Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Why I don't eat meat

I've been meaning to write this piece for a long time, so here goes.

Today I followed a trail in a NY Times article - about aggressive pro-vegetarian ads, aimed at people concerned with climate change - to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report Livestock's Long Shadow. (See link to right.)

I'll admit that I was more than a little annoyed when I saw "An Inconvenient Truth" (aka All About Al) that there was no mention of the contribution cattle make to global warming. Now it seems PETA is taking on our former Vice President, basing their billboard campaign on data in the the UN report.

So I tracked it down, and even though reading on line and reading sans serif is not easy, decided not to print all 408 pages. I read the introduction, skimmed the report (good pictures, better charts, graphs and maps!) and then read the conclusion.

The report outlines the impact of livestock globally on climate, water and biodiversity - and it's not a pretty picture.

There's a strong appeal for policy change - to move from the superficial nuisance issues related to livestock such as flies and smells, through the intermediate issues like local clean air and water, to consideration of the long term issues, like climate change and loss of biodiversity.

And it's not easy, since the social importance of livestock far outweighs its economic importance globally. Think about the way meat eating is used as a dividing line socially in the media here in the U.S. Think about Precious Ramotswe's father's cattle. (#1 Ladies' Detective Agency stories - and by the way, cattle in Botswana use 23% of the water) Think about using goats as dowries, think about sacred cows - and you begin to get the picture.

And over a third of the world's poor depend on livestock production for at least a piece of their livelihood.

The environmental impact of livestock is also grossly disproportional to their economic value (about 1.4% of global GDP). One third (33%) of the arable land in the world is used to grow feed for livestock. Eighteen (18%) of the global warming effect is due to livestock - that's larger the transportation sector worldwide.

Growth in production of livestock around the world is not in small scale farming, but in industrial production, usually near urban areas. Manure is a huge problem!

I am reminded of wondering, when listening to the keynote from Petaluma Poultry (Rockie and Rosie) at the Sustainable Enterprise conference, that they can't call themselves a sustainable enterprise until they solve the manure issue, preferably cycling it back into the system nearby to produce feed for R & R.

I'm not sentimental about animals (Okay - except the ones I know. Okay - I have watched the movie Babe half a dozen times.) And if I were much concerned about eating meat and health I would eat much less of everything. I stopped eating meat ten or twelve years ago for environmental reasons, and then I rather lost my taste for it. I might still eat a little if I were still working in rural Nevada, where range fed beef, backyard sheep, and venison from the annual hunt were common - and sustainable. But I live in a suburban/exurban area where good produce is much more readily available than sustainably grown or harvested meat, and most restaurants (and congregations) speak vegetarian.

Livestock's Long Shadow does deal with policy changes, not with consumption and lifestyle issues, yet it does note
"While not addressed by this assessment, it may well be agreed that environmental damage by livestock may be significantly reduced by lowering excessive consumption of livestock products among wealthy people."
I would assume that means us, and that it includes leather and fiber, too - though there was little about the latter in the report.

It's not my job to "convert" anyone to vegetarianism. It is part of my calling, I think, to remind environmentalists that livestock present very serious issues. The report says with great understatement
"Perhaps even among the majority of environmentalists and environmental policy-makers, the truly enormous impact of the livestock sector on climate, biodiversity and water is not fully appreciated."

We got the first environmental set of 3R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. Perhaps now it is time to consider another set: Reform farming practices, Reduce meat consumption, Replace meat in the diet with other things.

1 comment:

John Leech said...

"I don't eat mammals" seemed like a good start. In Sierra magazine this month a huntress said she saw the need to be aware of where the meat came from. Maybe that's why lamb no longer appeals to me - having seen Sheikh Isham 'sacrifice' 2 or 3 on eidh.