Skip

New research: Reduce your carbon footprint by reducing meat consumption
July 18, 2014 11:57 PM   Subscribe

An Oxford University study of over 50,000 participants, published this month in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change: Dietary greenhouse gas emissions in meat-eaters are twice as high as those in vegans.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (144 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thought this was pretty well established. Plants provide most of their own nutrients and are pretty straight forward to harvest; animals require more processing and more materials be transported to them, not to mention animal products are more sensitive to temperature and spoilage. Logistics alone makes meat a more greenhouse gas intensive affair.
posted by Punkey at 12:06 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Interesting that vegans slightly beat vegetarians for lower dietary GHG production and that milk has lower GHG output per gram than soybeans. I guess because most of the mass of milk is water?
posted by XMLicious at 12:33 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm not looking forward to the "rollin coal"-style cultural retaliation against this.
posted by spiderskull at 12:34 AM on July 19, 2014 [23 favorites]


Feed me beans and I'll "roll some coal" for you! High in methane, too, for that added GHG boost!
posted by five fresh fish at 12:49 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have the feeling that this study won't convince climate change deniers that they should stop eating meat.
posted by el io at 1:02 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


We've gone from not reading the post to not even reading the synopsis.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:39 AM on July 19, 2014 [21 favorites]


I knew this already, and the key point is actually in the appendix not the synopsis. Look at the CO2 emissions for cow and sheep meat and compare them to pig and chicken meat. Anybody who sticks to the latter two will have a much lower footprint than suggested in the article.
posted by Thing at 1:48 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


In my country ruminants raised for meat eat grass, not (industrially grown) grain. I suspect the calculus is rather different for me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:59 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


What fraction of greenhouse gas emissions are related to food production? Because the relevance of this paper really depends on that number.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:10 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


The number they give is about a 20% share.
posted by Thing at 2:17 AM on July 19, 2014


It's both an interesting study, and at the same time nothing new at all. Nice to have some solid data to back up what everyone already knew.
posted by wilful at 2:32 AM on July 19, 2014


The average GHG emissions associated with a standard 2,000 kcal diet were estimated for all subjects

Is a 2000 kCal diet standard? Interesting metric, this.
posted by holybagel at 2:43 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


The UK health guidelines on food suggest a daily intake of 2000 kcals for women and 2500 kcals for men each day, so I suspect that's where they got that figure from. The actual amount of food we really eat on average will almost certainly be higher than that (I'm pretty sure I used to eat that in a single meal).
posted by dng at 2:50 AM on July 19, 2014


I don't recall actual numbers, but in 2007 or so, eating vegetarian made the Union of Concerned Scientists' list of things that individuals can do that can actually make some difference in reducing carbon emissions. They noted that industrial sources not hugely affected by individual consumption decisions (eg. coal-fired power plants and the commercial transportation industry overall) were a major contributor, and that, of the three individual actions important enough to be worth listing, eating vegetarian came in below "drive a more fuel efficient car". The most important though was insulating your house properly. Calculations were based on average US consumption patterns, diet, vehicle fuel efficiency and (lack of) availability of public transportation, and home construction, so of course some local variability may exist.
posted by eviemath at 3:49 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'm glad to see science brought to a moral debate.

But isn't some animal or another going to eat the grass or whatever and excrete CO2 and CH4 whether it's cow to grass to human or a bacteria or whatever? This study compares different human diets but it doesn't seem to establish that a vegan diet sequesters greenhouse gasses as opposed to an omnivorous diet. Is there some mechanism whereby plant matter is consumed and digested without releasing CO2 or CH4?

Something is going to eat plant matter.

I read through TFA four times, did I miss something?
posted by vapidave at 4:02 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


The paper in the FPP has a really comprehensive analysis of some of those issues in its discussion section though.
posted by eviemath at 4:06 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Something is going to eat plant matter.

Generally speaking, growing plants to raise a steer to feed you is going to be less efficient than growing plants to feed you (and the steer not existing). You'll get more waste gas by adding the steer to your personal food chain. (Unless it's really vaporousdave.)
posted by pracowity at 4:20 AM on July 19, 2014


validave, the article describes the specific agricultural GHG sources as being primarily from (a) CO2 from use of machinery (tillers, harvesters, tractors, etc.) in agricultural production (I imagine transportation of materials and livestock becomes a larger factor in countries like the US and Canada), (b) nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, and (c) methane produced directly by animals (but, as was noted in another comment above, especially cows). So:
* how the plant matter is produced is important - farmed versus wild-grown.
* The difference between humans eating plants produced by standard industrial agriculture and humans eating animals eating food produced by standard industrial agriculture is that it takes an order of magnitude more plant mass to grow a cow than it would to produce the same number of plant-based calories. Animals use energy from the food that they eat for lots of activities beyond just growing human-consumable meat.
* I'm not sure entirely what you mean by omnivores, but if you are referring to people consuming wild animals, the fish-eating diet in the article may be comparable, though an increasing proportion of seafood is being farm-raised. Large agribusiness would have us believe that growing or raising enough food to feed the entite world without large scale industrial practices is impossible. With Western levels of cow consumption, this may very well be true. In general, I get the impression from my readings that it's a bit of an overstatement, but unless the wild animals in your diet are on the level of rats and insects, some degree of some form of agriculture seems necessary. The world's wild fisheries are in pretty bad shape, for example, and it's not clear to me that North America, let alone Europe, has enough wild woodlands to provide habitat to produce enough deer to replace farmed cattle, pigs, etc., or enough wetlands and such for wild ducks and turkeys to replace farmed chicken.
posted by eviemath at 4:29 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


From the study:

Average greenhouse-gas emissions per day (in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent) were:

7.19 for high meat-eaters ( > = 100 g/d or > = 0.22 lb/d)
5.63 for medium meat-eaters (50-99 g/d or 0.11 lb/d - 0.218 lb/d)
4.67 for low meat-eaters ( < 50 g/d or < 0.11 lb/d)
3.91 for fish-eaters
3.81 for vegetarians
2.89 for vegans

In conclusion, dietary GHG emissions in self-selected meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:38 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


7.19 for high meat-eaters ( > = 100 g/d or > = 0.22 lb/d)
Wow, and that doesn't even seem like that much meat, from my perspective. My husband adopted a particular low-carb, high-fat diet last year and I've felt extremely ambivalent about it on a number of fronts, including for environmental reasons. Environmental awareness was always one of the key common values we shared, but he seems to have this huge blind spot about the impact of consuming a lb of meat and a half-gallon equivalent of dairy products a day.
posted by drlith at 5:15 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


This is highly interesting from a perspective of what may guide policy, but if you're asking the question, "What can *I* do to make the biggest impact on reducing global warming?" I suspect the answer is still, "political activism". You can't make a meaningful difference on a problem this big without the force of law pushing collective action in a certain direction.

Becoming a vegan (and making what are, at least to me, significant sacrifices) helps not a bit when the rest of the country continues on their course.
posted by indubitable at 5:25 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


In my country ruminants raised for meat eat grass, not (industrially grown) grain. I suspect the calculus is rather different for me.

Because of where I live, I can buy meat that is entirely grass raised (beef and lamb, with limited availability for other animals). The climate impact of that meat is still not zero (cow farts, transportation, irrigation of some lowland pasture ground) but mostly they are grazing on grassland that is not suitable for other kinds of ag and they definitely aren't eating grains.

But that's only if I buy directly from the producer. The stuff at the grocery store isn't necessarily local and is almost certainly finished on grain or corn even if the animal was grassfed initially.

