Remember the very beginning of Cowspiracy, where the producers interview Bruce Hamilton representing the Sierra Club? Hamilton gives a litany of all the dire consequences of climate change, ending with a prediction of “climate wars.” He is then asked, “what about livestock and animal agriculture?” to which Hamilton innocently (and seemingly obliviously) responds, “well, what about it? I mean —”. This is the lead-in to Cowspiracy’s general theme that environmental organizations are either clueless or hypocritically silent about livestock agriculture and the environment.
If the producers of Cowspiracy had showed up at a local Sierra Club meeting last week, instead of interviewing Hamilton, Cowspiracy might have taken a very different turn. The Sierra Club’s own report of this meeting clearly states in its suggestion about “behaviors you can change”: “Cut down on red meat and dairy consumption.” That’s not quite “go vegan for the planet,” but it’s something I can agree with and quite an advance over “what about it?” Perhaps Cowspiracy itself strongly influenced this change.
I found out about the meeting almost two weeks ago. I received an enticing invitation from the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter to a discussion asking “how we can work together to reduce our environmental impact through our eating habits.” What made the event even more enticing was the offer of a free vegan meal. I thought that I could make a few suggestions about eating habits and the environment, and free vegan food is always a plus, so I went.
The place was packed, perhaps 100 to 150 people, and the “light vegan meal” was quite tasty. There were three speakers: Dr. Pete Newton (Colorado University), Dr. Rich Conant (Colorado State University), and Alex Funk (the National Young Farmers Coalition). Newton and Conant both seemed to be quite aware of the livestock and climate change connection.
Newton’s talk was on “food miles,” but he did not try to defend the idea of the importance of growing local food, in fact quite the reverse. Food miles — the distance between where the food was grown, and the consumer’s plate — plays a very minor role in food’s total contribution to carbon dioxide, on the order of about 10%. Other choices would lessen your climate impact a lot more than eating locally — for example, not wasting food, and not eating beef or dairy products.
Conant wanted to decrease emissions from livestock production. Livestock are important to agriculture and the economy, but they are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). He puts the figure of livestock’s contribution to GHGs at 8% to 18% of all emissions, citing the FAO’s Livestock’s Long Shadow and Mario Herrero, but mentioned that some estimates of livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions could be as high as 40%.
Concerning this last point, I got into a conversation with Conant and asked him where he got this 40% figure. He responded by citing, oddly enough, the FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow. When I responded that “I thought the FAO put the figure at 18% of emissions from livestock, which is quite a bit less than 40%,” he said that the FAO, in addition to the 18% figure from livestock, also attributed as much as 20% of all emissions to land use changes. (So presumably, if you thought that most land use changes were due to livestock — which is arguably true, given global deforestation for cattle ranches — you could add 18% to 20% and get 38%.)
I also asked Conant if he’d heard of the “Livestock and Climate Change” article (by Goodland and Anhang), which estimates that 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock agriculture. He hadn’t heard of it, but thought that this estimate was much too high.
I also got into a conversation with Pete Newton, the speaker who gave the talk on food miles. I asked, given the fact that livestock contributes to climate change, “why don’t we just tell people to go vegan?” His response was interesting. He said that the trend everywhere was towards greater meat consumption. Everyone knowledgeable about the situation was predicting that there would be more and more meat consumption in the years to come. All the developing countries were eating more meat as soon as they got additional income. If we want to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, it would seem to be futile to advocate decreased meat consumption. If you wanted to decrease emissions from agriculture, it would be relatively best to work on improving livestock practices rather than vainly advocating a decrease in meat consumption.
This meeting gave me a chance to better understand what “mainstream environmentalists” were saying and thinking about veganism. I found that there were a number of vegans (besides me) at the meeting, and got into a very pleasant discussion with one of them whom I had never met before. But the official message from the speakers was still rather discouraging. The overall message was “meat is here to stay and meat consumption is increasing; deal with it.” However, there is a clear acknowledgment that, in fact, livestock agriculture does play a substantial role in climate change and a willingness to talk about it.