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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 [3], 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:

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:

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 [18]

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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   [ + [20] ]

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.