At least here, people will hold up the best case example of animals grazing on up irrigated and otherwise unutilized land, but it does not represent how the actual meat supply chain works.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:26 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


I fear that the health benefits of a Whole Food Plant Based Diet will become obscured by the insanity of US politics on issues like global warming. What we really need today is for someone like Bill O'Reilly to loose a lot of weight and start to feel better from making the switch. As it is now, this is just another stupid cultural divide. Sad, that.
posted by JConUK at 5:28 AM on July 19, 2014


To be clear, I'm not attempting to address efficiency. I'm addressing greenhouse gasses.

Whether or not a human processes and releases CO2 or CH4 indirectly via a farmed animal or if it's some other creature it seems to be a net neutral. The biomass of humans contribute to the alteration of O2 to CO2 or CH4 but so to do bacteria and bugs - something is going to eat the plants, as has obviously been happening for billions of years otherwise we'd be buried in plant matter - and release CO2 or CH4.

If the whole world became vegan what would become of the CO2 captured by plants? It would be rerelased by the bacteria and bugs [and humans] that eat plants. The very recent increase in greenhouse gasses is the result of burning fossil fuels, not eating meat.
posted by vapidave at 5:49 AM on July 19, 2014


This is highly interesting from a perspective of what may guide policy, but if you're asking the question, "What can *I* do to make the biggest impact on reducing global warming?" I suspect the answer is still, "political activism".
I'm actually not sure I agree with this. First of all, we all have to eat anyway, so there's no tension between undertaking political activism and personally changing your diet. You don't have to choose one or the other. But also, I think that political change is often proceeded by cultural change, and it will be easier to make policy changes that affect the food system if people have already started to change the way they eat. If meat seems like a necessary and fundamental part of people's diets, then most people are going to resist changes that might make meat more expensive. If lots of people have made the shift to eating less meat, then those political changes are going to be easier to swallow.
What we really need today is for someone like Bill O'Reilly to loose a lot of weight and start to feel better from making the switch. As it is now, this is just another stupid cultural divide.
I actually think that the shift is more likely to come from religious folks than from O'Reilly. There's already an effort to sell a minimally-processed Mediterranean diet as "what Jesus would eat" and therefore more authentically Christian than processed food, and I think that could be combined with Christian environmentalism, which is a thing among younger Evangelicals.

Full disclosure: I eat meat, and my myriad food issues are probably going to prevent me from ever being as responsible as I should be on these issues. Also, I am a terrible Jew who literally ate pork tenderloin with bacon for dinner last night, so I am totally not part of any religiously-motivated dietary movements.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:00 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


"Becoming a vegan (and making what are, at least to me, significant sacrifices) helps not a bit when the rest of the country continues on their course."

Becoming a vegan makes you an activist in your community. You raise awareness and make a statement with the way you spend your money. Societal change can drive political change. Not everything has to follow a top down approach.

Climate change is global, so the trap "but the other kids are doing it, too!" is bottomless.
posted by travelwithcats at 6:03 AM on July 19, 2014 [17 favorites]


eviemath already mentioned this, vapidave, but one of the reasons agricultural meat production creates so much CO2 is that it currently involves a great deal of fossil fuel use, much more than is involved in the production of plant fuels.

indubitable, in my experience activists in general tend to be more persuasive when they practice what they preach.
posted by BlueJae at 6:04 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Also: I really like that the researchers distinguished between people who eat a lot of meat and people who only eat meat occasionally here. This is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Switching out a couple of meat-based meals a week for vegetarian or vegan options could make a big difference. Especially if millions of people started doing it.
posted by BlueJae at 6:08 AM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


"To be clear, I'm not attempting to address efficiency. I'm addressing greenhouse gasses."

To be clear, you are failing to understand that we raise billions of animals to produce meat. We feed them tons of feed. They emit tons of greenhouse gases. Those animals would not be there if we ate the green stuff ourselves. Therefore there would be less emissions.

It takes 12+ lb of grain to produce 1 lb of meat.
posted by travelwithcats at 6:09 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


vapidave, did you read eviemath's comment?

A large part of the CO2 we're talking about when comparing meat-based diets with plant-based ones is from fossil fuels. Growing 1,000 calories of plant matter takes a certain amount of electricity and gasoline and fertilizer, which produce CO2. You can eat that plant matter directly, or you can feed it to animals to transform it into meat. And one calorie of plant food does not yield one calorie of meat—the animal uses most of those calories. So it takes many times more electricity and gasoline and fertilizer to produce 1,000 calories of meat than it does to produce 1,000 calories of plant food—mostly from all the plant food you have to grow to feed the animal, but also because you have to house / transport the animal until it's time for slaughter.

The same is true of dairy and eggs, although less so than for meat.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:13 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Also, yeah—this has been known and obvious since forever.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:16 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


(which is not a criticism of the study—I'm all for rigorous and quantitative research. but this is not some groundbreaking new revelation; it's just giving us a more detailed picture of something that's been understood for a long time.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:22 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Btw, I said "becoming a vegan" because it was in direct response to the quote. But it really is about gaining perspective and reducing meat. What the study considers high meat-eaters translates to a serving of 3.5 oz meat per day, which is roughly a hamburger patty or half of a smaller, skinless, boneless chicken breast.

Personally, I am happy with a vegetarian diet so I wasn't saying everyone has to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
posted by travelwithcats at 6:38 AM on July 19, 2014


Becoming a vegan (and making what are, at least to me, significant sacrifices) helps not a bit when the rest of the country continues on their course.


Yeah, it's a drop in the ocean. Of course, the ocean is made up of a lot of drops of water.
posted by entropone at 7:02 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


re: moral arguments. This is how I justified a low-carb, high animal muscle diet after trying vegetarian diets. Yes, I suspected eating meat was bad environmentally. However, me being 60 lbs overweight for the next 45 years was going to have an environmental impact (I assumed) if only from the increased health care I was already starting to need. So I lost 60 lbs eating lots of meat, and then reduced the animal muscle in my diet. I eat less food overall now which means smaller footprint.

It would have been better if I had never had to do that diet, but given the mistakes I made with lifestyle choices, I justified that meat eating was an ethical short-term (tactical) thing to do.
posted by acheekymonkey at 7:02 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


To be clear, I'm not attempting to address efficiency. I'm addressing greenhouse gasses.

You can't take efficiency out of that conversation. If you deliver calories more efficiently in food production than you no longer have to use as much farmland. So the question becomes, what do you think it takes more fossil fuels to maintain, a farm or an equivalent acreage of wild grassland or forest?
posted by Drinky Die at 7:17 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Becoming a vegan (and making what are, at least to me, significant sacrifices) helps not a bit when the rest of the country continues on their course.

Therefore it is best used as policy. It doesn't raise the price of the product or necessarily lower the supply by personally refusing to eat it. Only a higher tax policy on the bad diet and a subsidy on the good diet would have targeted results.
posted by Brian B. at 7:19 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also, yeah—this has been known and obvious since forever.

But maybe something that has been conveniently ignored forever.

Many people would rather try to buy their way out of feeling guilty about fucking up the environment by, for example, buying a (hey look at me I'm driving a) Prius but perhaps continuing to be a fuel-wasting pollution-causing traffic-jamming idiot.

It's not so easy to change your behavior in an actually meaningful way by dumping the car altogether or going vegan. Better to pretend those are things a crazy person would do to no real purpose.
posted by pracowity at 7:20 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Paper does not consider the fact that vegans fart a lot. Yet another thinly-veiled puff piece from Big Soya.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:22 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


But lactose intolerant people would fart less if they were vegan, so I assume the fart ratio evens out.

Calling people idiots seems to me to be a singularly ineffective activist strategy, for what it's worth.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:25 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


So is the plan that we eliminate all the animals we have made dependent on us? I'm guessing we'll do this ceasing to allow them to breed so they simply die off.

Somehow all the groups that are working to save endangered species, it seems like someone would have a problem with that idea.

