In the past few weeks, there has been some terrific debating regarding animal consumption and its effects (or supposed lack of effects) on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If anything, it has been great to see this issue brought to the forefront, as it encourages people to think more critically about such a complicated issue.
However, many of the arguments being thrown around are misleading, and are not useful from a practical perspective. There are two main issues I’d like to address: First, reducing meat consumption does actually have a positive benefit on an individual level, an environmental level, as well as in terms of GHG emissions. Second, it is foolish to debate the effects of livestock on a global GHG budget when there are such tremendous regional differences.
Regarding the first point, I think many people have become alarmed because of the argument that reducing meat consumption has no effect on GHG emissions. That is simply not true.
The primary sources of GHG emissions associated with livestock production lie in the indirect sources – the land-use required to grow enough corn for livestock and the transportation associated with transporting that feed to the livestock, as well as transporting the livestock to the consumer. In the U.N. report that states livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global GHG emissions, it’s reported that 35 percent of that comes from land-use change (deforestation to allow for increased crop production).
It has been argued that because the U.S. has actually increased its forests over the last 20 years, the U.S. livestock industry is somehow absolved from admitting that livestock production has an effect on land-use. Our livestock still require a tremendous amount of land that could otherwise be converted to wild lands for our children and grandchildren to explore.
Similarly, because the issue of transportation is so complex, the EPA doesn’t really address the effects of transportation on livestock GHG emissions, which makes it easier to argue that livestock have a limited effect on GHG emissions. While many fruits and vegetables also have a tremendous transportation impact, livestock require transportation both to deliver their grain from the field to the livestock facility, as well as to deliver the livestock to the supermarkets.
The central debate lies in contradictory numbers from a UN report on global emissions when compared to either the U.S. or California’s inventory of GHG emissions. UC Davis Professor Frank Mitloehner published a paper, “Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change,” that rightfully pointed out that it is foolish to compare the global emissions to California or even the U.S. because the situations are so different. However, this point has been lost as we have turned a complex issue into a black and white debate. While it may be enticing and sexy to come up with global numbers regarding the effects of livestock on climate change, it does little to actually solve any problem. While the consequences of our actions are felt globally, the actions themselves are taken locally. Instead of saying that meat consumption has no impact on the environment, or that everybody should be vegan, we should all just allow ourselves to think a little bit more. There are plenty of situations in which livestock actually have a positive impact on the environment, such as the control of invasives, or their ability to live in rocky areas unsuitable for crop production.
Instead of passing on the responsibility to other countries to reduce their meat consumption, we should focus on what we can do as individuals and as a community. How can we leave the world a better place for our children? A few simple suggestions on where to start:
1) Learn more. Read Mitloehner’s paper and think about what it states and doesn’t state. Go talk to local farmers about their production practices. Take an animal science class. Visit a local farm on slaughter day.
2) Reduce your wannabe meat consumption. Yes, that means choose the cheesy bean and rice burrito at Taco Bell instead of the beef burrito. Believe me, you’ll be thanking yourself the next morning.
3) Enjoy your meat consumption. It’s a privilege to eat meat, so enjoy it!
4) Learn how to cook vegetables so that they taste good too. Recently, I have learned that it is actually possible to make some pretty good meals out of vegetables. Plus, it makes the next meal with meat that much better when you’ve taken a few meals off.
There is no need to despair. I am an avid carnivore, and it almost pains me to defend a semi-vegetarian viewpoint. The realization that our actions do have consequences can be quite empowering. Realizing that meat has tremendous environmental consequences should not be depressing. It can free us from eating the “meat” found in Taco Bell burritos or Jack in the Box chicken sandwiches, and allow us to eat delicious tri-tip from the Meat Lab or roast an entire hog.
Look on the bright side! In the words of Colin Beavan, being optimistic is the most radical political act there is.
WILL KLEIN is a senior environmental science and management major and a self-described avid hog-roaster.