Let’s move this conversation forward; or, (another) study: pasture-raised cows produce four times more methane emissions than feedlot cows

January 23, 2012

A new study confirms higher rates of methane emission from grazed cows over feedlot cows. Abstract and full study available here:

Direct measurements of methane emissions from grazing and feedlot cattle

This study, citing and building on studies which already demonstrate that cattle farming represents a mass contribution to the emission of methane–one of the most consequential greenhouse gasses–examined and measured output from large samples of cattle in undisturbed (non-laboratory/non-constructed) settings.

Its main conclusion: “These measurements clearly document higher CH4 production (about four times) for cattle receiving low-quality, high-fiber diets than for cattle fed high-grain diets.”

To advocates of pasture-raised beef and dairy: Please start discussing this kind of information and please stop spreading the myth that pasture-raised beef is good for the environment. That there are a lot of problems with agriculture-in-general, including plant agriculture and monocultures, is not in dispute. But from the mass destruction caused by grazing, to the mass methane emissions, raising animals on pasture is not simply detrimental; it’s more detrimental than on feedlots, in terms of land/habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.

This article by Mike Tidwell was recently brought to my attention, and impressed me as a very good, simple overview of the environmental impact of carnism, on humans as well as ecosystems and individual animals. Tidwell points out that even many folks’ beloved fall-back, “free range” and “sustainable” chicken and egg farming, produces far more greenhouse gas emissions than its terrible factory-farming sibling– 14 percent more!

This is to say nothing of the myth of “humane” meat that we have discussed elsewhere.

We’ve listened to the “humane” meat-ers. We’ve listened to the Weston A. Price Foundation’s non-scientists and non-nutritionists misconstrue information about teeth, soy, cholesterol, and raw meat. We’ve listened to Lierre Keith straight-up hate on vegans and paint caricatures of health and sustainable agriculture. We’ve listened to Michael Pollan and Joe Salatin’s carefully (and conveniently) constructed happy-meat, return-to-pasture narratives. We’ve listened to people who don’t come from gatherer-hunter cultures say, “let’s hunt, then!” and we’ve tried not to be dicks when we’ve pointed out that, if even a fraction of billions of today’s non-tribal humans started hunting for their meat, ecosystems would almost immediately shatter. We’ve listened to Barabara Kingslover as she drives 3,000 miles in her car to eat another location’s local food. We’ve listened to really excited ex-vegan bloggers talk about how they literally feel the energy of nutrients x, y, and z rushing through their body the minute they eat meat again for the first time (something which isn’t physiologically possible.) We’ve gotten a good share of what anti-vegans–both the subtle and the not-so-subtle ones–have to say. For all our faults and snark, we’ve tried to listen–we actually really have.

And for all of this, there’s one thing they all seem to say some version of, and I agree with it: We need better, more diverse, more creative, less mono-culture based farming methods. Nobody here is saying otherwise.

But it’s time to move the conversation forward: the ethics of, and cognitive dissonance that is necessary for, “humane meat”, grass-fed meat, and pasture farming are highly questionable; and we have to contend with those questions now if we want to deal with the crises of ecology, psychology, and ethics that are literally destroying the earth.

There is, at this point, simply too much available information to ignore regarding the destructiveness of animal farming and the unnecessary suffering of animals. There is too much information to ignore regarding the existence of viable, healthful, plant-based alternatives to meat diets and animal farming. We can’t continue to ignore this information if we want to have conversations about diet that aren’t disingenuous. We can’t refuse to discuss the fallacy, the gaping logical inconsistency, of “humane” captivity and slaughter, and the environmental destruction of animal farming–the latter of which is an issue for both entire species and their individual bodies. We can’t keep falling back on the simplistic vegan straw man of “but monocultures–but soy–but the paleocene–but protein”. These straw-men have been debunked to death. Healthful, animal-friendly plant-based alternatives to this mess of meat agriculture and carnism exist, right now, today. Just because these plant-based alternatives are inconvenient to a Western culture that is steeped in the ideologies and practices of meat, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Our refusal to look at them does not erase their reality.

If you need more information about any of these issues or about striving towards sustainable plant-based lives, we’ve discussed it a lot in this blog. Please refer to other posts such as those here and here, do a quick google or JSTOR search, or refer to our resources page or our sustainable vegan agriculture page. You might also consider checking out The Humane Myth.