If they are going to be allowed to exist anyway, I think it's pretty relevant if the benefits of vegetarianism are based on the presumption of eliminating a bunch of species from existence (and what wild species should we be eliminating "for the good of the planet" once we eliminate all farm animals?)

I would like to see us stop eating meat, but I think we should allow the animals to exist and in fact rehabilitate them to live on their own with less human involvement but possibly with humans providing some for the animals and using fur or milk or eggs in exchange.

There's something creepy to me about making all of these decisions purely on benefit to humans without any consideration for the animals at all whether it's for or against vegetarianism. Historically there have been populations that benefitted wild animal populations in some ways and also hunted (one example even in the plant world is the tobacco plant that seems to go out of it's way to attract a certain moth that happens to also eat the plant in it's catapillar stage.)
posted by xarnop at 7:39 AM on July 19, 2014


if you're asking the question, "What can *I* do to make the biggest impact on reducing global warming?" I suspect the answer is still, "political activism". You can't make a meaningful difference on a problem this big without the force of law pushing collective action in a certain direction.

Wish i could favorite this more than once. "Lifestyle" environmentalism is not gonna move the needle and it may even hurt, because no one likes being smugly lectured about their lifestyle choices and it may turn them off to the whole cause. It's more about cultural signaling than genuine concern for the environment.
posted by neat graffitist at 7:39 AM on July 19, 2014


Yeah I think when the forces are pushing everyone in the direction of having a harmful impact whether they want to or not, that is definitely the place to have the battle- we need to set the ordinary life of a human at sustainable without people having to swim backward upstream in order to live an environmentally friendly existence.
posted by xarnop at 7:42 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


But, but... think of the retailers!
posted by sneebler at 7:49 AM on July 19, 2014


So is the plan that we eliminate all the animals we have made dependent on us?

I think the best plan, from the environmental standpoint, would be to continue to use them but only in a more sustainable manner. From the moral/animal rights vegan standpoint, it gets confusing as hell to answer that question.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:50 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that the main problem here is that our agricultural and transportation infrastructure relies heavily upon fossil fuels. If that isn't fixed, going vegan might slightly slow the progression of the problem down, but it won't stop it. If that was fixed, than the additional carbon contribution of the meat-eating would mostly evaporate. So that's the real problem that needs to be addressed. I agree with the people above who say that political activism is probably a much better sacrifice to make than meat.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:52 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Whether or not a human processes and releases CO2 or CH4 indirectly via a farmed animal or if it's some other creature it seems to be a net neutral. The biomass of humans contribute to the alteration of O2 to CO2 or CH4 but so to do bacteria and bugs - something is going to eat the plants, as has obviously been happening for billions of years otherwise we'd be buried in plant matter - and release CO2 or CH4.

If the whole world became vegan what would become of the CO2 captured by plants? It would be rerelased by the bacteria and bugs [and humans] that eat plants. The very recent increase in greenhouse gasses is the result of burning fossil fuels, not eating meat.


I think your confusion comes from the fact that fossil fuels are used in the production and delivery of food. So yes, either way there's going to be plants growing and dying. But to turn those plants into food you eat fossil fuels come in as: fertilizer, fuel for farm machinery, fuel for transport and fuel for refrigeration, to name a few.

The study's conclusion was how much more fossil fuels were used to get a calorie of meat to your mouth vs. a calorie of vegetables.
posted by justkevin at 7:56 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


Somehow all the groups that are working to save endangered species, it seems like someone would have a problem with that idea.

That's just silly. We're not doing the cows a favor by force-breeding them into lives of abject misery and slaughter.
posted by mittens at 7:58 AM on July 19, 2014 [22 favorites]


Xarnop: the discussion here is about realistically reducing meat consumption, not a hypothetical situation about what would happen if the whole world went vegan overnight.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:01 AM on July 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


Milk was 1.8 kgCO2e/kg and meat was 35.8 kgCO2e/kg. So if a cow produces 10,000 kg a year of milk for 4 years and then goes to beef, how does that figure into the studies totals? There are millions of dairy cows that are turned into steak every year. The meat would seem to be an almost free by-product at that time, since the milk is accounted for. Trucking to the kill plant and grocery store would be about it for further emissions?
As an aside Diesel is expensive, farmers would love to buy electric tractors to reduce CO2.
posted by sety at 8:03 AM on July 19, 2014


Well I agree we should not force them into lives of abject misery and slaughter, but arguing that eliminating them entirely is therefore kinder is a bit of a stretch to me. Species will fight like crazy and endure all kinds of pain to survive. I wouldn't say that ending life to spare a creature from pain is innately good. There are tons of oppressed populations of humans in the world and I would rather them stop being oppressed then have them eliminated as an act of mercy. (And if it's between the two OBVIOUSLY let them keep living and hoping for better conditions). Why do the standards of respect for life change so much if it's an animal and supposedly vegetarianism to some people is about respecting their welfare?

I'm just saying, on animal rights grounds I think vegetarian goals should include preserving populations we have so harmed, and that should be factored into the equation about carbon footprints.
posted by xarnop at 8:03 AM on July 19, 2014


The mass agriculture business of farming leads to the loss of a huge number of breeds of farm animals anyway, due to the vagaries of profits and fashions.

"In the past 100 years, we have already lost about 1 000 breeds," says Keith Hammond, Senior Officer of FAO's Animal Genetic Resources Group. "Our new findings show that domestic animal breeds continue to be in danger: one third are currently at risk of extinction."

(That report (pdf) is from 2000. There doesn't seem to have been a more recent one)
posted by dng at 8:05 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


But lactose intolerant people would fart less if they were vegan, so I assume the fart ratio evens out.

I was a lot worse during my vegan attempts, so much worse, terrifyingly worse. I just can't process cruciferous vegetables (or lentils, stupid lentils) without a lot of pain and a lot of explosive byproducts, so it will never be worth it to me.
posted by elizardbits at 8:07 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


In a hypothetical world where everyone became vegan overnight I don't imagine there would be a mass animal slaughter.

In a realistic world where meat, leather, and dairy consumption were slowly reduced, forced breeding would also be reduced along with them, eliminating this problem of too many cows. Then if one day after decades or centuries meat consumption ceased entirely, the few remaining industrial cows would presumably be treated like every other large animal that isn't raised for human use. Which admittedly is shitty, but the ethics of how we share the earth with non-industry animals is another mostly independent problem.

But I feel like we just wrote a sci fi novel there rather than engaging with the article so I will bow out of this thread now.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:10 AM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Yeah I mean really though I am pretty sure the way current vegans maintain their veganism is not by preemptively slaughtering any animals they think they might eat in the future.

If that's not the case I am open to arguments from current vegans that this wholesale slaughter is, in fact, how they keep themselves from eating meat.
posted by elizardbits at 8:12 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


tofu_crouton, I agree with harm reduction perspective on meat consumption, but I also wonder how things like grass feeding, and conversion to hunted wild game more than industrial farmed animals would impact the environment as well. If we're discussing a harm reduction perspective then it's worth discussing ways of eating meat that may have less negative impact (like reducing amount and type of meat consumed or rearing conditions).

I personally did not mean to imply I thought there would be mass slaughter, but if the benefits of a vegetarian world are based on the assumption we will be slowly eliminating all the farm animals, I still find that a troubling concept. There used to be so many wild buffalo and I'd like to see more of them, I'd like to see us help the animals we have captured re-establish themselves in more wildscaped animal sanctuaries where we cease interfering with their breeding and family groups so much.
posted by xarnop at 8:25 AM on July 19, 2014


(I'll bow out as well,. ya'll feel free to take the convo whatever direction!)
posted by xarnop at 8:28 AM on July 19, 2014


There wouldn't be a negative environmental impact of letting the herds and flocks of cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens thin to a fraction of what they are. They're not wild animals, nor are they the same as wild animals. You would just stop them breeding until they died off in their own good time. Maybe you could keep a few of the most "primitive" breeds to fill empty ecological niches, but in the wild there would be a much smaller deal of them than there is now.
posted by Thing at 8:30 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


I would like to see us stop eating meat, but I think we should allow the animals to exist and in fact rehabilitate them to live on their own with less human involvement but possibly with humans providing some for the animals and using fur or milk or eggs in exchange.

