Is the Problem With Meat Simply Factory Farming?
Revered farmer Eliot Coleman has a blog post up at Grist debunking the "myth" that meat production increases carbon emissions. His argument is that meat production doesn't increase carbon. Industrial meat production does. And there's something to this. Using manure to fertilize a farm is a lot better than letting it sit in vast -- ugh -- lagoons. Feeding a cow the grass that it's evolved to eat results in fewer methane emissions than raising it on a diet of corn.
But Coleman doesn't debunk the claim, or come close to it. The fact that industrial livestock production is worse than other forms of livestock production does not mean that meat is not a major contributor to global warming. It means that there are ways to make it a somewhat smaller contributor to global warming. But even that would be tricky.
Cows are efficient at being cows. They are not very efficient at being food. When you grow an apple, the various inputs result in an apple tree and a lot of apples. But a cow has a lot of parts, and does a lot of things, that aren't particularly related to becoming hamburger. When you "grow" a steak, the various inputs first result in corn and grass and other types of food, and then they are made into feed, and then they go to a cow to help it develop bones and eyes and skin and to help it breathe and move and live. Raising food to feed to a less efficient form of food doesn't maximize available resources.
Coleman, of course, knows all this much better than I do. And it's certainly the case that if people are going to raise meat, they should do so in the most environmentally friendly way possible. But they shouldn't try and obscure the fact that eating meat is not a particularly environmentally friendly thing to do. And nor is that to say that nobody should ever eat meat. I eat meat! And sometimes drive! But the environmental toll should be priced into the activity.
Then there's a whole other question as to whether it's even possible to imagine an equilibrium wherein the world eats the amount of meat it currently does -- much less the amount of meat it's projected to eat -- but produces it all in accordance with Coleman's hopes. Looking at the prices in my farmer's market and in supermarkets, it doesn't seem like that world would produce meat cheap enough to support current consumption levels. But many people think I'm wrong on that.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Danny Johnston.
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