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My Beef with Beef

Should environmentalists just say no to eating meat?

That was the headline over my latest story for the YaleEnvironment360 website. The story looked at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a collaboration between environmental groups  and industry to improve the way beef is produced. The roundtable was put together by Jason Clay, a top executive at  the WWF, and includes such companies as McDonald's, Cargill and Walmart. The roundtable will try to measure the environmental footprint of beef production methods, and spread best practices. If people are going to keep eating beef — and they are — the roundtable's work should be valuable. While I'd feel better about the effort if it were not predominantly financed by industry, Clay and his colleagues are well-intentioned, in my view.

Having said that…I can't help but wonder why environmental groups aren't more vocal about asking their supporters to eat less beef–and especially to avoid beef from factory farms (or, if you prefer, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs).

As I wrote in the YaleE360 story, beef

…has twice the greenhouse gas emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken, and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu, according to the Environmental Working Group. Eating less meat is the most important thing an individual can do to curb climate change, some scientists say. If Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by a mere 20 percent, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius, according to Gidon Eshel, a research professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago.

And yet:

… green groups that readily fight coal plants or suburban sprawl have for the most part shown little desire to do battle with meat. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins. The Mayo Clinic has more to say about meat than The Nature Conservancy, although TNC's chief executive, Mark Tercek, is a vegetarian. Another vegetarian, Danielle Nierenberg, who directs the Nourishing the Planet program at the Worldwatch Institute, explains: "Most environmental groups don't want to tell people what to eat or what not to eat. It's a personal issue that's tied to your culture, to your history, to what your mom fed you when you were five years old."

Danielle is correct–no one likes to be nagged about eating, or not eating, their dinner–but I think there's more to it than that. The big environmental NGOs are generally reluctant to tackle the issue of overconsumption. Americans, as a group, drive big cars, live in big houses, buy too much stuff and throw too much of it away. None of this makes us, as a group, much happier, research indicates. But environmental groups don't talk about this as much as they should, perhaps because they don't want to alienate their well-to-do donors.

Beef would be a great place for them to start. According to NPR, though meat consumption in the U.S. has fallen, we still eat more meat per person — about 270 pounds a year! — than do people in almost any other country; beef consumption this year will be about 54 per pounds per person, according to USDA, via Reuters. Beef consumption at those levels contributes to chronic and preventable ailments like obesity and heart disease. And, of course, beef production in confined feedlots raises animal welfare issues, to put it mildly.

This doesn't mean that we all need to become vegetarians or vegans. But environmentalists, at least, ought to think about what it means to tuck into a burger, steak or prime rib, again, especially one raised by conventional methods.*

Jonathan Safran Foer, the novelist and author of a book called Eating Animals, asks:

What does it mean exactly to be an environmentalist on a daily basis if you are not thinking about the number one cause of global warming or one of the top two or three causes of all other environmental problems? Does it mean you are necessarily someone who doesn't care about the environment? Obviously not, but it might mean you have a blind spot for something big.

Bill McKibben put it this way in Orion:

Industrial livestock production is essentially indefensible—ethically, ecologically, and otherwise. We now use an enormous percentage of our arable land to grow corn that we feed to cows who stand in feedlots and eructate until they are slaughtered in a variety of gross ways and lodge in our ever-larger abdomens. And the fact that the product of this exercise "tastes good" sounds pretty lame as an excuse. There are technofixes—engineering the corn feed so it produces less methane, or giving the cows shots so they eructate less violently. But this type of tailpipe fix only works around the edges, and with the planet warming fast that's not enough. We should simply stop eating factory-farmed meat, and the effects on climate change would be but one of the many benefits.

You can read the rest of my YaleE360 story here. Your thoughts?


* I'm talking here about factory-farmed beef. In researching my story, I had a fascinating conversation with Courtney White of the Quivira Coalition about the benefits of pasture-fed cattle and what he calls "carbon farming." A topic for another day…