Climate Change: It’s What’s for Dinner

For years, animal rights and welfare groups have maintained that the factory farming of animals for human consumption wreaks havoc on the environment. Now that climate change has become a mainstream issue, they’re taking it up a notch.

hsus2.jpgBolstered by a recent United Nations report "stating that the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined," PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, among others, are putting pressure on environmental groups to come out against meat consumption, and are taking their message directly to an increasingly eco-conscious public.

The New York Times reports:

PETA is outfitting a Hummer with a driver in a chicken suit and a vinyl banner proclaiming meat as the top cause of global warming. It will send the vehicle to the start of the climate forum the White House is sponsoring in Washington on Sept. 27, "and to headquarters of environmental groups, if they don’t start shaping up," [PETA’s Matt A.] Prescott warned.

He said that PETA had written to more than 700 environmental groups, asking them to promote vegetarianism, and that it would soon distribute leaflets that highlight the impact of eating meat on global warming.

"You just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist," said Mr. Prescott.

As usual, the HSUS is taking a less confrontational tack:

On its Web page and in its literature, the Humane Society has also been highlighting other scientific studies — notably, one that recently came out of the University of Chicago — that, in essence, show that "switching to a plant-based diet does more to curb global warming than switching from an S.U.V. to a Camry," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the factory farming campaign for the Humane Society.

The society, Mr. Shapiro said, is not only concerned with what happens to domesticated animals, but also with preventing the carnage that global warming could cause to polar bears, seals and other wildlife. "Our mission is to protect animals, and global warming has become an animal welfare issue," he said.

Says Matt Ball, ED of Vegan Outreach: "Al Gore calls global warming an existential risk to humanity, yet it hasn’t prompted him to change his diet or even mention vegetarianism … I guess the environmentalists recognize that it’s a lot easier to ask people to put in a fluorescent light bulb than to learn to cook with tofu."

Image: HSUS via New York Times 

  • I think the real message aimed at most Americans should be: Don’t make Meat the main dish at every meal. Try to only eat it just once a day or a few times a week and make it a part of a complete meal with grains and local fruits and veggies.

    Unconsciously I think almost every meal most people eat has meat or dairy…just paring that back a bit would go a long way…

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    PETA is outfitting a Hummer with a driver in a chicken suit and a vinyl banner proclaiming meat as the top cause of global warming.

    “You just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist,” said Mr. Prescott.

    Ah, but you can be a Hummer-driving environmentalist? I’ve heard plenty of complaints about PETA’s absolutism in the past, but this convinces me that they’re a bunch of crackpots. Or at least led by one.

  • How can Al Gore and the environmental groups ignore what the U.N. calls the number one cause of global warming?

    Al Gore says he cares so much about global warming (and he does seem genuine), so how can he ignore the science from the U.N., the Univ. of Chicago, and every other report that’s been done?

    The U.N. report also says that eating meat is among the top three causes of every environmental problem, from the smallest to the largest, as detailed at http://www.GoVeg.com/eco.

    Al and his pals could do a ton of good by encouraging people to adopt a vegetarian diet; it’s hard to understand how he can just keep ignoring this issue.

  • Dana

    Driving around in a hummer in a chicken suit is probably not the tactic I’d take, but I’m glad pro-vegetarian groups are raising awareness about factory farming and the climate. I do think environmental groups need to be more vocal about the need to eat less meat. Some eco groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace already do advise supporters to eat less meat on their how-to-make-difference lists, but it needs to be boosted a few notches.

  • I’m biased, being a vegan for (essentially non-environmental) ethical reasons, but man do I hope this really gains some traction. PETA and HSUS are using this as a sort of back-door approach to helping animals (which is fine by me) but this *is* a genuinely huge environmental issue, and hopefully the environmental groups and spokescelebrities will take it up as a major plank.

  • g

    There are several major disruptive interventions that will greatly mitigate the human causes of the climate change crisis and the situation is so bad they should all be done at once starting with the low hanging fruit. Going vegan makes good sense and is part of the affluence problem but seems to depend on the cooperation of a vast number of individuals.