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“Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States”

April 20, 2011

This study is a must-read for anyone concerned with food politics. It’s one of the only studies done on the issue. Abstract and full text are available here: Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impact of Food Choices in the United States

For those not into the technical language of scientific articles, here are the basic findings:

1) Food miles are not an accurate way to measure a food’s ecological footprint. Transportation of food accounts for only about 15 percent of its ecological footprint.

2)Production, storage, whether a food is animal or plant, non-carbon greenhouse gas emissions, scale, and other factors account for about 83 percent.

3) An accurate picture of a food’s environmental impact needs to include all those aspects and that can be done much more throroughly with a life cycle assessment (LCA). Movements for ecological sustainability would fare much better if they used the LCA instead of the food miles model.

4) It is impossible to do an all-encompassing study on the climate impact of food. This study is based on the “average” US household. Unmeasurable factors might play a role in many situations. Despite, these findings point to critical issues regarding diet and ecology.

5.) For the average household, eating vegan food one day a week achieves more of a reduction in environmental degredation than eating local animal products every day. Or, more precisely: “The results of this analysis show that for the average American household, ‘buying local’ could achieve, at maximum, around a 4−5% reduction in GHG emissions due to large sources of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the production of food. Shifting less than 1 day per week’s (i.e., 1/7 of total calories) consumption of red meat and/or dairy to other protein sources or a vegetable-based diet could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers.”

I look forward to more work being done on this, and more conversation being had.


Problematizing ecology, local, and grass-fed… again

March 30, 2011

I originally posted this as a comment, then thought, well, this is a lot of writing just to be a comment. So here goes:

Eighty percent of corn and soy crops are used for livestock feed, not for vegan food. The problems of grain, soy, and monocultures are simply not ones that can be pinned on the vegan movement. To paraphrase Gary Francione, the problem of designer foods is not inherent to veganism any more than the problem of designer clothes is inherent to wearing clothes. There are plenty of designer foods that meat-eaters eat, and there are plenty of vegans who eat mainly local and organic, plenty of vegans who don’t eat soy or tons of corn and wheat, etc. To claim that all vegans eat all grain and soy, or that a vegan diet only consists of grain and soy, is a disingenuous straw-man argument.

Veganic/stock free permaculture is a thriving practice all over the world. It seems many locavores are willfully ignorant of this fact, and I’m not entirely clear why. Veganic permaculture is by far the most sustainable farming practice. There are many books and internet resources on this if you need more information.

Grass fed livestock don’t partake in the problem of corn and soy feed. But pasture/grass fed animals require more than twice the land of factory farmed animals. Grazing is one of the worst environmental problems that exists. Overgrazing has trampled and compacted land and been the largest contributor to desertification. Two-thirds of the American West, for instance, is grazing land. Clearing land for pasture is the major reason for destruction of forests and biodiversity including the atrocity of rainforest destruction. This is simply not a problem with even the least sustainable plant diets. Even the most industrialized plant diets use exponentially less land per yield than meat diets, especially grazed meat diets. Grazing is one of the most ecologically absurd situations humans have ever created. One researcher, Vacliv Smil, who has done very careful math has estimated that by 2050, if we are to feed the world on a meat diet, we will need 67 percent more land on the earth. Again, there is no comparable number for even the least sustainable plant agriculture, as plant protein is much higher yield per energy input than meat, and is consumed directly instead of being turned into an animal first.

Cows emit massive amounts of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and it is well documented that this is a major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined.  Grass fed and free-range livestock emit many times more methane than industrial livestock, in fact, because they live much longer. Again, this problem is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture. Plants are not farting and stomping us to extinction.

Raising livestock, even grass-fed, is also by far the world’s number one cause of water usage and water pollution. Again, not comparable to the water usage of plant agriculture.

