I’ve got mine

I recently got into a heated discussion with some folks on Friendica about sustainability and veganism. This should be a no-brainer:

Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein (8). Livestock directly uses only 1.3% of the total water used in agriculture. However, when the water required for forage and grain production is included, the water requirements for livestock production dramatically increase. For example, producing 1 kg of fresh beef may require about 13 kg of grain and 30 kg of hay (17). This much forage and grain requires about 100 000 L of water to produce the 100 kg of hay, and 5400 L for the 4 kg of grain. On rangeland for forage production, more than 200 000 L of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef (30). Animals vary in the amounts of water required for their production. In contrast to beef, 1 kg of broiler can be produced with about 2.3 kg of grain requiring approximately 3500 L of water.[1]

But my interlocutors viewed meat as an entitlement, that is, no matter how many people in the world lack access to adequate food, no matter what the environmental effects, my interlocutors are entitled to meat. When pressed as to how this can work for a world population of over 7 billion, that is, well over 30 times the population size humans could have attained as hunter-gatherers,[2] they denied responsibility for those 7 billion. One even said, “I am not a king,” and deplored irresponsible breeding, apparently heedless of the problems women around the world face in exercising a basic human right to control over their own fertility. Another, situated in a rural area of Australia, asserted he was acquiring livestock for his “dirt-poor” in-laws and for himself.

This isn’t just entitlement. It’s an “I’ve got mine” attitude, denying to the world’s poor that relatively well-off Westerners have achieved their standard of living, their privileges, their property, and their meat, largely at the expense of the world’s poor—through colonization in both classical and modern forms. It denies that the climate change-induced threats to fresh water and to agriculture, that are largely the product of Western extravagance, are hitting the world’s poor, especially in Africa and south Asia, first and hardest.

My interlocutors acknowledged that the livestock industry was unsustainable—and there is little doubt of this. People may quibble over the numbers in Livestock’s Long Shadow, but there’s a decent chance its claim that livestock is the worst climate change offender (and we should remember that climate change is only one of numerous aspects it discussed)[3] is understated. Robert Goodland, one of the report’s authors, now believes that Livestock’s Long Shadow undercounted the amount of land devoted to livestock production.[4]

My own critique would turn to Life Cycle Assessment, a methodology that attempts to quantify environmental impacts of any good from it’s earliest origins to its final disposal. This is important in Livestock’s Long Shadow because, among other things, the report compares the impact of livestock to the impact of transportation. But these overlap. A certain amount of transportation is devoted to the livestock industry—transporting animals, transporting feed, transporting other equipment, transporting slaughtered animals, and transporting meat—ultimately to the consumer’s home or to restaurants and other institutional food service operations. This presents a conundrum. If, as I would suggest, the authors allocated livestock transport to the livestock industry, and correspondingly, transport for other industries to their respective industries, they would wind up comparing an enlarged livestock impact to a rather diminished transport impact, with the latter including some personal transport and, probably, some miscellaneous transport that can’t otherwise be accounted for. Some would then accuse the authors of diminishing the elephant in the room—and indeed, what many people think of first, when it comes to carbon footprints—transportation.

Likewise, it makes little sense to do the reverse, that is, to simply count all transport as transport, regardless of what’s being transported; this would be to assume that transportation would occur whether there was cargo to transport or not. Yes, I can imagine it, now, all those truckers dead-heading back and forth across the country, even with no prospect for a cargo at either end of their journeys, just because that’s what they do.

The final alternative is to simply count transportation as transportation, and to double count that portion for any particular industry as an impact of that industry. This, I think, is what the authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow effectively did. One can do this, even if the totals make zero sense, and it will tend to minimize discrepancies. We really don’t know how much worse livestock is than transport because the scores have been skewed, making livestock look a lot less worse, relative to transport, than it is.

One of my interlocutors argued for hunting and fishing. All around his urban environment in Connecticut, he sees small wildlife—squirrels, other rodents, and other birds. Somewhat facetiously (I think), and just prior to publicity surrounding a United Nations recommendation that we eat more insects,[5] he suggested we eat all sorts of critters that Westerners—and especially residents of the U.S.—generally disdain. He points to a nearby estuary where aquatic life apparently feeds well, offering an ample food source. It is, he insists, possible to fish sustainably.

As a whole, humans have sustained themselves through hunting and fishing, only on a small scale. Even nomadic herding societies are strictly small scale societies, typically subsisting on land that is unsuitable for agriculture—and which arguably, at least in some cases, should be allowed to return to forest.

Riane Eisler writes, for example, about the Sahara. Formerly largely grassland, overgrazing and a decrease in rainfall led local people to chop down trees to open new pasture. This exacerbated the droughts, leading ultimately to the desert we see today.[6] As desertification proceeds, displaced herders come into conflict with their neighbors—hence, in part, the genocide in Darfur.[7]

The largest our population could have grown to, as hunter-gatherers, is estimated at 200 million.[8] My interlocutor had no answer when asked which 6.8 billion people (actually, it would be more) he was planning to slaughter to make his plan feasible.

  1. [1]David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of meat-based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78, no. 3 (2003), http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full
  2. [2]John W. Townsend, “Reproductive Behavior in the Context of Global Population,” American Psychologist, 58, no. 3: 197-204. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.58.3.197
  3. [3]Livestock Environment and Development Initiative, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organinzation, 2006).
  4. [4]Robert Goodland, “FAO Yields to Meat Industry Pressure on Climate change,” New York Times, July 11, 2012, http://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/fao-yields-to-meat-industry-pressure-on-climate-change/
  5. [5]United Nations News Centre, “The latest buzz: eating insects can help tackle food insecurity, says FAO,” May 13, 2013, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44886
  6. [6]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2007).
  7. [7]Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond (New York: Hyperion, 2007).
  8. [8]Townsend, “Reproductive Behavior.”

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