    Since most of the people live in the world’s cities, car-free major cities provide a disruptive change that is scale appropriate by affecting many millions of mostly affluent people at a time. It also showcases a serious commitment to dealing with the global warming emergency, and since there is a clear indication that car-free cities will be a lot nicer than conventional cities, they will provide a very positive window into a future created through sensible human behaviors.

    There does not seem to any major leader or group serious advocating the kind of disruptive actions required by the climate change crisis and should be a major concern; even though Gore has suggested a 90% reduction in emissions there does not seem to be any immediate and appropriate action plan.

  • You have to give PETA credit for having one of the tightest Preaching To The Choir series of programs out there.

    Perhaps they could have spend the money they shelled out for the SUV to lobby the congressional Agriculture and Farms Committee to include soy products in government feeding programs for schools and other institutions instead. Or lobbied to increase food options available to low-income families on food stamps so they’re not stuck eating fatty low-grade meat, highly processed carbohydrates, and canned vegetables.

  • Unfortunetly, like many mainstream environmental strategies, this strategy threatens to do more to perpetuate the existing paradigm rather than really create new systems.

    It needs to be made clear that it is the industrial agriculture methods of livestock management that are the problem not meat and animal products themselves. Just like it is our transportation system that is not working, not transportation itself. We need to support new local, sustainable transportation systems and well as local, sustainable food systems.

    I agree that consuming factory farmed animal products is one of the more destructive environmental acts we take part in.

    I also understand though that eating pasture raised, locally produced animal products can be one of the most positive environmental actions we can take. As I understand it, such livestock practices actually can contribute positively to energy systems, top soils and stream ecosystems. Small scale livestock farming is also a much more viable form of small scale farming economically (it is less labor intensive, more profitable and more appealing to young farmers) than production for a vegetarian diet.

    By this logic, dollars spent towards supporting this kind of animal husbandry can perhaps make a larger positive environmental impact than spending on a vegetarian diet, while directly challenging the very destructive practice of factory farming.

    Though some may still have issues with animal husbandry all together, it also seems that in these practices that the livestock lead quite fulfilling lives.

    Obviously, it is also a land use issue and transportation issue, where if small farmers near cities become more viable, they are less likely to be developed for sprawl and there will be less transportation involved in delivering our food.

    This form of agriculture needs lots of support and animal products (milk, beef, lamb, etc) that have been raised in on grass, rather than grain, have been proven to have nutritional qualities that actually fight off heart disease and other health related problems usually caused by consuming industrially raised animal products.

    If you really want to get local, you can raise your own chickens in back yards in NYC, here’s how: http://www.justfood.org/cityfarms/chickens/

  • Dana

    In response to Ethan, while I applaud farmers who have abandoned the factory farming model and have taken up smaller scale farming and treat their animals more humanely, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that these small farmers can fulfill the current demand for meat for the 6 billion people on this planet. It’s clear to me that people around the world need to start eating significantly less meat and fish than they currently are if we want to impact these very important eco issues.

  • Small scale animal husbandry is actually the way that most farming around the world has been and continues to be done. It is very much threatened because of subsidies to large scale industrial farming, food aid and “green revolution” programs of the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations. Making blanket statements about meat being bad for the environment is misleading and potentially degrading to both subsistence and “slow food” efforts around the world.

    The inputs for industrial agriculture to support even a vegetarian diet are highly energy intensive, on top of the extra travel involved with the seasonal and climatic demands of a vegetarian diet. Many of our organic carrots come from Israel, our apples come from China and Washington State, etc

  • Lulu

    Another vegan here, very happy to see the environmental issues surrounding livestock production getting more attention. The fact is that the higher up the food chain you eat, the more embodied energy you are consuming- meat is not just meat, it is all the resources that went into raising that animal, whether it was by humane methods or in a factory farm. And Dana makes a good point about demand- small, more sustainably run farms cannot meet the demand for animal products. What may have been possible a century ago, is not really viable anymore.