There's something creepy to me about making all of these decisions purely on benefit to humans without any consideration for the animals at all whether it's for or against vegetarianism.


It's amazing how close this worry is to the stated anxieties of human slaveholders, who often couched their reluctance to free slaves in language that suggested their slaves would be unable to lead independent safe existences without their masters.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:36 AM on July 19, 2014 [10 favorites]


The staff at Mei Mei, one of the recently trendier Boston restaurants, recently talked about how they see the role of meat changing, why a little Portlandia-style questioning isn't necessarily a bad thing, and more.
posted by cribcage at 8:39 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


(Okay missed edit window by a mile. I meant plant foods above not plant fuels. I was pre-coffee. Carry on.)
posted by BlueJae at 8:42 AM on July 19, 2014


"Lifestyle" environmentalism is not gonna move the needle and it may even hurt, because no one likes being smugly lectured about their lifestyle choices and it may turn them off to the whole cause.

I've typically turned people on to vegan stuff by making delicious food and feeding it to my friends.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:42 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Domestic turkeys are too stupid and clumsy to breed without human help. It wouldn't take long for them to simply die off and we'd be left with wild turkeys. Other domestic meat animals probably would not thrive in the wild either, but I really can't stay this is somehow a worse alternative than continuing to produce millions of them in factory farms. Environmentally, of course it would be better.

Anyway, isn't this a sidetrack?

I seem to recall in the early 90s that raising a pound of beef consumes 20 times as much water as a pound of corn, which is another environmental consideration.
posted by Foosnark at 8:43 AM on July 19, 2014


(FWIW greg nog I am in favor of freeing the animals to sanctuaries immediately but I think it's understandable we might owe them some services to help them re-adapt to more wild life) This being my preference it also includes ceasing to control their breeding and allowing them wild spaces to exist. And it also includes NOT eliminating them slowly for "environmental" reasons. I think preserving the environment is something we should do for humans AS WELL as for animals and plants who have a right to be here too even if their living here innately produces some green house emissions. I just really had to respond to that since it sounded like you were totally missing my point, and maybe I have been unclear.)
posted by xarnop at 8:44 AM on July 19, 2014


"It seems to me that the main problem here is that our agricultural and transportation infrastructure relies heavily upon fossil fuels. If that isn't fixed, going vegan might slightly slow the progression of the problem down, but it won't stop it. If that was fixed, than the additional carbon contribution of the meat-eating would mostly evaporate. So that's the real problem that needs to be addressed."

No, the environmental impact of meat production is not limited to pollution through fossil fuel but also includes water and land consumption. The way we in the western, industrialized world produce food is not sustainable.
posted by travelwithcats at 8:44 AM on July 19, 2014


> This is highly interesting from a perspective of what may guide policy, but if you're asking the question, "What can *I* do to make the biggest impact on reducing global warming?" I suspect the answer is still, "political activism". You can't make a meaningful difference on a problem this big without the force of law pushing collective action in a certain direction.

I don't think that comparison is valid. The picture you suggest is that a personal decision like not eating meat reduces world carbon emission by a tiny bit, but political action by a large government or the UN or something can cause world carbon emission to drop by a lot, so political activism is the way to go. But that's a false comparison because going vegetarian is something done by one person, and political activism is something done by thousands or millions of people, all working together. Of course political activism is going to have a bigger effect, but that's just because it consists of a lot of people. You can't take credit for all the hard work done by all the other activists; for the comparison to work you have to just look at what you individually add to the movement.

So the question is, what has a bigger effect on the world: an individual going vegetarian, and so decreasing the demand for fossil fuels slightly, or an individual joining an environmentalist political activist group, and so making that group slightly stronger? I don't know, but it's not like the answer is definitely the second one.

Because we are each only one person in a world of billions, anything we do will necessarily have only tiny effects on the world. So an action that seems insignificant on the global scale isn't necessarily a bad idea. The question for each of us is, what can I do that's the least insignificant?
posted by officer_fred at 8:48 AM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Okay, I appreciate that you care deeply about our environment, but what about repeatedly talking about freeing all the farm animals and nurturing them back to health and their natural state? That is not proposed in the paper, nor was it proposed by anyone in the thread. Several people tried to tell you that:
a) no one proposed to kill animals for "environmental reasons" (those things would be at odds)
b) no one proposed to free farm animals
c) farm animals do not equal wild animals
posted by travelwithcats at 8:59 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


officer_fred: So the question is, what has a bigger effect on the world: an individual going vegetarian, and so decreasing the demand for fossil fuels slightly, or an individual joining an environmentalist political activist group, and so making that group slightly stronger? I don't know, but it's not like the answer is definitely the second one.

I think the importance difference is that only the second has any long-term hope of actually solving the problem. Changes to one's own personal lifestyle can only hope to slightly delay what will be inevitable unless we change over our energy infrastructure.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:59 AM on July 19, 2014


> if you're asking the question, "What can *I* do to make the biggest impact on reducing
> global warming?" I suspect the answer is still, "political activism".

Just don't drive to the protest. Or, Ghod forbid, fly to the conference.
posted by jfuller at 9:00 AM on July 19, 2014


So the question is, what has a bigger effect on the world: an individual going vegetarian, and so decreasing the demand for fossil fuels slightly, or an individual joining an environmentalist political activist group, and so making that group slightly stronger?

I think it is almost self-evidently the former, practically speaking. Environmentalist groups exert massive effort for fairly little gain, much of that effort spent in in-fighting and ideological policing to make sure everyone is sufficiently scared. On the other hand, an individual going vegetarian is not only making a tiny little contribution herself, but she's also serving the valuable purpose--by not dying, by not become a weirdo alienating all her friends, by just making a relatively small dietary change--that makes the vegetarian stance seem less outlandish, more acceptable. Add a few friends seeing that example and desiring to eat a little less meat, and pretty soon you have a market force.
posted by mittens at 9:01 AM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think this is becoming a derail but it's a perfectly valid question: I am suggesting that *I* propose we keep the animals alive because I think they deserve it. So I am wondering what the environmental impact would be if my own personal vision of animal welfare were carried out which includes keeping them alive rather than assuming they die off entirely or dwindle to almost nothing. If you have more questions about my way of thinking I would be happy to answer yours or anyone elses by memail, but I can assure I am quite sincere and am not trying to ruffle feathers. I just really do care about animals and their long term welfare on the planet as well as getting them out of this terrible funk we humans have gotten some of them in.
posted by xarnop at 9:04 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


(FWIW greg nog I am in favor of freeing the animals to sanctuaries immediately but I think it's understandable we might owe them some services to help them re-adapt to more wild life)

They're not wild species, they're the outcome of thousands of years of human breeding and have no place in the wild. There is no more need to help them "re-adapt to more wild life" than there would be to help a motorbike or vacuum cleaner. Once we have no more use for them they can be let to die off with no harm to nature.
posted by Thing at 9:04 AM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


So the question is, what has a bigger effect on the world: an individual going vegetarian, and so decreasing the demand for fossil fuels slightly, or an individual joining an environmentalist political activist group, and so making that group slightly stronger?

And... you have to choose between them? Being maximally effective probably means doing more than one thing.
posted by bile and syntax at 9:09 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


Greg Nog: "It's amazing how close this worry is to the stated anxieties of human slaveholders, who often couched their reluctance to free slaves in language that suggested their slaves would be unable to lead independent safe existences without their masters."

