On Saturday, the New York Times published an essay of mine, "The Carnivore's Dilemma," which made the point that all foods--not just meat--play a role in global warming, and that focusing solely on meat (as a veritable flood of media coverage has done of late) is unhelpful, especially since few Americans have any intention of becoming vegans. All eaters, I concluded, can reduce their global warming contribution by avoiding processed foods and those from industrialized farms; reducing their food waste; and buying food that's local and in season.
But fellow Atlantic Food Channel blogger Helene York wrote yesterday that my essay "went too far." Specifically, she objected to my statements that the global warming impact of traditional, grass-based animal farming is markedly lower than those at industrial animal operations. She also argues that the higher purchase price of foods from pasture-based farms put them out of reach for most Americans. Thus, she concludes, advocating for reduced meat consumption is more important than encouraging consumers to buy from pasture-based farms. While I have a boatload of objections to minor points York makes in her post, let me stick to those major areas of disagreement.
York's first claim, that my essay overstated the climate benefits of pasture-based farming, misses the mark in several ways. She emphasizes that methane, especially from enteric emissions (related to ruminants' digestion), rather than CO2 or nitrous oxides, is the real global warming threat related to meat. I agree that methane is the gas of greatest concern. However, as my op-ed notes, there are viable remedies. University studies have demonstrated that good cattle nutrition and management can substantially reduce such emissions. In addition to the research cited in the essay, consider the following: a study published in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science showed that access to high-quality pasture reduced cattle methane emissions by as much as 50 percent and that cattle grazing on pastures containing legumes and grass produced 25 percent lower methane emissions than cattle grazing on pastures without legumes. Legumes, such as clover and vetch, can be seeded in grazed pastures. In other words, enteric methane is a solvable problem.
It's illogical, or at the least skewed, to single out meat.
There's another thing about enteric methane: it's been around for eons. Logically, climate change policy should focus on things that are in fact changing, especially those caused by human activity that can be altered. The original draft of my Times essay contained the following paragraph, which we needed to cut due to space constraints:
Prior to European colonization of North America, enormous herds of large ruminant mammals covered the continent, including millions of deer, an estimated 10 million elk and somewhere between 30 and 75 million bison. "The moving multitude...darkened the whole plains," Lewis and Clark wrote of bison in 1806. The total number of large ruminants was surely greater than the 40 million mature breeding beef cows and dairy cows in the United States today.
Additionally, as the op-ed also points out, rice fields cause as much as one third of the world's human generated methane. So it's illogical, or at the least skewed, to single out meat.