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In a recent treatise David Suzuki claims that "the environment and climate would benefit substantially if more people gave up or at least cut down on meat and animal products." But he also admits that the issue is "complicated," since different methods of raising livestock have different ecological impacts, and further because animal consumption and agriculture provide widespread benefits to our society.
Suzuki doesn't really get into the details of the "complicated" part, instead highlighting some global figures relating to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from an undifferentiated "livestock" sector, so arguably some "complication" is in order.
Why complicate things? For one, because messaging is important. If you tell North Americans (the majority of whom -- as Suzuki notes -- are overconsuming carnivores) that they have to stop eating meat to do their part for the climate, the typical response is to shut off and ignore (hence some of the boneheaded tweets we saw in response to Suzuki's post). If you suggest that they eat less meat without clarifying what types of agricultural practices they should be supporting in the livestock sector, then they could use this advice to merely reduce their consumption of what is still a polluting product -- factory farmed meat, which pollutes both air and water, depletes the Earth's soils, leads to biodiversity loss and mistreats animals.
For this reason it seems logical to add an addendum to Suzuki's message -- eat less (but better) meat to reduce Earth's heat. The adage "less, but better," originally coined by German designer Dieter Rams, is popular in the worlds of product design and architecture, but the basic premise can be applied to North American meat consumption practices.
What is "better" meat? Better meat is ecologically raised meat, produced within a regenerative land use system in which animals are managed in balance with the natural systems surrounding them. Certified organic, certified biodynamic, 100 per cent grass-fed, and certified naturally grown (in the U.S.) are examples of verification programs guaranteeing ecological practices.
In the case of ruminants like cows, sheep and goats, this means shifting away from grain-feeding towards grass-based production, where carefully managing grassland ecosystems helps sequester carbon while providing pollinator, bird and other wildlife habitat. For pigs and poultry, this can mean utilizing feedstuffs diverted from human food waste streams, utilizing forages and woodlands as a portion of their diets and feeding grains that can be produced locally and ecologically.
Better meat also means humanely raised meat, which includes providing access to the outdoors, ample space to move and interact with others of their species, and low-stress handling and processing. Locally produced meat is better because it supports the regional economy and requires far less transportation to get it from farm to plate.
Yet there's another reason to complicate things: Focusing solely on the net climatic impacts of global meat production has the effect of unfairly situating the blame on livestock rather than the current way humans primarily produce and consume livestock. The policy implications of this nuance are huge -- it means the difference between calling for the elimination of "animal agriculture" writ large, or calling for major changes in our consumption habits and production methods.
Both of these interpretations seek drastic changes to the world as we know it, yet while the former one advocates the total elimination of a practice which has been a central feature of almost all sedentary societies since their very origins, the latter calls for its restoration (and 're-solarization," as Michael Pollan calls it).
If you are going to brand "animal agriculture" as a leading culprit in causing climate change and global injustice (as the film Cowspiracy, which Suzuki references, does), you had better be sure that eliminating animal agriculture would result in widespread improvements to the climate system and global justice. Yet as experts like Simon Fairlie, former editor of The Ecologist (and former vegetarian) point out, there are plenty of reasons why eliminating animal agriculture is not the panacea solution it purports to be.
First, one has to consider how much of the GHG emissions associated with livestock would still be produced anyway if we switched them out for non-animal agriculture. Given the expected growth in synthetic fertilizers required for replacement protein crops and in the number of wild ruminants that would result in this scenario, a significant amount of methane and nitrous oxide emissions would still occur. This is also the case for a large portion of the emissions of carbon dioxide from land use change and transportation which are presently attributed to livestock (worth about half of the FAO's figure of 14.5 per cent of global GHG emissions).
Second, as the FAO notes, "hundreds of millions of pastoralists and smallholders depend on livestock for their daily survival and extra income and food," which suggests that a global policy which calls for the elimination of livestock for the purposes of tackling climate change would overwhelmingly impact people in the developing world who are responsible for only a fraction of global emissions.
There are yet other reasons, including the FAO's self-doubts about the actual extent of methane emissions from ruminants, and the relative "half-lives" of different GHGs, which suggests that any genuine climate solution will be insufficient without confronting emissions from fossil fuels -- the most significant contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Then of course there's the carbon sequestration potential of properly managed livestock, leading the FAO to claim that despite its current emissions, "the global livestock sector...can also deliver a significant share of the necessary mitigation effort."
All this to say, if you are going to take Suzuki's advice, which ultimately is to follow Pollan's advice ("eat [real] food; not too much, mostly plants"), keep in mind that this is not a clarion call to eliminate animal protein from your diet, but rather means taking the time to think about where and how your food (all of your food) was produced.
Next time you crave meat, make it a special occasion and support a local farmer in your area who is practicing organic, humane animal agriculture and taking steps to reduce (or even sequester) GHG emissions through their management practices.
Ryan Katz-Rosene is a SSHRC Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa's School of Political Studies and an organic farmer based in Cantley, Quebec.
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