  • The PETA ad says we should reduce the amount of meat, eggs, and dairy products in our diet, not that we should go vegan. I don’t think anyone could disagree that Americans eat too much meat – even if you just consider its effect on our health

    However, the ad is misleading by claiming that eating meat is worse than driving. World-wide, greenhouse gas emissions from meat production exceed ghg emissions from cars, because 80% of the people in the world don’t have cars.

    But among Americans, driving is a much greater source of ghg emissions than meat consumption.

    This ad will hurt attempts to slow global warming, if it convinces Americans that it is not very important to reduce the amount they drive, because driving is not as big a source of emissions as meat eating.

  • That higher up the food chain argument does not seem to apply to grassfed beef adn pother pastured farming. Such practives can actually build up grass diversity as they consume renewable energy that would not otherwise get consumed.

    I also just read that row cropping soy destroys acres of habitat for wildlife, kills the soils and pollutes water systems, not to mention it promotes the development of GMOs…

    …But again, it’s the industrialized monoculture model that is the problem, not the plants themselves.

    So perhaps, bicycling is to driving an SUV as eating factory farmed beef is to eating grass fed, local beef.

    Perhaps actually, the sustainable transportation movement can learn a lot from the local food systems/food security/food sovereignty movements. Rather than rigid, divisive, solution-driven, single issue advocacy that seems to dominate, we can look more at promoting and envisioning more localized, diversified transportation systems that are also healthy and pleasurable.

  • Whenever I see a startling statement like “switching to a plant-based diet does more to curb global warming than switching from an S.U.V. to a Camry” (from the Humane Society’s Paul Shapiro, quoted in the NY Times story and highlighted above by S’blog), I reach for my calculator. In less time than it takes me to make my favorite tofu dish (small tofu cubes sauteed in garlic and red pepper slices with steamed broccoli, in Guilin Chili Sauce), I spotted one glaring error and one questionable assumption in the U of Chicago article that underlies the Humane Society’s claim. (The article, “Diet, Energy and Global Warming,” is available here: http://geosci.uchicago.edu/~gidon/papers/nutri/nutriEI.pdf.)

    First, the authors evidently used a figure of around 16 lb of CO2 emitted per gallon of gasoline burned. (They don’t give their figure; I backed it out of their Table 1.) But the standard coefficient, easily derivable, is approximately 19.6 lb per gallon. Switching to the correct coefficient would add 22-23% to the “SUV” side of their comparison.

    Second, the authors based their “SUV” calculations on average US per capita miles driven (8,332 miles/yr). The appropriate basis, in my view, would be the number of miles a typical motor vehicle is driven, which is around 12,000 (that’s the figure US EPA uses in its calculations of carbon impacts of driving). After all, switching from an SUV to a Camry would mean switching out 12,000 miles, not 8,332. Substituting the higher figure would add 44% to the “SUV” side of the comparison.

    Making both changes simultaneously would increase the SUV emission figures by 75-77%, which pretty much invalidates the triumphalist statement by the Humane Society’s guy.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if there are similar errors undermining the “food” side of the comparison. Maybe someone else will take a break from their seitan preparation and check it out.

    And maybe the Humane Society and their allies can find ways of advancing the worthy cause of vegetarianism that don’t require belittling
    SUV damages and Al Gore.

  • Dave

    Seems like a good way to alienate both natural allies in the environmental movement as well as the wider public. We would do well to avoid such aggresive and confrontational showboating in advocating our cause.

  • gecko

    While vegan is good and there should not be competition between actions mitigating global warming, just wonder how many vegans own pets which is a major industry that kills huge numbers of animals and with funds reallocated from this $60 billion per year industry would help lift 2 billion people on this planet out of chronic extremely difficult and dangerous poverty.

  • Ian Turner

    Can someone provide a reference to this claim that smaller-scale non-industrial farming is less environmentally destructive?

    Environmental issues must be measured per market unit of meat, not per acre or other operational measure, because the mere use (read: razing) of land for grazing of any kind is highly destructive.

  • http://www.eatwild.com/environment.html
    This website illustrates and links to other resources on how grass fed beef agriculture can actually create net carbon sequestration.

