I’ve written before about the movement to reduce meat consumption as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Reading the UN’s 2008 livestock report was what prompted me to drastically reduce my meat intake (I still have chicken 2-3 times a week, the occasional deli meat sandwich, and beef once or twice a month). Anyways, I was surprised when I saw this article by Bob Holmes in the New Scientist, which, by the headline, argues that cutting society’s meat intake may not be so green after all.
A meat-free world, then, would be greener in many ways: less cropland, more forest and, presumably, more biodiversity; lower greenhouse gas emissions; less agricultural pollution; less demand for fresh water – the list goes on…
But wait. If everyone opted to give up meat there would be significant costs, too. It is true that most livestock today are fed grain that people could otherwise eat, but it doesn’t have to be so. For most of human history, cattle, sheep and goats grazed on land that wasn’t suitable for ploughing, and in doing so they converted inedible grass into edible meat and milk…
Fed in this way, livestock represent a net gain of calories and protein in the human diet while dealing with some of the estimated 30 to 50 per cent of food that goes to waste…
Another downside would be the disappearance of animal by-products.
This case seems flimsy at best, and doesn’t convincingly show the counter-factual of emissions/unit of nutrition under the less-meat scenario. Holmes also confuses things by making statements like,
There is another alternative, though: treat livestock as part of the ecosystem. Garnett envisions returning animals to their original role as waste-disposal units, eating food leftovers and grazing on land not suitable for crops. “In that context,” she says, “methane emissions per animal will be higher, but overall emissions would be less because there would be fewer animals.”
And then, towards the conclusion of the article, Holmes says,
Given the deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that will result if worldwide meat production continues to rise, some people are already choosing to eat less meat. And the message is definitely less, not none. For best results, meat should be medium-rare.
Thus, most of the article makes the case that eating less meat is greener. Statements that temper this sentiment are equivocal at best. Holmes also omits the fact that grain-fed cattle reduce world grain supply’s, as it takes 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat.
And of course, the headline is pretty dishonest- “why eating green won’t save the planet.” I’m going to stick to my new diet, thanks, and hope that others join me, and that the when we someday get a carbon price, it includes the environmental costs of meat. In the meantime, scientists should study the general equilibirum effects of a broad reduction in meat consumption on greenhouse gases, so we don’t have confused half-statements like this article.
Update: I meant to include “Not” in the title of this post.
Update 2: My brain must be a friday mush. I changed the title back.