These days almost any proposal to reduce global warming gets taken seriously, even by conservatives. