Rajendra Pachauri, the chief UN expert on climate change, has declared that everyone should eat less meat to help combat climate change. Reactions so far have been mixed, ranging from a call for revolt via “a series of vast Homeric barbeques” (to be dubbed “Pachauri days”) to "What ever happened to fish stick Fridays?" But for the most part, the general response has been one of concern and honest skepticism. The sort of earnest doubt that, apparently, the anti-meat camp would rather do without.
Earlier today, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues hosted a well-timed panel discussion on beef production and greenhouse gas emissions. Panelists included Alex Avery, the Institute’s Director of Research; Dr. Judith Capper, author of a groundbreaking study on the environmental benefits of synthetic bovine growth hormone (more on that here); and Danielle Nierenberg of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Avery and Capper each gave a brief synopsis of their research on the environmental impacts of organic beef production and dairy industry technology. Nierenberg reiterated the UN’s argument about the supposedly clown-shoe-sized carbon footprint of cows, and summarized her letter in this month’s Environmental Health Perspectives (a written exchange with Avery is available here). An excerpt:
If one accounts for all the inputs and outputs of industrialized animal agriculture, it is indisputable that these systems are not economically or environmentally sustainable, or responsible. Regardless of how productive these industrial systems might be in terms of the value of meat, eggs, milk, or offspring they produce, we also have to look at how destructive they are …
Industrial animal agriculture is inherently unsustainable — environmentally and economically.
Nothing we haven’t heard before, right? But how can Nierenberg make the argument that our meat production system is “inherently unsustainable” when we’ve, well … actually sustained it thus far?
All was revealed during the Q&A session when Nierenberg insisted that the problem was “industrial” agriculture (which has only been around for 50-60 years). To which Capper and Avery responded with the Big Question: What exactly is “industrial” agriculture, and what’s so bad about it?
To summarize the heated back and forth that followed, HSUS considers “industrial” agriculture the root of a laundry list of “social ills.” The studies showing the connection between modern agriculture and disease? She couldn’t remember off the top of her head. Animal atrocities? “It’s happening every day.”
Vegetarian advocates in the audience were outraged. But the panelists’ questions were entirely valid – and long overdue.
In response to a question about what the world’s population should be eating, Avery replied – before pointing out that traditional vegetarian cultures have refrained from eating meat due to resource constraints, not "rights" – that he wouldn’t feel comfortable telling anyone else what they should eat. And Nierenberg agreed! “Food is a very personal choice,” she added.