The Bovine Dilemma





by Nelson Harvey

Which of these is worse for the climate?(Photo credit:Flickr)

If you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, you’d do more by cutting beef from your diet than by giving up your car or swapping your SUV for a Prius, according to several leading animal rights organizations. The groups, which include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society, have recently launched an advertising blitz aimed at convincing the public that eating meat is worse for the environment than driving. But however true their assertions, these campaigns take the wrong approach, chooosing to evangelize people about personal choices rather than pushing a broad menu of reforms that would reduce the gloal impact of the livestock sector.

As evidence for their claims, the organizations cite a raft of studies that have emerged recently on the tremendous environmental impacts of livestock production. Perhaps the centerpiece of their evidentiary arsenal is an exhaustive report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released last November. The report claims that livestock production accounts for 9 percent of global anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions, most of that from deforestation for pastures and feedcrops. But the sector is responsible for a striking 34 percent of methane emissions, most of which comes from what the authors call “enteric fermentation by ruminants,” a phrase that can be roughly translated from the UNese into “cow poop and cow farts.”

Clearly, current livestock practices cannot be sustained, and something must be done. According to the animal rights groups behind the campaign, the solution is fairly simple: we should all become vegetarians. PETA has launched a bouquet of publicity stunts to push this point, including outfitting a Hummer with a driver in a chicken suit and manufacturing banners that read “Too chicken to be vegetarian?” and feature a caricatured Al Gore eating a chicken drumstick.

With their emphasis on personal vegetarianism, the animal rights groups miss two things. First, meat, like driving, isn’t going anywhere. Humans have been eating the stuff ever since they learned how to hunt, and just as many of our cityscapes are set up for driving, so are many of our cultural and dietary mores are oriented toward meat. It provides a third of the worlds protein, and consumption is projected to double by 2050 as global affluence increases, according to the UN Report.

In light of the fact that meat is here to stay, the vegetarian campaign fails to acknowledge another important reality: there are inumerable ways to reform the livestock industry and reduce its carbon footprint. The UN report outlines several of these, and a few include:

•introducing taxation schemes to reflect the true scarcity of grazing land, water, and feed, rather than distorting their cost through subsidies, as we do now.

•employing the “polluter pays” principle, where those responsible for sullying public air, land and water are required to clean it up.

•increasing the intensification of agriculture while reducing its environmental impact, for example by locating feedlots closer to cropland and using manure as fertilizer, or installing more biogas systems to generate power from cow waste.

As someone who considers himself an environmentalist, I have long struggled to limit my own meat consumption, and I know that I probably ought to give it up altogether in the interest of avoiding hypocrisy. But the recent campaign for vegetarianism by groups like PETA inspires the same emotion in me as Christian evangelism: distaste. That’s probably because their efforts share a similar tone: in addition to being shrill and moralistic, they both fail to acknowledge that there are many possible roads to our salvation.


3 thoughts on “The Bovine Dilemma

  1. A Brock says:


    Nicely done piece.

    When you start to mention alternatives to our subsidized beef industry, I thought I would see mention of other types of meat or poultry that have less carbon consequences than bovine- or soy based meat substitutes; and I would be interested to see how true that is.

  2. Muriel says:

    We drive a prius, but we are not ready to give up our steaks. I think I am going to have to become a Christian evangelist to make up for it.

  3. Brock says:

    I agree with you, Nelson, that PETA’s finger-pointing probably does more harm for the cause than good. I’d question your assertion, though, that “meat, like driving, isn’t going anywhere.” Everybody eats meat, you’re saying, so we should figure out how to at least make it less harmful.

    That strikes me exactly that kind of circular argument that perpetuates unsustainable behavior. A lot of the country currently gets its power from coal, and we have plenty left – so does that mean clean coal is the best strategy for reducing GHG emissions? Hardly.

    We shouldn’t be forming our arguments around the status quo, or what seems easy to change, but around what’s right. Is it possible to raise and eat meat sustainably? Probably – though we’d have to be eating a lot less of it. Is it ethical? That one’s still up for grabs. But you’ve gotta ask yourself – is the satisfaction of chowing down on a burger really worth 10 to 15 percent, impact-wise, of our greenhouse gas emissions, at a time when we’re struggling to reduce all we can? I, for one, just can’t justify it to myself – which is why meat for me simply isn’t an option.

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