Eat meat, kill planet

I’ve always struggled with ethical arguments for vegetarianism*, but bio-economic arguments have a pragmatism that I find myself responding to. In a repeat of a riff that I’ve heard a few times in years previous, Ars Technica has an article discussing a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which suggests that livestock farming is very close to the point of being ecologically sustainable.

Given the source, some of you will no doubt dismiss the concern out of hand… but it’s interesting to note that, yet again, the blame is laid at the feet of the Western world in general, and the US in particular. A liberal-left conspiracy to take The Empire down a peg or two? Or perhaps just an inconvenient truth: there’s only so much planet to go round, after all, and whatever justifications you choose to use, there’s no denying that the West consumes a disproportionate amount of the resources available.

As of the year 2000, the livestock sector—meat, egg, and milk production—is estimated to have contributed 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 63 percent of reactive nitrogen mobilization, and to have consumed 58 percent of net primary productivity. We are already coming dangerously close to the safe operating space in all three areas. If we continue eating animals at the same rate we do now, this model predicts that these figures will rise by 39, 21, and 36 percent, respectively, until the livestock sector uses most of, or exceeds, our safe operating spaces.

So, what to do?

Based on their results, the authors suggest that “reining in growth of this sector should be a policy priority.” They suggest a number of ways to accomplish this. One is to make livestock production more resource-efficient, which is feasible at the level of feed crop production and more cycling of animal manure in lieu of synthetic fertilizers. Another is to encourage people to eat more poultry and fish rather than beef to meet their dietary protein requirements.

Unfortunately, consumption of meat is currently at twice USDA-recommended levels. Americans have not yet cut down, even thought we know it’s better for our bodies and better for our wallets; it seems doubtful that we would therefore cut down just because it is better for the Earth.

AT points out that the grim storm-cloud on the horizon here is the prospect of increased demand for meat protein in developing nations… which echoes some of the more popular justifications for refusing to limit carbon emissions (“well, they’re not going to slow down, so why should we?”). I’m increasingly convinced that, thanks to the politicising of environmental issues, the only thing that’s going to force a behavioural change on a large scale is economics: we’ll all start eating less meat (and driving more efficient vehicles) when we can no longer afford – as individuals, and as communities – to maintain our current habits.

Whether those economic factors will kick in early enough to prevent the nasty side-effects of running up against resource limits (we’ve had oil wars already, food wars are starting to show, and water wars are a not-too-distant inevitability) remains to be seen. It’s an ugly gamble to have to make as a species, but I rather suspect we’ve left ourselves little other choice.

[ * And there’s my own selfishness, lest anyone think I’m putting myself on some pedestal of righteousness here; the underlying problem with working against the prospect of ecological catastrophe is that we’re all complicit in it, which leads to the inevitable fusillade of finger-pointing as we all try to find someone more at fault than ourselves. Here’s hoping for Doug Coupland’s promise of a species-wide sense of culpability; sooner we get it into our heads that we’re all in the same boat, the sooner we can start solving problems. ]

6 thoughts on “Eat meat, kill planet”

  1. Now, I’m hardly an expert on land use, but I’ve started learning a little more about it since I moved to Texas a few years ago. A very, very important fact is that not all land (including not all “arable land”) is equivalent. There are critical differences in soil types and especially in water/rain availability. There actually exists a large amount of land (in much of Texas, for example) where the soil is simply too poor quality and/or too dry (not enough rain, groundwater, etc) to grow fruits and vegetables economically, but it is still good enough to provide adequate forage for cattle raising. For that category of land, cattle-raising does not consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to production of fruits, vegetables, etc, for human consumption. Now, the global warming argument concerned with cattle flatulence is a totally different subject, so I won’t address that here. But, from a strictly land-use/efficiency perspective, it would be a mistake (and a very common one) to assume that cattle raising is necessarily inefficient, and/or that it is a waste of land/resources that could generate more human-usable food if utilized differently.

  2. I think this is pretty much a no-brainer although it may take some time to sink in. GMO will allow to use also land which maybe classified no as less valuable for growing food.

    I would still put some emphasis on the moral aspect. If we think about a 10 billion population consuming e.g. 200 g of food, i.e. 1/6th of a chicken a day. This will end up in killin roughly half a trillion of chicken every year. I do not think that such a monstrius and outragous slaughter will continue for many thousand years. My own estimate is that the singularity will make an end to this anyway.

  3. It would be more interesting to see where the report gets its numbers than what the actual numbers are, as the numbers are rather exact for items that seem very difficult to measure.

    I agree that only economic factors are going to change behviors. It certainly won’t be the nagging vegetarians who sound like bible thumpers.

  4. If you’re worried that the invisible hand of the market will be too slow, the obvious solution is to help it along with taxes. A steep tax on industrial meat might change Westerners’ eating habits pretty quickly (we might want exceptions for people with medical conditions like soy allergies that make it difficult to eat healthily without meat). Actually, just stopping some key agricultural subsidies might have a similar effect. It could be framed as encouraging fitness, or curbing the deficit, or something, if “saving the planet” is politically unpalatable. People might start fishing, hunting, or raising their own meat more than they currently do, which would not be as hard on the planet. Or, shockingly, eating less meat, which seriously isn’t really all that unpleasant.

  5. If everyone or even half of the population fished and hunted the forests, streams, and lakes would be devoid of life in a matter of months in the U.S., and the U.S. is a vast untamed wilderness compared to Europe, China, and India.


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