The difference being cows and chickens have been bred for thousands of years to be docile and domesticated; slaves were just random people no more than a couple generations from self sufficiency.
posted by Mitheral at 9:09 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wait, are we actually having a debate about it being immoral to stop breeding domestic livestock once we don't eat them anymore?? This is a pointless derail.

We eat pretty low carb without consuming much meat. Turns out vegetables count! Mostly we eat chicken, some pig, almost no beef. I have a steak maybe once a year; as a kid we ate that every couple of weeks, along with hamburger and brisket. If we never ate out, I'd eat even less meat. I don't actually miss it.
posted by emjaybee at 9:15 AM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


Maybe I am trolling here and I don't know it, but do you really think a pig or cow's welfare is the moral equivalent of a vacuum cleaner? Wow. Humans don't do so well in the wild without assistance from other humans but we think they have innate worth ESPECIALLY because they sense their own existence and demonstrate awareness and feeling in a variety of ways.

Maybe I am coming across as a troll because I think we should stop eating meat for animal welfare rather than environmental reasons so there's an ideological divide between some of us here who think animals exist for humans benefit (or should cease to exist if they don't benefit us or we can gain environmentally from their elimination) and we just don't understand each other.

I eat meat and am a fan of harm reduction toward reducing and eliminating our dependence on meat eating but I think that transition should also include making farm animals habitats (and in plant farming as well) more similar to wildscapes and slowly helping them be more hearty in the wild and at least give them a chance. I feel like it's the least we could do after all we have taken from them.
posted by xarnop at 9:17 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hand-wringing for the fate of the hypothetical uneaten future cattle is the master stroke of animal-ethics concern trolling: self-evidently ridiculous as an argument, yet emotionally compelling enough to derail nearly any other line of reasoning. The whole spurious argument is so obviously dependent on a false analogy (between slaughtering living animals and simply not causing more of them to be born, like some demented bovine version of pro-life) that I don't know why it's so evergreen — but nonetheless, it just keeps on coming up, even in ostensibly thoughtful books, so it's obviously worth a space on the bingo card.
posted by RogerB at 9:23 AM on July 19, 2014 [13 favorites]


I don't think anyone is coming across as a troll. That accusation in this thread should have been deleted; it belongs in the contact form or MeTa. But trolling aside, comparing chickens and cows to vacuum cleaners, or alternately to human beings, is exactly the kind of rhetoric that dooms these conversations to not being taken seriously.
posted by cribcage at 9:25 AM on July 19, 2014


The comparison with a vacuum cleaner was meant to show how out-of-place domesticated animals are in the wild, not some moral equivalence. If you write out a plan to "help" domesticated animals once we stop eating them, then replace every instance of 'farm animal' with 'vacuum cleaner', the plausibility of the scheme will not be lessened one bit.

Otherwise, I'm done.
posted by Thing at 9:27 AM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


> I think the importance difference is that only the second has any long-term hope of actually solving the problem. Changes to one's own personal lifestyle can only hope to slightly delay what will be inevitable unless we change over our energy infrastructure.

But it's not like political action is going to simply flip an on/off switch either. Political action, too, will only ameliorate climate change to a greater or lesser extent.

> And... you have to choose between them? Being maximally effective probably means doing more than one thing.

Well, one the one hand, time, energy, money, willpower, and willingness to stand out from the crowd are all limited. But on the other hand there are good feedback loops, like maybe being a vegetarian gets you accepted faster by the environmentalist groups, and hanging out with them helps you stick to vegetarianism. So yeah, it's complicated.
posted by officer_fred at 9:33 AM on July 19, 2014


I'm on my phone but I tried to find research on how much water different forms of agriculture use. Instead I was inundated with papers about water quality and agriculture, like this one from Pew.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:34 AM on July 19, 2014


xarnop. Dude. No one is suggesting that we release all farm animals into the wild; no one is suggesting that we just slaughter them all at once. Populations don't stop eating meat overnight. It's gradual. As demand for meat declines, fewer farm animals will be bred, and the population of farm animals will decline through attrition. Therefore, the welfare of the animals at the individual level is not a concern.

If your concern is that you don't want entire domesticated breeds to go extinct (not species—every farm animal is just a domesticated breed of a wild species, so I don't think there's really an ecological/biodiversity issue here), then there's no reason we can't establish preserves, sanctuaries, even keep some kinds of animals as pets. Therefore, the welfare of the animals on the group level is not an (insoluble) concern.

There just isn't any plausible scenario that would result in any significant number of domesticated animals suddenly being left to fend for themselves. It's silly.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:38 AM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


[Folks, the farm-animal-future is kind of a huge derail. Maybe take it to MeMail if you want to hash it out? Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 9:40 AM on July 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


Do you want this to keep happening to cows?
posted by biffa at 10:10 AM on July 19, 2014


neat graffitist: "Lifestyle" environmentalism is not gonna move the needle and it may even hurt, because no one likes being smugly lectured about their lifestyle choices and it may turn them off to the whole cause. It's more about cultural signaling than genuine concern for the environment."

This thread wouldn't be complete without reference to the straw veg*n, who is snobby, pushy, and only superficially concerned about moral issues.
posted by tybeet at 10:12 AM on July 19, 2014 [16 favorites]


tofu_crouton, what you are trying to research is called virtual water. Virtual water means all the water used for the production of an agricultural or industrial good.

For a table, check out this report. Interesting pages: 16 (Table 4.1. Virtual water content of a few selected products in m3/ton. Estimates by different authors.), 56 (Table 3.2. Daily drinking water demand for different animals under different farming system in litre per animal per day), 57 f. (Table 4.1. Virtual water content of different live animals for a few selected countries in m3/ton of live animal.

You'll find newer reports and more info on www.waterfootprint.org
A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products
The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products
posted by travelwithcats at 10:19 AM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


What we really need today is for someone like Bill O'Reilly to loose a lot of weight and start to feel better from making the switch.

I agree with your theory, not the way its put into action.

What I say is that perhaps we need someone like Bill O'Reilly to eat nothing but bacon wrapped steak for a year. Then maybe good things will start to happen.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:13 AM on July 19, 2014


"Lifestyle" environmentalism is not gonna move the needle and it may even hurt, because no one likes being smugly lectured

The best way to be an environmentalist and an environmental activist is to adjust the way you live so that you do less harm (and perhaps more good) to the environment, and to be a simple example to others. Be one of the people who rides a bicycle to work, who eats the vegan option when you eat together somewhere, who does things instead of buying things, etc.

The best way to be an anti-environmentalist and an anti-environmental activist is to pretend to yourself that your actions don't matter, and to smugly lecture other people not to bother.
posted by pracowity at 11:28 AM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Whether or not a human processes and releases CO2 or CH4 indirectly via a farmed animal or if it's some other creature it seems to be a net neutral.

This is not correct for two main reasons. First, if farmland were turned back into forest, many fewer animals would be able to be supported per unit area, and importantly, plant turnover would be much slower. For example, trees have a lot of biomass and accumulate it over the course of decades, not a single year, and dead trees are "digested" (by fungi, termites, bacteria, etc.) at a much, much slower rate than, for example, grains. So the flux per year into greenhouse gases would also be much slower. Second, the ruminant gut is actually a pretty unique environment that is quite different from other animal guts, let alone the soil. Rodents like, for example, rabbits are hindgut fermenters, not ruminants, and produce much less methane as a result. Termites produce methane, but their metabolism is more efficient than ruminants so they also produce much less per unit biomass. Not all gut inhabitants produce methane, either; only certain specialized archaea and bacteria called methanogens do so. Forests actually support methanotrophic (methane-eating) soil bacteria as well, and empirically, many forests appear to be net consumers of methane (methane sinks).

