

If only it were that straightforward. The first problem with the blanket directive to eschew meat is that it characterizes all meat as climate-unfriendly. In fact, the global warming impact of different sources of meat (and dairy) varies widely. According to research published in Scientific American, beef cattle are thirteen times worse for the climate than chickens. And on a calorie-for-calorie basis, chicken meat is responsible for fewer greenhouses gases than plant-based foods like apples, bananas, spinach, and rice.* That means that eating low-impact meats like chicken can actually be better for the climate than eating high-impact plant-based foods. Once you start to compare low-impact meats to highly-processed vegetarian alternatives like tofu, a vegetarian diet can start to look downright irresponsible.

Not only does the meat-bashing movement disregard key distinctions between types of meat, it ignores the effects of producing meat in different ways. Nicolette Hahn-Niman elegantly defends the climate credentials of grass-fed beef in an October 2009 piece for the New York Times, and while I don’t agree with every claim she makes, her main point is valid. When cattle are raised on natural prairies – meaning that no rainforest is cleared to graze them and no grain is grown to feed them, but they simply eat naturally-occurring grasses – they have a relatively small climate footprint. That is, relative to conventionally-raised feedlot cattle. The fact that pasturing beef improves its climate “hoofprint” doesn’t, of course, prove that a diet which includes grass-fed beef is as benign as a vegetarian one (and that’s where I think Niman’s claims are overblown), but it does mean that even beef-eating doesn’t have to be quite the villain it was made out to be.

Finally, focusing on meat-eating as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions ignores other food-based sources of emissions that might actually be bigger, but are less-easily quantified. I haven’t been able to track down hard numbers on this, but commentators like James McWilliams in his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly have identified the energy used in food preparation as one of the main contributors to global warming. That means that a burger cooked in a few minutes on the stove might be a more climate-friendly dinner than a (vegan!) pot of rice and beans that requires an hour of simmering. 

So a better slogan than “Stop Eating Meat to Stop Global Warming” might be “Stop Eating Conventionally-Produced Meat from Ruminants, Highly-Processed Foods, Foods Grown on Clearcut Forest and Foods Requiring Substantial Cooking to Stop Global Warming.” Think it’ll catch on?

*Calculated using greenhouse gas emissions per kg food produced for consumption in the UK (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/how_low_can_we_go.pdf) and calories per 100g food eaten (http://www.keepandshare.com/doc/13243/calories)



1. Chandelle - March 20, 2010

Thanks for this. McWilliams’ book was instrumental in expanding my understanding of food efficiency and sustainability. Incidentally, he mentions in the book that he was unable to prove that meat production on a mass scale could be sustainable. I think it’s fair to say that we cannot continue to eat meat at our current rate if we want to return to sustainable closed-loop family-farm agriculture for animals. Reducing meat consumption while emphasizing local, small producers are both wise decisions. The reduction may help to compensate for the extra cost as well.

2. winddancerranch - April 8, 2010

The thing missing from this argument is balance. I support pasture based meat production for a variety of reasons. I object to people saying we should stop raising animals on pasture because their arguments (its not sustainable, its not environmentally friendly, its not economical compared to growing veggies) don’t look at the whole picture. Properly balanced the animals are an important part of maintaining sustainability of land and a farm. The veggies cannot grow year after year on the same soil without replenishment – which veggie only farms supply with nutrients – like fish meal and chemical fertilizers. A good rotation of animals properly managed could perform the same function and I would guess would use less carbon credits than the fish meal after processing and transport were considered. In the vast majority of places on earth our soil evolved in conjunction with animals – removing animals from the picture entirely is not going to achieve the ultimate objective of a clean environment.

3. Niki - April 21, 2010

I enjoyed this post – there is so much to take into account that making claims outright against meat to save the world is a bit rich.

One thing that seems to be left out when talking about greenhouse gases, carbon emissions and the like, is that those aren’t the only thing ruining the planet. The huge amounts of untreated manure and animal waste left to permeate the land, seep into the rivers, and fill the air are all obviously terrible for the planet. Why are all these carbon footprint calculations so much more important than the obvious pollution we can see with our eyes? No one needs special formulas or calculations to work that stuff out yet it often gets forgotten when talking climate change.

Angelique - April 22, 2010

Thanks for the comment. I’ve wondered the same thing myself. I’ve even wondered why land and water pollution doesn’t get me personally as riled up as climate change pollution does. I must be tacitly assuming either that land and water pollution are much more easily “fixable” after the fact than global warming, or that we can prevent land and water pollution just with better regulation and enforcement in the meat industry, whereas to prevent warming we would actually have to shrink the industry. I admit these assumptions may not be warranted, though.

4. susie ;) - April 22, 2010

so what’s your stance on washing cloth diapers? If washing cloth diapers is environmentally irresponsible, I suppose you don’t wash your own clothes? Or flush toilets? We have four kids, the bulk of our diapers have lasted through all of them, it amounts to an extra 2 loads of laundry every week, we spend far more time (and waste far more water) washing our clothes. I will never get the argument that using/washing cloth diapers is as bad for the environment as buying disposable diapers (we would have used thousands of disposable diapers, in all, we’ve used about 5 dozen cloth diapers). You are *way* off the mark with this analogy.

susie 😉

5. Niki - April 22, 2010

That might be true – fixing climate change after the fact seems nigh on impossible. Sadly, the problem with land, air and water pollution from factory farming is that it is as irrelevant a concern to the industry as animal welfare – and whilst they have the power to lobby against having to clean up their act business will continue as usual. The sheer amount of waste produced every single day is becoming so damaging to the environment it may as well be as up there with climate change when it comes to how difficult it will be to reverse.

Just as with the rest of Big Agribusiness, all the nasty secrets are kept behind closed doors as consumers would be horrified if they knew the real extent of it. Here are just a few links to just how bad the pollution is, from bursting manure lagoons, the air in surrounding towns causing continuous illnesses to residents, all fishes in surrounding rivers being killed, to the water table being polluted with drugs, toxins and pathogens.


6. Less meat, better meat, less meat, better meat… « From Animal To Meat - May 7, 2012

[…] the climate is a lot more complicated than just cutting meat consumption, as I’ve discussed in prior posts. The most important question we need to ask is, what will we replace it with? If the answer is […]

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