The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.
Another week, another argument with vegans. Reading this blog you could suppose that I spend all my time arguing with the no-meat brigade. Thankfully it’s not that common – it’s just that it always seems to inspire another blog post.
A friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.
Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?
I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).
Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?
Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.
It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.
*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used
The suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.
This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.
The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.
So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.
Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.
Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.
Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.
We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.