As we are approaching our hottest year yet and historical climate talks, meat-free diets are still a political taboo. Even the official sustainable menu of COP21 has eschewed opening this Pandora’s box. Yet, animal agriculture is one of the greatest contributors to global warming and resource overuse. How long can we keep up the pretense?
An opportunity too good to miss
Sam Kass, the former assistant White House chef and executive director of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, has an awesome opportunity to make a stance. He will serve dinner at the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris this December and is poised to bring food policy, long missing, onto the climate agenda. As he says, ““when you put the plate in front of them, it makes it all really resonant.” Too bad he won’t be talking about meat-free lifestyles. Take Part summarizes:
“Instead of focusing on any one -ism of diet — veganism or vegetarianism or flexitarianism — Kass hopes to present a meal on two plates: one made with the kind of conventional ingredients that contribute to the 18 percent of global emissions that agriculture currently creates, and another featuring foods that hint at the possibility of a sustainable future of farming. It’s an approach that could help the delegates—and their respective publics—look at the issues of climate and food not just in terms of what to eat or not eat but in terms of how a given ingredient was produced. With regard to meat, for example, many have argued that responsible pasture management can help cattle ranches sequester carbon in the soil, more than can be said for expansive monoculture planting of corn and soy, which can release stored carbon.”
Now, this is an argument that has been very popular since Allan Savory’s TED talk, and with good reason: it provides an easy fix to the bind we are in. And full disclosure, I was about to argue the same in a magazine article I was recently working on. But after looking at the research, I couldn’t stand behind the idea.
The silver bullet that didn’t exist
The debate is complex, and well documented here, here and here; basically the short version is this: holistic land management has been tried since the 1970s, and there has been no consistent evidence that Savory’s theory works. Some farmers have found benefits, others have found no results. In some cases, intensive grazing hurt rather than rehabilitated soils. Cattle still use up immense amounts of water, still produce massive amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2, and often needed additional supplementary feed, particularly in the marginal lands that Savory wants to rehabilitate.
As two climate scientists explain, “the appeal of this claim to casual observers is enhanced in that it does not require humans to face any tradeoffs. The implication is that we can continue to use fossil fuels and emit carbon into the atmosphere because application of holisitic management on the Earth’s grasslands provides a ‘silver bullet’ that will sustainably solve the climate change problem and provide abundant livestock products as well. We would be thrilled if a simple solution such as this existed. However it clearly does not, and it is counter-productive to believe that it does. Humanity must look beyond hope and simple solutions if it is to successfully navigate its way through the Anthropocene.“
This is also the basic message of the documentary Cowspiracy. As any documentary, it’s a bit overdramatic and oversimplifying, but asks interesting questions. Why, for instance, are only few big NGO campaigns centered around livestock production? The film takes Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the WWF and others to task and while I think it’s a bit overdramatic to talk about a conspiracy, some of the underlying ideas might be true – namely, that these are member-funded organizations and it’s much easier to raise money to fight against an enemy – such as big oil firms – than against people’s lifestyles.
Ecology ain’t good politics
Indeed, Germany’s Green Party made that experience in a very painful manner. Campaigning for a weekly vegetarian day in cantines cost them dearly in reputation and was one of the main explanations for a poor result in subsequent elections. On their last caucus, they decided to drop this idea, claiming “we really don’t care whether people eat meat on Thursdays or not.” In their view, holding companies and the industry responsible for sustainable practices is more important than placing blame on consumers. Being a party known best for its moral superiority doesn’t provide good polling numbers. But what if that is what is needed for real sustainability?
In the US, sustainability shouldn’t be a dietary choice
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans looked really exciting in their first draft. For the first time, its Advisory Committee took sustainability into account and reported that “a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” This unleashed a furious debate. Of course.
After politicians looked over it, and interest groups had their say, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell recently released a statement explaining that “we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” And so the topic was closed again, for now.
“Please not again a vegan manifesto”
One of the hardest things to shake off is the granola-hippie-activist image of people choosing a sustainable diet low in meat. Though vegan burgers are now a hipster trend, in many segments of society it’s easier to fly below the radar regarding ones’ dietary choices. Explaining vegetarianism to an omnivore often sounds at best incomprehensible, at worst accusatory to the other’s ears. Flexitarianism is such a powerful concept – just reducing consumption is so different from giving up your favorite steak forever – and yet when we talk about meat or no meat the debate quickly escalates to whether a vegan planet is possible. That’s not the discussion we need to be having, though. Acknowledging that in terms of health, resource use and climate change, less meat is better for us and the planet would be a tiny step for politicians at COP21 to take – but a huge step toward really sustainable food systems.