Furthermore, the issue of transportation of food over long distances is often cited by locavores, but the truth is much more complicated. The simple equation of food miles does not account for whether or not irrigation is used, whether or not food is grown in hothouses, whether or not food is in season, how food is stored, how food is cooked, how much food was shipped where and how, whether or not it is animal or plant food, etc. In short, transportation is about ten percent of a food’s energy cost. To quote James McWilliams, who has many problematic ideas but is right-on when it comes to food miles, “To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market.” Furthermore, simplistic food mile equations do not account for people who live in regions where food is not available, which opens up a sizeable, incredibly complicated can of worms in terms of human rights and food access. The local ethic, despite its benefits, simply does not take responsibility for the problem of food access in a globalized world where food is an inherently global issue. I am not saying I have a perfect answer to this problem, but I am saying that food access in a globalized world is complicated, and it deserves to be dealt with in a complicated way, especially if people who have social and economic privilege are claiming to be concerned with human rights.

But I digress. I don’t at all mean to tear local agriculture a new asshole. There are many reasons to eat local, especially in places where, unlike the Arizona desert where local food–including all meat–is all sustained by irrigation, local makes sense. I support eating local for several reasons, and I eat local as much as I can (and I’m a vegan… gasp). The point, rather, is that just because something is local does not mean it is the most environmentally friendly option. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a much more honest and comprehensive way than food miles to figure which food is the most sustainable.

If you are going to eat animal food, grass-fed meat from permaculture farms is the most sustainable way to do it. But veganic permaculture is exponentially more sustainable due to the minimized effects it has on land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the less sustainable techniques of plant agriculture are more sustainable than the most sustainable forms of animal agriculture.

And this does not begin to get into the issue of the rights and interests of individual animals. I happen to believe that an egalitarian and ecologically friendly world is not possible when our personal and mass psychology is imbued with the idea that it is okay to unnecessarily use most of the world’s sentient creatures as mere instruments to our own ends. But that aside, I do understand the issue of animal rights lives in complicated philosophical, emotional, and spiritual territory. However, the issue of whether or not eating meat is good for the environment, especially in the long run, is quite simple: it isn’t. And there are viable, thriving alternatives. We might not like them because they challenge our deep-rooted food habits and assumptions, but within this generation there will be 10 billion people in the world, and save hitherto unknown technological interventions, there won’t even be any more land for meat-heavy diets.


The Humane Myth

March 6, 2011

From the Humane Myth project:

***

Aren’t “humane” animal products more sustainable?

Quite often, those promoting “humane” animal products suggest that these products are more sustainable than animal products from large industrialized operations. At first glance, this may seem to be true. When one pictures a traditional small-scale farm with large open pastures, and then, in contrast, a huge industrial facility surrounded by giant lagoons of waste products slowly leaching into the countryside, it seems clear that producing animal products on a small scale is better for the environment. However, the reality is far more complicated than these simple images may suggest. A more fundamental question to ask is whether any form of animal agriculture, if practiced on the scale needed to meet existing demand for animal products, is good for the environment, or sustainable.

As it is today, we know that humanity as a whole is living in a manner that is far from sustainable. In fact, it is estimated that our species is annually using resources at least 20% faster than the earth can renew or replenish. Those of us living in the wealthier countries are using up resources several hundred percent faster than the earth can sustain, with the extra load being absorbed by the extraction of resources from poorer countries. There are many signs that this imbalance is not only causing injustice and suffering on an unimaginable scale, but is also destabilizing our ecosystem. The most well known of these signs are global warming and the depletion of fresh water. Scientists worldwide are telling us the same story–if we don’t make major changes in the way we live, there are going to be drastic consequences, not in the distant future, but much sooner than most of us realize.

A recent study carried out by United Nations scientists demonstrated that animal agriculture is the number one source of greenhouse gas impact, making a greater contribution to global warming than all cars, trucks, buses, air planes, trains, and ships combined. This effect is based on the unavoidable biological realities of animal agriculture itself, realities that are present in all styles of animal farming. Regardless of the style of production, from the smallest scale farms to the largest industrial operations, the level of greenhouse gas impact per unit of animal products created is going to be in the same catastrophic range.

So as human population continues to spiral upward, and as more and more of the world’s people are convinced to adopt a western-style diet replete with animal products, the disastrous impact on the environment will expand regardless of the method being used to produce animal products. As it is, consumption of meat has gone up 500% in the past half century, and if present trends continue, will double in the next half century.

