I recently sat center stage at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California, arguing that being a meat eater and also a dedicated environmentalist is not a contradiction. Arguing the reverse was Howard Lyman, a former cattle-feedlot operator turned vegan, who is an entertaining speaker and the author of Mad Cowboy. I'm a vegetarian who's become a cattle rancher. As Ari Derfel, the moderator, noted: this event could only happen in Berkeley.
I rarely argue about meat eating—pro or con. I prefer to encourage people who are eating meat to, as I said in my book, Righteous Porkchop, "eat less meat, eat better meat." Although I've been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, I have never accepted the view that eating meat is morally wrong. It's just never made sense to me that something humans and our ancestors have been doing for some 4 million years—something that's a major component of the natural world's system of nutrient recycling—could be immoral. And the more I've learned about ecologically sound food production, the more I've come to appreciate the important role animals play in it, both here and around the world. So when Earth Island Institute invited me to participate in this debate, I agreed.
Lyman v. Niman drew a packed house—with all 180 seats pre-sold and a full overflow room of 60 people who watched on a live video feed. I was well aware that the event, co-sponsored by vegan magazine VegNews, would draw a crowd whose attitudes toward meat ranged from skeptical to hostile, and that turned out to be the case. There was heat in the room, to be sure, but the levelheaded moderator kept things on track and respectful.
The dialogue ended up focused on two main questions: what are the environmental and the ethical considerations of meat eating vs. veganism.
On the environmental question, Lyman went first, spending all of his allotted minutes on the global warming impacts of meat. Meat causes enormous methane and nitrous oxide emissions, he said, booming with rhetorical flourish: "You're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem!" For the largely vegan audience, the catchy line was a crowd pleaser.
It's just not that simple, I argued when my turn came. As it happens, I spent months last year researching meat's connection to global warming for an essay in the New York Times called "The Carnivore's Dilemma." The article demonstrates that for each of the major greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—the emissions are vastly different depending on how livestock is raised. Here's the short version: industrialized meat production is emission-intensive while well managed, non-industrialized is not.
Equally important, to suggest that going vegetarian means you're "part of the solution" is simply wrong: all food production has global warming impacts, and some of the worst emitters have nothing to do with livestock. For example, wetland rice fields alone account for almost 30 percent of the world's human-generated methane. British research has shown that highly processed vegetable foods such as potato chips have large carbon footprints. Some soy products in U.S. grocery stores are from croplands created by clear-cutting rainforests in Brazil. And researchers in Sweden discovered that the global-warming impact of a carrot varies by a factor of ten depending on how and where it's produced. All of which shows that quitting meat does not absolve anyone's diet of a connection to global warming.
As the Swedes discovered, many factors besides whether something is animal or vegetable play a role in a food's contribution to global warming. These include: how far a food travels, whether it's fresh or processed, how long it is refrigerated, and whether it's in or out of season. How much food one throws away is also related to an individual's dietary global warming impact.
Also, there were plenty of animal enteric emissions in this country long before the arrival of domesticated cattle. 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. Because mature bison can weigh a hefty 2,000 pounds, the total mass of large ruminants was likely comparable to what's in the U.S. today.
Although Lyman never cited a 2006 UN report (or any other authority) for his assertions, it is true that the report blamed 18 percent of global warming on livestock. Four years later, in March 2010, one of the report's authors acknowledged that the number was probably overblown, as in this story. More importantly, very little of that 18 percent figure has any connection to well-managed traditional, grass-based animal farming here in the United States. For starters, 48 percent of it is from changes in land use, mostly clearing of forests for grazing and growing feed crops in Brazil, India, Indonesia, Sudan, and other developing countries. The United States, in contrast, is actively reforesting and, according to Cornell University researchers, is not expanding croplands for feed. In U.S. farming, most carbon dioxide actually come from fuel burned for vehicles, equipment, and machinery. Smaller, pasture-based farms in the U.S. have low carbon dioxide emissions because they keep their animals outdoors and use little mechanization.
On his repeated suggestion that meat production means massive nitrous oxide emissions, Lyman was way off base. EPA figures show that nitrous oxide makes up only about 5 percent of all U.S. global warming emissions and that the entirety of American agriculture is linked to just 6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases. More than three-quarters of agriculture's nitrous oxide emissions result from manmade fertilizers. Thus, raising livestock does not inherently aggravate the problem, because farming that does not feed fertilized crops—in other words, pasture-based and organic farming—causes negligible nitrous oxide emissions. Equally important, the animal manure used on traditional farms actually mitigates the need for commercial (fossil fuel-based) fertilizers.
Finally, just because something generates some global warming emissions doesn't mean it should be categorically condemned. For instance, natural wetlands cause more methane emissions than any single human source, yet wetlands are considered essential water filters and wildlife habitats. No one in his or her right mind advocates getting rid of natural wetlands to lower methane emissions.
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