It's inarguable that the livestock industry is a tremendous contributor to global warming. Estimates place it above the global transportation sector. To put it simply, cows are worse than cars. Add in that demand for meat is expected to skyrocket as China and India continue to develop and you're looking at a really serious problem.
This is not particularly welcome news to meat producers. But few people care for the protestations of mega-corporations like Cargill. The issue becomes a bit trickier, however, when it's progressive, self-consciously sustainable companies like Niman Ranch making the argument. After all, these are the good guys!
Smartly, they admit the problem but posit themselves as the solution. Cows emit less methane if they're fed a more natural diet, they claim, and manure is less of a problem if it's not left to pile in the grossly-named "manure lagoons" that the huge producers create. The problem, in other words, is not the meat itself but the production of that meat. Small is beautiful, and big corporations are bad.
To some degree, that's true. Cows do emit somewhat less methane -- I've heard estimates of around a third -- when fed more natural diets. Manure really can be disposed of in more environmentally friendly ways. But for the reasons Helene York points out, these are partial solutions at best. It's the difference between driving a truck and driving a hybrid truck. The hybrid might be better, but what would really be better is biking, at least when you don't need to haul anything
It's also true that the protestations of the Niman folks pretty much put you in the same place as the hardcore environmentalists. They're arguing that the answer is a new production system that makes meat much more expensive in order to produce it in a somewhat-more environmentally friendly way. Making meat much more expensive will sharply reduce global demand, which would help solve the problem.
But that won't happen. Major meat producers are not going to convert to the practices of boutique, sustainable producers. That's even more true in the developing world than it is here. The best hope, if there is indeed any hope, is to include agriculture in whatever carbon pricing scheme we eventually agree to implement, so that the precedent is to admit the greenhouse gases emitted by meat production and price them into the basic product. That will require, however, being honest about the basic truth of food production: The higher you go in the food chain, the more energy your food takes to produce. You can do a lot to make one cow more environmentally sustainable than another, but it's impossible to make it more environmentally sustainable than a carrot.
Photo credit: By Kevin Lee/Bloomberg
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