Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On veganism and global warming

Earlier today, Freakonomics tackled an issue that I've long been interested in--the role that our relentlessly carnivorous society plays in contributing to global warming. I've already been aware of the counter-intuitive finding that cows generate more environment-damaging greenhouse gases than cars, planes, and trains combined (a staggering 18 percent of gases come from livestock), but this piece takes that line of reasoning even further.
There’s not a single person who’s done more to fight climate change than Bill McKibben. Through thoughtful books, ubiquitous magazine contributions, and, most notably, the founding of (an international non-profit dedicated to fighting global warming), McKibben has committed his life to saving the planet. For all the passion fueling his efforts, though, there’s something weirdly amiss in his approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions: neither he nor will actively promote a vegan diet....
As a recent report from the World Preservation Foundation confirms, ignoring veganism in the fight against climate change is sort of like ignoring fast food in the fight against obesity. Forget ending dirty coal or natural gas pipelines. As the WPF report shows, veganism offers the single most effective path to reducing global climate change.
The evidence is powerful. Eating a vegan diet, according to the study, is seven times more effective at reducing emissions than eating a local meat-based diet. A global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent, compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” In light of the fact that the overall environmental impact of livestock is greater than that of burning coal, natural gas, and crude oil, this 87 percent cut (94 percent if the plants were grown organically) would come pretty close to putting out of business, which I’m sure would make McKibben a happy man.  
The post goes on to speculate as to several reasons why McKibben and have not done more to promote veganism--much of the thesis is that it wouldn't generate much publicity, and thus isn't an "efficient" use of time--but the question still lingers. Why do we spend so much time worrying about oil and gas, and yet so little time thinking about our food and how we get it? At least on the surface, it would seem like eating would be a more important issue than transportation, but that doesn't seem to jive with the public discourse.

I have to say here that I'm an unabashed meat lover, and I'd have a tough time going to a fully vegan diet (although, as a cook, I'm also continually amazed at how much complexity of flavor can be generated when you've got real, good, fresh produce at your disposal--and a bunch of olives, garlic, and peppers). But it's also clear that the developed world's meat addiction might in fact be an even greater indulgence than gas-guzzling SUVs, both in terms of its long-term impacts on public health and in terms of its environmental impact.

Meat is an inherently inefficient food source, both to produce and to digest, but it's also deeply--and possibly inextricably--ingrained in our culture. It's staggering to recognize that the majority of corn and soy that is grown in the world is used not to feed people, but to feed farm animals, and even more astounding that these same animals consume 80% of the antibiotics sold in the United States--which isn't exactly a good thing from a public health perspective.

With all of these potential drawbacks to our public health and the environment, it's frankly shocking that the meat issue is so infrequently mentioned. Will the national conversation ever shift from our oil addiction to our meat addiction? I doubt it, but at the same time I sort of have to wonder why not.


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