Friday, November 28, 2008

Climate change's third rail

After a fisheries seminar this morning, someone asked what key issue the research and conservation community was missing. The immediate answer from a senior colleague was meat consumption.

Given how growing feed and raising livestock is responsible for a large proportion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite amazing that we don't talk about it more. An article in the Vancouver Sun last month asked a few of us why. Here are some of the explanations:

Dale Marshall, a climate-change policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation:
"Food is something that's very personal," Marshall said. "I think there may be a reluctance to start talking about people changing what they eat. When you start telling people to sell their car and jump on the bus, that's a little more out there. But when you start talking about diet and what they eat, that becomes even more personal. So that raises some difficulty in organizations not wanting to go there."

Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment: "It's a difficult sell. We're a culture that eats a lot of meat. Unlike in Europe, where it's often a side dish, for North Americans, unfortunately, it's the main attraction. So that's a problem. But I agree, eating less meat would be a big step."

Matt Horne, acting director of the B.C. energy solutions program for the Pembina Institute, said by asking people to reduce their meat consumption, you're asking them to make a real change in their lives. And even though the consequences of not making such changes are calamitous, people are still reluctant to make them. By contrast, buying a fuel-efficient car instead of an SUV is simply a different means to the same end, Horne said. You can still get from A to B.

Dennis Cunningham, a project officer with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, suggested it could be a funding issue. He explained that when environmental groups apply to governments or large corporations for money to produce an education program, the funding organization can dictate the priorities such a program should take. And no government wants to risk offending a powerful agriculture lobby by telling people to eat less meat - even if it's good for them.

Sarah Cox of the Sierra Club of B.C. tried to conflate eating less meat with encouraging people to eat locally produced food, something the Sierra Club does do. But Donner said they're entirely different things, and that if one were to choose between eating less meat and eating locally produced food as a more effective way to reduce your carbon footprint, there is only one choice: eat less meat.

He believes the real reason green groups are so shy about discussing meat consumption is that there's an image associated with being a vegetarian or vegan they want no part of. "Environmental organizations often and unfairly have this image of vegan or vegetarian hippies," Donner said. "So if they were to come out and say 'We don't want you to eat meat,' it might reinforce that image and not win over the people they want to win over."

Is meat consumption the third rail of climate change mitigation?


Avery said...

Hi Simon,
I was a vegetarian for many years for climate reasons. But having gotten (peripherally) involved in the Community Farm Alliance and CSA's in Kentucky, and having read Michael Pollan's hagiography of Joel Salatin, I now think that occasionally eating local, pastured, grass-finished meats is preferable, especially if the alternative is foods--whether animals or plants--hauled from California in refrigerated trucks. Pollan's description of the industrial organic California lettuce industry is outrageous.
So although we obviously don't have to choose between "less meat" and "local" -- we can do both -- I'd be interested to hear your reasons for thinking that when the two conflict, less meat should trump local.
In addition to the direct climate benefits to local there is the issue of the survival of a small farm economy and the existence of a viable alternative to sprawl; the fact that livestock often graze on land that would not support crops other than grass anyway, and make organic fertilizer in the process; that if the grass were replaced with crops, we'd just have more low-grade corn; etc.
And finally: people are very responsive to the "local, grass-fed meats" argument in a way they are not responsive to vegetarianism. And (did I say finally?) last thing: I actually think sprawl is the third rail. And militarism. Sprawl and militarism. In a few months no one will be able to afford meat anyway.
Thanks for the great blog!

Anonymous said...

I'm a volunteer Sierra Club leader who has had a lot of input into decisions. The club answer has been to encourage people to eat lower on the food chain without explicitly pushing a vegetarian agenda, and I think that is the right answer. It is crucial to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans, and you just can't do that in 2008 if you are aggressively anti-meat-consumption. PETA is regarded as a fringe group. Obviously you can cite science, you can tell people the truth. But preaching backfires. You don't change behavior and you may well turn people off. That's my own viewpoint, but I think it is correct.

Anonymous said...

I should have added that Im a leader in the US Club, not Canada's.

Steve Bloom said...

Unfortunately the U.S. Sierra Club does little to "encourage people to eat lower on the food chain without explicitly pushing a vegetarian agenda." Last time I checked, the most that's done at the big annual meeting is to provide a vegetarian option at the main dinner. Local and organic is not on the agenda. Waste reduction efforts are marginal at best, for that matter.

Of course one can promote vegetarianism without preaching. Of interest is what happened with Prop. 2 on the California ballot this month. It was sponsored by the animal rights crowd (including PETA), but even so the CA Club did endorse it. It passed by a truly monumental margin, possibly a record for a measure that drew serious opposition. There's room for coalition-building here.

Getting back to the main point, though, Simon is absolutely correct to infer that a GHG campaign that ignores livestock methane emissions is missing something critical. I rather doubt that most Club leaders have any idea what these numbers are, or for that matter understand the role of methane in climate warming.

BTW, I notice that even if the Club is hesitant to reach out in the direction of PETA's issues, the opposite doesn't seem to be so true.

Simon Donner said...

On Avery's point: True, one does not have to choose to eat less meat OR to eat locally. A recent energy and greenhouse gas budget study have found that if a North American is going to make one dietary change to reduce personal GHG emissions, eating less meat is the clear winner.

This assumes that the meat is produced using standard North American practices [which requires feed cultivation, processing, transport and meat processing and transport]. The result could be different with local, grass-fed meat.

Steve Bloom said...

Hmm, this is a surprise:

Farmers panic about a cow tax

Simon Donner said...

With such strong opposition to a direct tax, maybe the farms can be part of an ag-based cap-and-trade system? It would be an administrative nightmare, not to mention the confusion of who is responsible for the emissions generated through producing animal feed, but could provide an advantage to operations focused on more GHG efficient means of food production.