    I too would assume that razing forests for any agriculture is probably a negative carbon footprint, but reading this site and thinking about it, it seems that razing forests in the tropics versus utilizing natural grasslands to support livestock are very different contexts. In our temperate climate natural grass and forest lands can be managed in a way the support both animals (and humans) and the environment.

    Also, in a temperate climate we are probably less likely to be razing land for cattle than for corn and soybeans- which has a negative effect on soil and its ability to sequester carbon.

    Going even further the site says:

    Increasing pasture land would help reduce global warming

    The grasses and legumes found in pasture are highly effective at removing excess carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in the soil as carbon, a phenomenon known as “carbon sequestration.” Soils in the grazing land in the Great Plains have over 40 tons of carbon per acre, while cultivated soils have only 26. In recent years, land that had been planted in row crops was allowed to revert back to pasture as part of the US government’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The pasture land gained an average of one-half ton of carbon per acre per year during the first 5 years after planting. This means that 18 million tons of carbon were removed from the atmosphere each year as a result of farmers putting over 36 million acres of land into the conservation program.

  • Hilary

    Employing sheep instead of lawn mowers to keep grass short (starting with Central Park’s Sheep Meadow?) would be a nice model of animal/grassland sustainability.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Any of you familiar with the “Buffalo Commons” idea. It came from a city planning professor at Rutgers, where I went to graduate school.

    He found that west of a line running down the middle of Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, N. and S. Dakota, it is too try for traditional non-irrigated farming. (The eastern sections of these states are part of the breakbasket, and grains grow well in non-drought years).

    In the arid parts of the great plains, large scale farming and ranching is kept alive through massive government subsidies and the drawing down of the massive Oolagah Aquifer for irrigation. It gets more and more expensive every year.

    So the Poppers (two profs) proposed redirecting the federal subsidies and gradually turning that area into what it was, a grassland “Buffalo Commons,” and shifting the economic base to natural, grass fed Buffalo and tourism.

    Now, Americans aren’t going to be able to eat meat every day based on Buffalo wandering the plains. But perhaps that and other things like it could feed them as much meat as they ought to have.

    Perhaps the next President will have a Buffalo and Turkey (another native animal) bar-be-cue on the 4th of July.

  • g

    Hyper-industrialization and irresponsible consumerism (both of which include but not limited to food production) is basically what’s killing the the life-friendly nature of this planet. Common sense and timely action is what will save it.

  • EcoAdvocate

    I was listening to an interview with climate scientist that claimed grass feeding to create MORE emissoins, but there are a lot of factors, certainly, including the energy needed to produce the pesticides and fertilizers for the feed, and transport it to the farm factory…

  • EcoAdvocate

    Not sure the connection. Living creates emissions, yes. And we can spend our money on anything. Are you proposing people choose to not get a pet and allocate those pet funds to funds to feed people? Interesting.

  • EcoAdvocate

    would we do well, or would we just be lying, ignoring the COW in the ROOM? If we’re only focusing on the tiny hole in our pocket where an occasional coin drops out while ignoring the hand reaching into our other pocket taking out bills–what are we accomplishing?

    Perhaps the environmental group should entirely shift focus and only be pushing for changes in diet, our subsidies of factory farms and poor regulation of the pollutants these corporations are allowed to pump into our environment.

    Carbon Tax, what about a Methane Tax? Nitrous Oxide Tax? each of which are worse than carbon for our atmosphere, especially in the short term.
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM

  • EcoAdvocate

    Source of natural gas. Fracking? energy used to make the fertilizer from the NG, energy needed to make the pesticides for the soy and the corn, etc feed. Energy to transport this to the farm factories, all emissions from the animals, emissions from/ all of the energy needed to keep the slaughtered animal refrigerated for the aging process, transported on diesel trucks to warehouse, to stores, energy needed for refrigeration in the low efficiency open coolers that supermarkets use…I don’t have all those calculations, but even if that SUV vs. vegetarian emissions statement is off, as pointed out in Cowspiracy, the Methane emissions (and Nitrous Oxide) are worse in the short term, AND the comparison gets the conversation started, where people are often, as stated in Cowspiracy, hesitant to even recognize Animal Ag as a factor. We don’t want to offend anyone…type attitude.

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