Can We Eat Meat and Achieve Sustainability?

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There is no surer way to liven up a dinner party than to declare that eating meat destroys the planet.1)Ideally you would wait to drop this bomb until the main course, presumably featuring one animal or another, was just being brought out. Food is both something fundamentally practical (we must consume it constantly) and deeply emotional (e.g. culturally, nostalgically, etc). At the same time, our current food systems are very unsustainable with little to no agreement about what a Sustainable food system would actually look like.2)Compare this to energy. There are still arguments about how we are going to get there, but ultimately a Sustainable energy system will be 100% renewable and produce little to no externalities such as carbon or other pollutants. So what can we do then to Achieving Sustainability in our food systems?

Re-thinking Animals in our Food System

As consumers we are faced with an array of food choices which could influence the Sustainability of food systems. While I prefer to support organic agriculture, organic is really only addressing one issue--use of chemicals.3)And GMOs are also excluded in Organics for better or worse. It doesn't promise that the soils are being protected, that workers are being treated right (or animals for that matter), impact on carbon, etc etc. The biggest leverage point that consumers can push on to drive our food systems towards Sustainability is animals.4)By animals we include not just their direct consumption of meat but also their products--principally eggs and cheese Hopefully over a series of posts we can explore in practical terms what a future of Sustainable animal production would look like from the consumer's perspective and how that would create vastly more sustainable food systems.

Why is Animal Production Currently Considered so Unsustainable?

I am not sure I would say it is destroying the planet, but there is no doubt that currently our animal production systems are extremely harmful. I've done my best to condense and consolidate the issues that I know about:

  • Inefficient: Animals are higher on the energy pyramid than plants, so getting calories and nutrients from them is much less efficient than from plants.5)This concept is so fundamental to biology (and really easy too) that no one should be allowed to pass high school without a grasp of the food/energy pyramid/hierarchy. How does that play out in numbers? Scientists have already done the math:
    1. 36% of the world's crop calories are going to feed animals.
    2. Only 12% of those become calories we consume.
    3. That would be like if we had 100 meals, throwing away nearly 1/3 of them.
    4. "We find that, given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people."6)The authors are also including biofuels in this statistic
  • Ecologically Destructive Grazing: While feeding cultivated crops to animals is very inefficient, the alternative, grazing them, is often quite destructive--from Amazon rain forest being cleared (at least partially) for livestock, to arid public lands in the western USA.
  • Animal Factories: Industrialized production, often labeled CAFOs,7)Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation produces the overwhelming majority of our animal products in the USA and increasingly in the rest of the world as well. While certainly "efficient", CAFOs generate numerous problems particularly pollution from the vast quantities of waste they generate and potentially serving as breeding grounds for antibiotic resistant diseases.
  • Direct Contributions to Climate Change: Ruminant animals--cows, goats & sheep--produce methane gas,8)These animals are useful because they convert grasses (much of which grow in land not suitable for agriculture), which humans and most other animals cannot digest, into food we can eat (meat, milk, & cheese). They do this by means of a second stomach, the ruminant, which contains special bacteria able to breakdown grasses. Unfortunately these bacteria produce methane gas as a byproduct of digestion. the second most significant contributor to climate change, just by living. It seems trivial until you focus on the fact that humans keep billions of animals which add up to around 15% of GHG emissions globally.9)About 40% of that is direct methane production, the rest is via feed production and land use changes.
  • Ethics: While I don't have a problem with raising animals for our consumption, the way animals are treated currently is just beyond the pale. Its so bad that the industry has pushed hard to make it illegal to film, photograph or otherwise capture how the animals we eat are being raised!.
  • Social Cost: From the farm to the slaughterhouse, their is a significant human cost to our system of animal production. One example: John Oliver delves into contract farming for chickens.
  • Health Burden: There is plenty of debate about how much meat is healthy but is widely believed that current levels of consumption are much too high for good health and should be reduced.

Farm Animals are Part of a Sustainable Future...wait what?!

Yes, in fact, livestock may very well be required for the creation of truly Sustainable food systems. In particular I would say eating meat is Sustainable because:

  • Non-Arable Land: There is a lot of land in the world that is very ill-suited for agriculture but can be grazed by animals and produce food for people. Forgetting the ecological cost for a moment, grazing of non-arable land has historically and will into the future be a key way in which we can produce the food necessary to feed the world.10)Probably more importantly, grazing is the only way the people living in non-arable zones are able to feed themselves.
  • polyface photo
    Photo by dabdiputs
  • Sustainable Farms: It is almost impossible to create a model of a Sustainable farm that does not include animals. Livestock can turn crop residue into fertilizer, graze on and restore fallow fields and actually enhance the overall productivity of farms. If we even just consider organic food, the production of which requires massive amounts of manure since synthetic fertilizers are off limits, we see the necessity of including animals in any Sustainable future.
  • Nutritious: While there is no doubt that one can eat healthily with no animal products in their diet; it is in fact quite difficult and requires some highly industrialized products (for better or worse). Animal products are very nutritionally dense, providing in one serving what might take a wide variety of plant materials to equivalent. For example, chicken eggs may just be the perfect food.
  • Tradition: In part because the consumption of animal products was a special treat, virtually every culture has amazing dishes centered on the use of animals, and this long tradition should not be discarded lightly. The problem is that we have turned what were special occasion meals into everyday desires. A Sustainable future has to include all these great culinary discoveries of our antecedents.

Answer: Probably, but not as its currently produced

Animals will certainly be part of Sustainable future if we do everything right but currently they are probably the MOST unsustainable part of our food system. In upcoming posts we'll explore how we can change that, what Sustainable animal production might look like and most importantly what you can do to accelerate Achieving Sustainability today!

Before I leave, if there are other pros or cons of our current animal production system that I missed, call me out!

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Ideally you would wait to drop this bomb until the main course, presumably featuring one animal or another, was just being brought out.
2. Compare this to energy. There are still arguments about how we are going to get there, but ultimately a Sustainable energy system will be 100% renewable and produce little to no externalities such as carbon or other pollutants.
3. And GMOs are also excluded in Organics for better or worse.
4. By animals we include not just their direct consumption of meat but also their products--principally eggs and cheese
5. This concept is so fundamental to biology (and really easy too) that no one should be allowed to pass high school without a grasp of the food/energy pyramid/hierarchy.
6. The authors are also including biofuels in this statistic
7. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation
8. These animals are useful because they convert grasses (much of which grow in land not suitable for agriculture), which humans and most other animals cannot digest, into food we can eat (meat, milk, & cheese). They do this by means of a second stomach, the ruminant, which contains special bacteria able to breakdown grasses. Unfortunately these bacteria produce methane gas as a byproduct of digestion.
9. About 40% of that is direct methane production, the rest is via feed production and land use changes.
10. Probably more importantly, grazing is the only way the people living in non-arable zones are able to feed themselves.
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