All of this is to say that the flux from biomass to methane is strongly modulated by which animals are present, which plants are present, which bacteria are present, and several other environmental variables. Many of these variables are modified during human agriculture.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:29 AM on July 19, 2014 [13 favorites]


To everyone who says they knew this already: How? How did you know this? Was there similar evidence from other research that you encountered?

Or, and I guess this is the most likely scenario, are you confusing 'knowing' with 'believing'?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:07 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Tear down the fences in the plains states, reintroduce the wild buffalo herds, then sustainably harvest buffalo and I'll hazard you'd have a net improvement in GHG emissions over even leaving the land fallow. Native herds over time sequester a lot of carbon in the soil; at a guess, more than you'd take out by eating a few percent of them a year.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:19 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


(It's not really a solution of course... even if you could somehow return the bison population to its precolumbian levels of 50 million or so, taking even 20 percent of them a year -- probably the maximum sustainable -- wouldn't come close to satisfying Americans' meat-eating habits.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:23 PM on July 19, 2014


MisantropicPainforest, there has been research on the carbon footprint of animal products before, so it is just simple logic to arrive at the conclusion that a diet that excludes animal products reduces emissions.
posted by travelwithcats at 12:27 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


To everyone who says they knew this already: How? How did you know this? Was there similar evidence from other research that you encountered?

Yes, this study is part of an existing body of research on this topic. It differs from previous research because it explicitly measures the consumption of various foods and calculates the associated greenhouse gas release per person. IIRC older studies just said something more like "this is the percent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with cow farming vs. chicken, fish, soy, etc." to argue that people should reduce their reliance on the higher-emission foods, without measuring the diet of individuals in detail.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:30 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's of course possible there could have been some unintuitive result here when diet was explicitly measured as opposed to modeled, but given the existing research it didn't seem very likely to me. Whether or not you categorize that as "knowing" is sort of a fraught philosophical distinction, I guess.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:32 PM on July 19, 2014


Was there similar evidence from other research that you encountered?

UN report from 2006.
posted by mittens at 12:37 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


To everyone who says they knew this already: How?

It was my belief that taking such a major step out of the chain of things needed to feed me would have to make the system much more efficient environmentally: that if there was a carbon footprint to be calculated, that it would be smaller for the person whose existence doesn't depend on maintaining (watering, feeding, inoculating, housing, shipping, slaughtering, etc.) a herd of animals and the eventual parts thereof. Can you think of a way in which eating more meat would would lower your carbon footprint?
posted by pracowity at 12:39 PM on July 19, 2014


Can you think of a way in which eating more meat would would lower your carbon footprint?

Capture the poop and methane and use it preferentially instead of fossil fuels? I'm just spitballin' here...
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:40 PM on July 19, 2014


Oh god. This is going to make so many vegans I know even MORE insufferable,
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:43 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


All the vegans I know mostly offer me delicious desserts made without dairy or eggs.

I am ok with this.
posted by emjaybee at 1:00 PM on July 19, 2014 [9 favorites]


What we really need today is for someone like Bill O'Reilly to loose a lot of weight and start to feel better from making the switch.

I've heard he really enjoys falafel.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:25 PM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


Dietary greenhouse gas emissions in meat-eaters are twice as high as those in vegans.

I'm actually very surprised that it's only twice as high. I would have guessed far higher. Certainly in caloric terms the ratio is very different:
On average, animal protein production in the U.S. requires 28 kilocalories (kcal) for every kcal of protein produced for human consumption. Beef and lamb are the most costly, in terms of fossil fuel energy input to protein output at 54:1 and 50:1, respectively. Turkey and chicken meat production are the most efficient (13:1 and 4:1, respectively). Grain production, on average, requires 3.3 kcal of fossil fuel for every kcal of protein produced.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:27 PM on July 19, 2014


Maybe the fact that these were UK eaters in the 90s makes a difference? I was wondering how much that mattered.
posted by mittens at 1:35 PM on July 19, 2014


Yes, take into account that the highest category of meat-eaters in this study consumed about 100g/3.5oz of meat per day. Anyone eating more would have a greater impact than twice that of a vegan.

Citing the Guardian (there is a map as well):
"The biggest meat eaters are to be found in the U.S. where 127kg was consumed per person in 2007. New Zealand and Australia are also big meat eaters, while Spain tops the list for Europe. Britain's meat consumption, at 84.2 kg per person per year is relatively consistent with its neighbours in Ireland (87.9 kg), France (86.7 kg) and Germany (88.1 kg)."

So the UK consumes 42.8kg/106lbs meat per capita/year less than the US.
posted by travelwithcats at 1:53 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


To everyone who says they knew this already: How? How did you know this? Was there similar evidence from other research that you encountered?

It's one of the central arguments of the widely read Diet for a New America, which was published in 1987.

I don't have a copy handy, so I can't tell you what the author's sources were (or how compelling the evidence was at that time)—but the idea, at least, has been around for quite awhile.

And as others have pointed out, you hardly need to do research to see that growing a large amount of plants (as animal feed) using modern industrial agriculture is going to produce more CO2 than growing a small amount of plants (for people to eat). It's just a question of how much more.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:05 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Was there similar evidence from other research that you encountered?

UN report from 2006.


Oh, yeah. Published 20 years ago: Methane emissions from cattle
There is a whole body of research, easy to find on the web, too.

I read somewhere that livestock accounts for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:07 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


This thread wouldn't be complete without reference to the straw veg*n, who is snobby, pushy, and only superficially concerned about moral issues.

Didn't mean to pick on vegans or vegetarians -- they actually bother me less because most of them also have health or ethical reasons (related to animal suffering) for what they're doing, not just the environmental part. It's the meat-eater who talks about voluntarily reducing their meat consumption purely to reduce their carbon footprint who grates on me.

I mean, if you want to do that and keep it to yourself, fine, but once you're out there suggesting that other people do it, you should try consider what the net effect of that really is on your end goals. And it's reasonable for other people to question that. That's all I'm saying.

Now it may seem like this study isn't telling anyone what to do, just telling us the facts. But the whole idea of categorizing people rather than foods is an ideological and judgmental way to frame it.

You know how you'd write this study if you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions? You'd say something like "meat is under-taxed relative to its emissions footprint," and that would drive a policy discussion, not an individual identity one. And I'm not saying it's easy. (For one thing, just like gas taxes, higher taxes on any kind of food would be very regressive.)

But those difficult policy proposals are how carbon emissions actually go down -- not shaming individuals but trying to adjust how the whole system works. Even for the people who follow this advice to eat less meat, remember that willpower is limited and we can only dole out so many of these little voluntary punishments to ourselves before they start to cancel out; if someone eats less meat maybe they're less likely to turn off the AC or recycle or compost... that's just human nature. Much better to focus on changing the whole system than to work against human nature.
posted by neat graffitist at 2:17 PM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


You know how you'd write this study if you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions? You'd say something like "meat is under-taxed relative to its emissions footprint," and that would drive a policy discussion, not an individual identity one.

That is...not how science works.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 2:21 PM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


little voluntary punishments

Eating less meat is not a punishment, though. It's not like, I don't know, sitting in a dark living room at night, unable to read because you're sacrificing your electricity use for the greater good. There are plenty of other foods to eat, they taste good, they hit all the reward centers, and some of them are better for the environment.

The issue about food-shaming is important, and deserves discussion, but it's also not really what's going on in that article.
posted by mittens at 2:22 PM on July 19, 2014 [5 favorites]


That is...not how science works.

The decision to categorize individuals rather than just categorize foods is an ideological one, not a scientific one.
posted by neat graffitist at 2:23 PM on July 19, 2014


No matter your position on animal rights, ethics or the morality of eating meat, factory farming is absolutely insane.

