Can Meat Eaters Also Be Environmentalists?

A vegetarian rancher takes on one of modern eating's great dilemmas: can you have your planet and eat steak too?



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.



results in increased organic matter to the soil" [italics mine]. Likewise, studies done by the Department of Agriculture and University of Georgia found that soil erosion and water pollution are both greatly reduced when cropland is converted to well-managed pastures for animal grazing.

Additionally, as Pimentel himself frequently notes in his writings, grazing animals put land that is unsuitable for growing crops into food production, an efficient use of natural resources. As the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service eloquently explains:

Ranchers ... conver[t] sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into a high-quality human food source. ... [M]ost of the land in the U.S., and indeed in most countries of the world, is not tillable and is considered rangeland, forest, or desert. These ecosystems can be very productive from a plant biomass perspective, but ... are generally non-farmable... However, grassland ecosystems ... produce plant materials that are highly digestible to ruminant animals. ... This is of particular importance to the sustainability of agricultural production systems because grasslands and rangelands have the capacity to produce millions of tons of this energy source. Grazing of native and introduced forages on grasslands and rangeland thus is a very efficient way of converting otherwise non-digestible energy into forms available for human use: milk, meat, wool and other fibers, and hide. " [my emphasis]

Aside from these ecological questions, the Lyman v. Niman debate focused on the ethics surrounding meat eating. It is quite impossible, of course, to change the mind of someone who fervently believes that it's immoral to eat meat, and I've never endeavored to do so. (To get the picture, just imagine standing before a large group of zealous pro-lifers trying to explain why you volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic). My modest hope for the evening was to make the case that there is more than one way to eat environmentally and ethically.

Here's the essence of what I said on the ethics question. Humans and their ancestors have been eating meat for 4 million years. About 1.5 million years ago, we markedly increased our meat consumption, an event that many anthropologists believe is closely connected to the dramatic expansion of our brains and the success of our lineage. Flesh eating by humans and other animals is an integral part of the ecological cycle: sunlight and rainwater create vegetation, certain animals eat this vegetation, converting it to flesh, other animals eat those animals, those animals eventually die, all of which returns nutrients to the earth, which in turn feeds the plants. Individuals certainly can choose to opt out of this system, but I can find no basis for a moral imperative to do so.

Nonetheless, eating animals is frequently compared by vegan activists to human slavery or, as Lyman did the other night, to the Holocaust. These are emotion-triggering analogies, but they are poor ones for many reasons. For one thing, throughout nature, killing members of one's own species is rare and aberrant behavior. Animals generally kill for their own physical nourishment, and they subsist by eating animals of other species. This is precisely what humans are doing when they eat a goat or a pig, utterly unlike what the Germans did to the Jews in World War II.

Suspecting that many Jews and African-Americans would strenuously object to slavery and Holocaust analogies, I asked Jonathan Safran Foer (who has written on the Holocaust and, more recently, on meat eating in the bestselling memoir Eating Animals ) for his reaction. He agreed with me that the analogy is offensive and, in his words, "intellectually cheap." "It implies that one is incapable of explaining or understanding what is wrong with the meat industry on its own terms," he told me. "I am convinced that if the average American were to have an honest and clear-eyed introduction to the truth about factory farming, he or she would have no problem understanding what's wrong with it. To reach for a human catastrophe is not only repugnant, it's unnecessary."

As I said at the debate, I don't imagine people standing at the top of some hierarchy with animals beneath them but rather as part of a complex and wonderful food web, in which all life has a role in the nutrient cycle. The thing I don't get in the vegan perspective is this: if humans and animals all have equal standing on the earth—a point of view I can accept—why do vegans feel the need to totally distance themselves from animals eating other animals, a behavior that is so much a part of the animal kingdom? As I see it, humans have no greater right to kill animals for food than other animals, but we do have an equal right. Condemning a person for eating a pig makes no more sense to me than condemning a coyote for eating a rabbit, a lion for eating a gazelle, or a bear for eating a salmon.

Although the Lyman v. Niman debate was dedicated to the question of whether or not to eat meat, Jonathan Safran Foer's comments reminded me of the common ground I share with many vegetarians and vegans advocates. We all agree on the need to rid the world of factory farms. At the end of the evening, we all shook hands and went home. No doubt, these questions will be debated for many, many years to come.