The under-reported ecological disaster of meat

| 4th June 2018
Tiny cow

Martha, the latest arrival at Tapeley Park farm in North Devon, is one of the very few cattle now raised in 'humane' conditions. 

The Ecologist
Meat production is the elephant in the room when it comes to addressing the major threats to environmental sustainability. Going vegan seems like biting off more than you can chew for many campaigning charities. But DR JULIAN VIGO argues that now we must take the bull by the horns...

The raising of factory animals creates 18 percent of greenhouse emissions and how livestock and their byproducts account for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes to the growing ecological crisis on the planet today, major media can do a pretty poor job of covering this subject matter with any constancy or depth.

Even when major news media focuses upon the environment, it tends to run hit pieces on the disappearing glaciers, followed by another piece on the importance of recycling as if the latter will effectively solve the former.

And when the mounting ecological disaster is covered, it is presented as tenuous as the growing fears of economic collapse, each postured as conspiracy theories whose remedy is to just “snap out of it” and be positive!

Amenable species

When we turn towards media focussed on ecology, this news tends to be about emerging theories, how new tech is revolutionising the planet, the industry standards of mattress recycling for hotel beds, or the usual story on roadside pollution. All are important areas of potential change.

However, even the cumulative efforts of all the above would not put a dent in one of the most important ecological issues facing us: the consumption and production of meat.

Meat production is the elephant in the room that not even the largest environmental charities are addressing - but now the U.S. government is.

Earlier this month the US government gave the nod to the ecological disaster at hand when a Congressional subcommittee on government spending voted to advance a bill to the 46-member House Agriculture Committee.

This would authorise the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate how cell-cultured meat products are labeled and inspected for safety, proposing  to “regulate products made from cells of amenable species of livestock, as defined in the Federal Meat Inspection Act, or poultry, as defined in the Poultry Products Inspection act, grown under controlled conditions for use as human food.” 

Grass-fed beef

Cultured meat proponents claim that this technology would spare animals life, require less energy and land, and emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional meat production does. While the proposed measure does not go into detail as to the relationship between meat production and its ecological impact, plenty before have.

One of the most important books on this topic without a doubt is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. 

Pollan examines every aspect of our food system to include the ethics of our current diets based on various primary food sources ranging from the industrial, the organic, to the local, examining the impact of our food system on the body and on the planet leaving no mystery as to how each dinner he describes came into being.

Himself an omnivore, Pollan specifically critiques environmentalists who push meat-eating or who claim that grass-fed animals is a solution to environmental ruin.  It’s not, he maintains, it’s part of the problem. Pollan advocates for a diet that is mostly plant-based and if one does eat meat, then to move away from eating it daily.

On the flip side of Pollan is Nicolette Hahn Niman who argues that grass-fed beef can be made sustainable in Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

Greenhouse emissions

Yet, there are problems with some of her contentions, even if the nutritional value of grass-fed beef is higher than cord-fed beef.

For starters, Niman is able to sell her upscaled beef to the affluent area of Marin County, California, at a price most Californians could simply not afford. So the sustainability of such beef would be for an elite public and would unavoidably end up not being sustainable.

The most debatable point of her book, however, is when Niman makes the argument for grain-fed beef while utterly failing to demonstrate the availability of grazing land to produce enough beef to feed those in just North America. And she fails to demonstrate how this would work. It is physically impossible.

In the Keegan Kuhn’s and Kip Andersen’s film, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, we are given information as to the pros and cons of corn-fed and grass-fed beef. 

Many facts are presented, such as how the raising of factory animals creates 18 percent of greenhouse emissions and how livestock and their byproducts account for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Not sustainable

At one point in the film, Andersen visits the Markegard family farm where they specialise in grass-fed beef and he hears their figures for what would work. The film then takes these figures and shows the physical impossibility of having grass-fed beef to feed the world using the Markegard family’s model for farming.

If it takes 4,500 acres of grassland to produce 80,000 pounds of beef with the average American consuming 209 pounds of beef a year, this would mean that 382 people could live from this land (11.7 acres a head).

Take this figure and calculate for 314 million Americans and that comes to 3.7 billion acres of grazing land. However, the continental United States is only 1.9 billion acres and thus, the filmmakers show how there would have to be grasslands extending into Canada, south through Mexico, all of Central America, past Colombia and well into Brazil. 

This land should then be cleared of cities, buildings, and homes with all mountains and forests levelled, all to create grain-growing terrain to feed enough cattle to in turn feed only those in the United States.

Kuhn and Andersen demonstrated that grain-fed beef is simply not sustainable by any measure and point to the larger issues of how the meat lobby has maintained the silence of major NGO’s on this specific issue.

Respecting life

Watching Cowspiracy, it is no wonder that Greenpeace refused to be interviewed while other organisations under investigation - Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, and Rainforest Action Network - were unable to answer the filmmakers’ questions regarding the impact meat production has on the planet which directly affects their NGO’s mandate.

What is evident is that the meat industry is powerful. During the production of this project, one of the film’s backers pulled out, apparently after coming under pressure from someone within the meat industry.

While there are various ways to bring about ecological change that don’t necessarily mean donning Birkenstocks and going vegan, recent literature and films on the subject are strongly advocating that if people cannot become vegan or vegetarian, that at the very least they ought to try eating less meat

Or, as the United States will soon find out, cultured meat could also be a happy alternative. 

One thing is certain: it is incumbent upon us to take the necessary steps to do our part in preserving the environment and respecting life as we thus far know it.

This Author

Julian Vigo is an independent scholar, filmmaker and activist who specialises in anthropology, technology, and political philosophy. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). You can follow her on Twitter at @lubelluledotcom

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