I'm convinced in 100 years it'll be viewed in a similar light as asbestos and slavery.
posted by four panels at 2:30 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Environmentalism is also an ethical position, but it doesn't have that many coherent popular philosophical arguments behind it, at least compared to animal rights.
posted by Small Dollar at 2:32 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


But the whole idea of categorizing people rather than foods is an ideological and judgmental way to frame it.

It's a comparison of certain effects of diets, conducted by members of British Heart Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention, and the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, both at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. The fact that you feel judged doesn't mean they're judging you.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:57 PM on July 19, 2014


It's a comparison of certain effects of diets, conducted by members of British Heart Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention, and the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, both at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. The fact that you feel judged doesn't mean they're judging you.

I think you're missing my point. Suppose you're doing a study on emissions from different types of cars. Would you write "SUVs have higher emissions than compacts" or "the kind of people who drive SUVs have a higher carbon footprint than the kind of people who drive compacts"?

Also, what exactly is your point in listing all the names of the institutions?
posted by neat graffitist at 3:09 PM on July 19, 2014


The more accurate comparison would be if people drove 5-10 different cars per person, each with a different proportion of SUVs, subcompacts, hybrids, old-man station wagons, etc., and you allowed them to divide themselves into groups based on which car they drove most.
posted by mittens at 3:13 PM on July 19, 2014


The more accurate comparison would be if people drove 5-10 different cars per person, each with a different proportion of SUVs, subcompacts, hybrids, old-man station wagons, etc., and you allowed them to divide themselves into groups based on which car they drove most.

Even in that case, what's gained by focusing on the groups rather than the cars?
posted by neat graffitist at 3:15 PM on July 19, 2014


Because the proportion matters.
posted by mittens at 3:16 PM on July 19, 2014


They're epidemiologists and health specialists studying the extended effects of behavior in populations; so they name those populations.

I listed their institutions to underscore that this is a recognized scientific institution working within their established purview, not an op-ed intended to bash people in a newsletter by the door of your local co-op.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:21 PM on July 19, 2014


neat graffitist: "remember that willpower is limited and we can only dole out so many of these little voluntary punishments to ourselves before they start to cancel out; if someone eats less meat maybe they're less likely to turn off the AC or recycle or compost... that's just human nature."

Once a behaviour becomes habitual it no longer requires willpower. Practicing a lifestyle for so many years will make it second-nature, and virtually effortless to sustain.
posted by tybeet at 3:21 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


They're epidemiologists and health specialists studying the extended effects of behavior in populations; so they name those populations.

I listed their institutions to underscore that this is a recognized scientific institution working within their established purview, not an op-ed intended to bash people in a newsletter by the door of your local co-op.


OK but that's exactly my point: epidemiology is the study of human health. Carbon emissions aren't an element of human health. They're not working within their established purview at all.

Which is fine! I have no problem with their doing this research, it's interesting research. But it's not "scientific" in quite the same way as say, the effects of diet on heart disease. If they were studying heart disease incidence, of course it would make sense the way they divided the population. But in this context I think it was an odd decision.
posted by neat graffitist at 3:27 PM on July 19, 2014


What decision would make more sense? There are all kinds of ways to divide the data. What would be a more reasonable, useful criteria? Certainly less useful groups can be imagined: Beef, chicken, and peaches are all in the same category, because all three are soft things that have wrinkled parts if you dig in far enough. Fish and beans go in the "some members are poisonous" category. Raisins go into the critically important "things made from grapes that are dried" group.
posted by mittens at 3:33 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh come on. They've already divided the food into different types. I'm not questioning that. But why make the additional decision to divide people into different buckets? That's a loaded decision, and it has more to do with getting noticed in the press (and Metafilter) than it does with any pure scientific purpose.

And if they do have an additional extra-scientific purpose, to encourage people to eat less meat -- I'm not even objecting to that. I'm just saying that the additional human categories don't even serve that purpose. Because someone who reads a headline "vegans have a lower carbon footprint" is going to think "well I'll never be a vegan so forget that" but if it were "vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than meat" then it's actionable to more readers.
posted by neat graffitist at 3:42 PM on July 19, 2014


The kind of study you're describing has been done many times -- it is relatively easy to compare the environmental impacts of different distinct foods and methods of producing them.

This is a study of the environmental impact of observable behavior from an epidemiological perspective, taking into account actual human factors rather than just measuring industrial inputs and outputs. If you read the paper, the study was based on the actual diets of human subjects who self-selected for the listed categories. See sections 2.1 and 2.2 on the recruitment and classification.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:47 PM on July 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


It's one of the central arguments of the widely read Diet for a New America, which was published in 1987.

Diet for a Small Planet was published in 1971. From the Wikipedia entry:

[It was] the first major book to note the environmental impact of meat production as wasteful and a contributor to global food scarcity. She argued for environmental vegetarianism, which means choosing what is best for the earth and our bodies — a daily action that reminds us of our power to create a saner world

Talking in terms of carbon footprints is fairly new, but the observation that meat eating has a much larger environmental impact is not new or honestly very controversial at this point. People like Pollan have described how animals (and meat eating) can be integrated into a holistically functioning farm, but that's not how our food supply chains actually work.

I eat meat and I'm at peace with that, but I don't pretend that it's the ethical or environmental choice, and I've known that since I was a child.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:47 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Even for the people who follow this advice to eat less meat, remember that willpower is limited and we can only dole out so many of these little voluntary punishments to ourselves before they start to cancel out; if someone eats less meat maybe they're less likely to turn off the AC or recycle or compost... that's just human nature.

Or maybe that's just nonsense. It's not a punishment to not eat meat. You could as well call each non-meat meal a reward if your goal is to eat non-meat meals and be better for the environment..

And no one I know has willpower failures like the one you're describing. If you're in for one form of environmentalism, you're probably going to be in for another. It's not like you're going to eat so little meat that you'll suddenly have to make up for it by dumping pollutants into the local river. One behavior reinforces the other.

And how much willpower is actually required to reduce meat consumption, anyway? Eating less meat isn't like trying to stop smoking or drinking; people don't wake up with the shakes over it. We're just talking about eating less meat. Do you feel as if you're punishing yourself if you don't eat meat every day at every meal?
posted by pracowity at 4:04 PM on July 19, 2014 [7 favorites]


Environmentalism is also an ethical position, but it doesn't have that many coherent popular philosophical arguments behind it

'Don't shit where you eat' goes a long way.
posted by biffa at 4:46 PM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


To everyone who says they knew this already: How? How did you know this? Was there similar evidence from other research that you encountered?

Or, and I guess this is the most likely scenario, are you confusing 'knowing' with 'believing'?


One of the basic principles of ecosystem ecology is that approximately 90% of energy is lost at each trophic level. Many folks were introduced to this idea by the 1970s pop-science book Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare. For many years, ecosystem ecologists have been pointing out the implications of this for the human diet, in terms of acres of land to grow plants people eat versus acres of land to grow plants cows eat so people can eat the cows.

Ecosystem ecologists also study carbon and nitrogen cycling in the biosphere, from the earth to the atmosphere and back again. We know the vast quantities of fossil fuels burned, producing CO2, in the process of industrial agriculture, from tractors and farm equipment to fertilizer production to transportation. We know about the production of N2O by microbial processes in fertilized fields. We also know about cow farts and how much methane they produce.

So yes, all of this is based on long well-known principles of ecosystem ecology. But this paper nicely puts it all in one place.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:01 PM on July 19, 2014 [8 favorites]


Fortunately the net carbon impact of yard meat is zero.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:27 PM on July 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


neat graffitist, do you have social science research to back up your claims about the effectiveness of different forms of moral suasion?

Pointing out what is more or less harmful is a perfectly valid enterprise, and I'm relatively assured that while some percentage of Americans do the "wrong" thing out of spite (see 'coal rolling' or whatever it's called), plenty of people find out that a behavior is harmful and wrong and decide to change their behavior.

