Despite the fact that we have become a nation of headline skimmers (me included), there’s value in not only spending a couple minutes actually perusing a highly provocative commentary — like, say, this one — but actually marshaling a few brain cells to consider the message found by reading between the lines.
And if you’re still with me after that 50-word monstrosity of an opening sentence, God bless you.
To illustrate my point, let me direct your attention to a recent story title, “Grabbing the Bull by the Horns: It’s Time to Cut Industrial Meat and Dairy to Save the Climate,” which appeared in the business publication GRAIN.
It’s not a big leap from reading that headline to assume that the highlight of the report GRAIN summarized is a straightforward condemnation of our collective dietary habits, which are deemed responsible for an existential threat to the planet. Consider that one of the key quotes in the article stated that, “If people simply kept their meat consumption to the World Health Organization’s recommended guidelines, the world could reduce some 40% of all current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”
Statements like that one, of course, are the fuel that fires the Meatless Mondays and the “Plant Protein: It’s What’s For Dinner” campaigns that propose to solve the crisis of climate change by urging true believers to switch from all-beef hamburgers to all-soy shamburgers — the implication being that livestock production, as opposed to soybean production, is horribly destructive and must be dialed back if we’re to survive as a species.
If any species are to survive.
Some Are More Equal than Others
No one with any intellectual integrity denies that the meat and dairy sectors are significant contributors to the production of greenhouse gas emission, as are transportation, construction, manufacturing, energy production and all of the rest of agriculture. Even so-called “green” industries that rely on sharing Internet-based content and transactional data are significant contributors to climate change.
For example: which uses more electricity (which is generally produced by burning fossil fuels): A standard household refrigerator, or an iPhone?
Answer: the iPhone, which requires about 13% more electricity to handle wireless connections, data usage and battery recharging.
In fact the Information-Communications-Technologies sector (ICT), as a recent TIME magazine story labeled it, now uses more than 10% of the world’s total electrical output, according to an analysis done by the Breakthrough Institute. That might not seem like a lot — until it’s noted that the 1,500 terawatts of power currently consumed by the ICT sector annually is the same amount of juice that was needed in 1985 to light up the entire planet!
Here’s the point: Development of all kinds creates a carbon footprint. However, not all industries are equal in terms of their contributions to GHG emissions.
And guess what? Even a tirade like “Grabbing the Bull by the Horns” conceded a similar distinction within global animal agriculture — only you have to dig a little deeper than the opening sentences to get to it.
“All meat and dairy is not created equal,” the story explained. “In most of the Global South, livestock is raised mainly by small farmers practicing low-emissions, mixed farming, plus 200 million herders who often graze their animals in areas where crops cannot be grown.”
It’s not a given that such farmers are inherently more effective environmentalists than large-scale operators. Often, subsistence farmers are the very ones responsible for the slash-and-burn tactics rightly condemned by environmental activists, nor are they always able to effectively protect riparian areas or control the streambed erosion and sedimentation that results from livestock that aren’t kept away from waterways with fencing.
But that’s not the point. Without really meaning to emphasize it, the comparison between small-scale producers and their “industrialized” brethren points to an underappreciated series of benefits conveniently overlooked by those who proclaim the coming of a meat-free nirvana.
“These [small-scale] production and consumption systems also improve family nutrition, enhance livelihoods and are an integral part of cultural and religious traditions,” the article stated.
Yes indeed, and if the activists who demand that humanity stop consuming animal foods were to succeed in their ill-advised crusade, those nutritional, cultural and lifestyle-enhancing benefits would also stop.
Does that mean the “solution” to animal agriculture’s impact on GHG emissions is for the Global North to regress back to the 18th century, when the majority of Americans were family farmers and homesteaders?
Hardly. But it does suggest quite clearly, though perhaps not deliberately, that any evaluation of meat production’s impact ought to go beyond the obvious — and between the lines — of the usual rhetoric about raising food animals and its impact on the world’s ecosystems.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.