Further, the production of a diet based on on meat, milk, and eggs uses several times more energy and water, and creates more toxic pollution, than a diet based on grains, vegetables and fruits. We can already see that the fight for dwindling supplies of oil is causing armed conflict around the world. Many experts on geopolitics predict that it will not be long before wars are fought over water.

Lastly, there is the issue of available land. As it is, the rapidly expanding human population is constantly reducing the amount of land available for farming as well as rapidly deforesting the small percentage of wild lands that remain. Producing “humane” animal products requires at least double the amount of land required for the industrialized style of farming adopted in wealthy countries over the last several decades. In some cases, it takes several times more land to convert to “humane” methods.

So while the immediate surroundings of smaller scale pasture-based farm operations may have less concentrated pollution and less soil erosion than that produced by large-scale industrialized farms, the reality is that vastly more high quality farmland would be needed to convert existing production to “humane” farming. That amount of land is simply not available on the scale needed to meet the rapidly growing worldwide demand for animal products. It is also important to realize that as more wild lands are converted into “humane” farm land, more and more free-living animals will be displaced or killed, and more species will be driven to extinction.

So, when we step back and take a wider view of what is happening on our planet now, and what is projected to come to pass if we keep living the way we are, we’re obligated to consider our individual responsibility. Wouldn’t it be great if each took steps toward living in a way such that if everyone on the planet lived as we were, human civilization would be sustainable?

The reality is that moving toward consumption of “humane” animal products does not meet this standard. Instead, it is a time and resource-wasting distraction, one we can ill afford in the midst of an unprecedented ecological crisis.

If we wish to preserve our environment, avoid endless wars over energy and water, and if we do not wish to obtain our prosperity at the expense of the exploitation of others, if we wish to do right by those of future generations, the time has come to re-evaluate the role animal-agriculture plays not just in our own personal lives, but as a root cause of a number of planetary ills.

***

The ecological problems of meat production don’t just stem from factory farms. They stem from animal agriculture in general. The demand for meat products in a world of 7 billion humans generally cannot be met in a “sustainable” way. Likewise, the mass exploitation of animals does not just stem from factory farms. There is no animal agriculture that does not, at worst, massively abuse animals and, at best, manipulate their bodies and reproductive systems as instruments and unnecessarily kill them. Read more about this important work, and find out how to get involved, at HumaneMyth.org: Deconstructing the Myth of Humane Animal Agriculture.


Chapter 2: What about plants?

July 16, 2010

What about plants?

In chapter 2, Keith begins to write about an ongoing theme: vegetarians’ supposedly biased attitude towards vegetable life: “…if we’re extra eco-righteous, we throw the seeds on the compost heap, where time, heat and bacteria kill them. One goal of any good compost scheme, after all, is to kill any lingering seeds. None of this is what the tree had in mind. The tree isn’t offering sweetness out of the goodness of its heartwood. It’s striking a bargain, and even though we’ve shaken hands and collected, we aren’t carrying through on our side of the deal. There’s a glaring anthropocentrism in this argument, which is strange coming from people espousing a specific politic of animal liberation…Why are we humans allowed to take without giving? Isn’t that called exploitation? Or at the very least, stealing? Fruit isn’t, as claimed, ‘the only freely given food.’ The point of that fruit is not humans.”

She leaves this out: The point of animals is not humans, either. That animals have been held in captivity as farming instruments/food production is not what those animals had in mind. If farmed animals had not been constructed by centuries of genetic selection, and subtle and violent domination to make them docile, they would most likely never chose to be on those farm. If the gates, cages, crates, or whatever else were not there, do we honestly think those animals would stay? That they would asked to be bred generation after generation as instruments in captivity? Any reasonable person knows that the answer to this is a huge “no”.