Until we have more data on just how to change human behavior reliably, I think producing the data and the philosophical arguments is, at very least, excusable. FFS.
posted by allthinky at 7:49 PM on July 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


willpower is limited and we can only dole out so many of these little voluntary punishments to ourselves before they start to cancel out

I find it remarkably easy to make better decisions as I learn. Being good isn't a punishment to me, I guess.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:43 PM on July 19, 2014


(IOW, continuous improvement. Never perfect.)
posted by five fresh fish at 10:44 PM on July 19, 2014


You know how you'd write this study if you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions? You'd say something like "meat is under-taxed relative to its emissions footprint," and that would drive a policy discussion, not an individual identity one.

This is true. Our pricing on carbon energy is based entirely on externalizing the costs. We pay SFA for gas and coal, which in turn means we pay SFW for their use in food production, which keeps food cheap. The cost will be paid in future climate-related disasters, not in today's price for potatoes and rib eye.

If foods were actually priced by their ultimate energy cost, things grown efficiently (eg. renewable energy, photosynthesis) would be magnitudes cheaper than things grown by carbon (petro) energy. Consequently, all meats would be priced to exclusive limits. Bacon, the new caviar.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:07 PM on July 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


"You can't take efficiency out of that conversation. If you deliver calories more efficiently in food production than you no longer have to use as much farmland. So the question becomes, what do you think it takes more fossil fuels to maintain, a farm or an equivalent acreage of wild grassland or forest?"

Calories aren't the only thing needed in a diet. Amino acids and coenzymes are as well. Beans and rice are ok for providing a complete protein but they don't by themselves fulfill the dietary need for humans. Are you going to eat wild grass and trees? Celluose, (C6H10O5)n is indigestible to humans.
posted by vapidave at 12:27 AM on July 20, 2014


Obviously the solution to all of this is going 100% cannibal. That way you completely avoid the sin-karma of indirect GHG production through consuming either agricultural products or meat, plus you get credit for preventing future GHG production that would have occurred via your victims' patronage of the food industry. The only question is whether you get more points for eating vegetarians or eating meat-gobblers.

But wait... the earlier in someone's life you eat them, the more GHG production you'll be preventing, cumulatively. So is the most environmentally responsible thing to eat babies?
posted by XMLicious at 12:39 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Calories aren't the only thing needed in a diet. Amino acids and coenzymes are as well. Beans and rice are ok for providing a complete protein but they don't by themselves fulfill the dietary need for humans. Are you going to eat wild grass and trees? Celluose, (C6H10O5)n is indigestible to humans.

I'm not 100% sure what you are trying to get at here, but if it's as simple as amending the statement to read: "If you deliver calories and nutrition more efficiently in food production then you no longer have to use as much farmland. So the question becomes, what do you think it takes more fossil fuels to maintain, a farm or an equivalent acreage of wild grassland or forest?" then I'll just do that.
posted by Drinky Die at 4:10 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Extending Drinky Die's point, bear in mind this is just carbon emissions, it doesn't account for other environmental impacts such as ecological, non-GHG emissions which I think it's pretty safe to assume will be less for undeveloped land thank for farmland.
posted by biffa at 5:18 AM on July 20, 2014


neat graffitist, do you have social science research to back up your claims about the effectiveness of different forms of moral suasion?

Pointing out what is more or less harmful is a perfectly valid enterprise, and I'm relatively assured that while some percentage of Americans do the "wrong" thing out of spite (see 'coal rolling' or whatever it's called), plenty of people find out that a behavior is harmful and wrong and decide to change their behavior.

Until we have more data on just how to change human behavior reliably, I think producing the data and the philosophical arguments is, at very least, excusable. FFS.


I guess I just don't think it works outside of a tiny slice of the population that's culturally disposed to it, and to some extent it takes them out of the broader conversation politically.

I don't have any numbers but there's little doubt in my mind that, for example, DOE regulations about low flow showerheads and toilets have been for far more conservation than people taking shorter showers or putting bricks in the toilet tank or other voluntary measures.
posted by neat graffitist at 5:48 AM on July 20, 2014


Obviously, cannibalize the climate change deniers. Two birds, one stone.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:59 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


You can't take efficiency out of that conversation. If you deliver calories more efficiently in food production than you no longer have to use as much farmland. So the question becomes, what do you think it takes more fossil fuels to maintain, a farm or an equivalent acreage of wild grassland or forest?

There are two complications with this:

One, do you mean efficiency in area (more food from less land) or in energy (more food from less energy)? I suspect there is a fairly direct trade off, where you can use less energy by using more land, or you can use more energy to farm less land more intensively. Look at old aerial images or old land use maps -- in the US we farm way less land than we used to and produce more food, but the farming now is far more energy intensive. Reducing the energy inputs would mean reopening a lot of land for production.

Two, you are assuming that land coming out of production will go back to a more natural state. That's true in some cases, but it can also mean turning that land into houses or golf courses or shopping malls, none of which are great for reducing climate impacts. The real question is not farm versus forest (especially since a lot of farmland never was and never will be forested), it's the comparative impact of current use versus actual future use, which is going to vary a lot.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:06 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to simplify the concept for someone who was not seeming to get the idea that all plants aren't equal, so yeah it's ignoring a large range of complexities.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:04 AM on July 20, 2014


I suspect there is a fairly direct trade off, where you can use less energy by using more land, or you can use more energy to farm less land more intensively

But that is assuming you're growing the same crop in both sides of the trade-off, right? If I'm understanding this correctly (questionable), we'd really be talking about on the one hand, growing cow-and-people-feed, more heavily weighted towards cow feed, and on the other, just-people-feed, which would require both less land and less energy (assuming we are not just growing endless grasses to feed people).

especially since a lot of farmland never was and never will be forested

That's a good point. I was reading some statistics about my state, where a 1% increase in population led to a 6% decline in forests. A lot of our forests down here were former farmland, so it's attractive to think that turning the land back over to nature would equal more trees...but there's bound to be a very important strip-mall that would need to go there instead.
posted by mittens at 9:06 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


helps not a bit when the rest of the country continues on their course.

I know what you mean, I was reading Everyday Sexism the other dsy and I thought 'all these other men aren't respecting women, why should I bother?'
posted by biffa at 10:38 AM on July 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Clearly the answer is to light your farts on fire, whereby they are converted to harmless water vapor. (JK)

This is why you should eat meat.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:19 AM on July 21, 2014


Beans and rice are ok for providing a complete protein but they don't by themselves fulfill the dietary need for humans.

Add some broccoli and vegetable oil (soybean, canola, olive) and you're pretty close.

The nutrient you're most in danger of missing on a strict vegan diet is B12, but B12 is actually produced by common bacteria that can be easily cultured and grown to large quantities (indeed, meat has B12 only because of the action of symbiotic bacteria living inside livestock). Also, people only need mere micrograms of B12 per day to satisfy their RDA, as opposed to hundreds of grams of amino acids via protein, i.e., around ten million times less. Because of these two factors I would be very surprised if the environmental impact of commercial B12 supplement production were even close to the same order of magnitude as the impact of livestock farming.

(IIRC the other main supplements some strict vegans take are Vitamin D and DHA. There are vegan sources of both, and again, you only need micrograms of Vitamin D to fall within the RDA. There's no data suggesting that a lack of DHA is a serious health risk, but if you are interested in supplementing, DHA is commonly derived from algae, which is pretty low-impact to farm from an environmental standpoint. And again - the amounts of D and DHA that people commonly supplement are just not comparable to the amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and other fats that constitute the greatest fraction of the human diet.)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:49 AM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


« Older Mythos I, II, & III   |   You Died. Again: A Review of... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post