She writes: “If killing is the problem, the life of one grass-fed cow will feed me for an entire year. But a single vegan meal of plant babies—rice grains, almonds, soybeans—ground up or boiled alive, will involve hundreds of deaths. Why don’t they matter?” The comparison between the death of sentient beings, and the death of plant, grain, and legume matter, is a disingenous one. Vegans do not have a simplistic idea of this, as Keith won’t stop asserting; on the contrary, vegans admit to and try to wrestle with how complicated the reality of sentience is, instead of throwing the issue out the window or genralizing sentience into absurdity, just because they can’t find a perfect solution. Plants and animals have wildly different interests, different mechanisms of life, and differently functioning bodies. There is, effectively, despite a couple of pop-science books about the issue, no scientific proof that plants feel pain or have awareness similar to that of sentient beings–especially intelligent mammals, who have complex nervous systems, emotional brains (limbic systems), and complicated pain mechanisms. Keith uses one of these pop-science books, The Language of Lost Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner–who, like Keith, is certainly interesting but is not a biologist, scientist, or any other kind of academic or researcher with the credentials to make claims on science–as her resource for almost her entire discussion on the possibility of any kind of “plant sentience” that might resemble animal sentience. Citations 115-141 in this section are all Bruhner’s book, with three exceptions that have to do with secondary points.

This sentience is the objective difference that complicates the question of animal and plant death. In certain situations, not all deaths are equal, in that they do not embody the same processes, results, or implications. Consider this comparison (and remember that comparisons are not the same as equations): To get an abortion, to destroy a fetus, is not the same as killing an autonomous, born human. Most radicals– and Keith is a radical feminist– understand this critical differences between the death of a fetus—a parasitic organism that lives, but is dependent on its autonomous, born, adult host, and at most stages is probably incapable of feeling pain— and the death of an autonomous, fully developed human. Nobody is excited about abortion, but pro-choice people understand its complicated and necessary nature, and inevitability of having to chose between types of “death”. (I put this in quotes only because some pro-choice people consider abortions a necessary death, and others don’t consider abortion a type of death.)

The point is, humans inevitably choose between types of destruction– we certainly do not disagree with Keith on this point, and we’re glad she talks about it. But in terms of food, this is not the same as having a flippant disregard for plants. As a vegan, I’m attempting to find the solution that offers the least unnecessary human destruction. There is physically felt torture and pain involved in carnism, and this need not be inevitable, we need not add it to the endless pile of unnecessary destruction we’ve already caused. “What about plant life?” is one of the classic fallacious arguments against a vegan diet, one which distracts from the issue of the individual sentient animal by trying to equate the conditions of different life forms. To assert or imply that we “overlook” the deaths of plants because we focus on the supposedly more important deaths of animals, is a bit like saying that all genders won’t have true equality until male-bodied people can get abortions. It’s an irrelevant framing of the issue, a distraction from and unwillingness to deal with the issue’s complicated realities.

At the end of the day, the “what about plants” issue can be overridden by the fact that, no matter what you feed your farmed animals, no matter what your method of farming– even if it’s animal-based permaculture– these animals we force into agriculture are involved in the “hundreds of deaths” of plant beings, too. Even the most sustainable farms use large amounts of energy and water keeping and feeding farmed animals, where they could be growing sustainable plant-based crops and using non-animal methods to keep topsoil healthy instead. In fact, “humane” and “grass-fed” farms often use more than double the amount of land than “industrial” ones. The general erasure of this fact is one of the major myths about grass-fed farming. And there’s no way around the fact that raising cattle is the leading cause of global warming, surpassing all combined forms of transportation in its production of methane and other greenhouse gasses. At no point in this chapter does Keith give attention to the rabid destructiveness of animal agriculture– no matter what the type, large or small farms, grass or grain. Because animals need to eat if we are to eat them, then there is no way around the fact that a carnist diet—any type of carnist diet— destroys more plant and animal life than a vegan one. When we eat animals, we are eating/killing plant and animal life at the same time. This does not seem like the most useful or skillful way to minimize human impact on the planet, given the workability and possibilities of sustainable, local vegetarian agriculture. Keith does not want to see the fact that vegetarian permaculture is even possible. Her only “proof” of this is a personal anecdote about visiting one unnamed psuedo-vegetarian farm community that she insultingly, and without evidence, claims was filled with “anorexic” vegans who she has diagnosed with all of her own supposedly vegan-caused health problems.  See our “Busting myths-Vegan permaculture” page for actual information about vegan permaculture.

Another way to put it: Industrial vegetable farming is awful and unsustainable in lots of ways. Industrial meat farming is worse. Permaculture might be part of our solution. Vegan permaculture is more sustainable than animal permaculture. For every animal-based farming practice, there seems to be a more sustainable plant-based one.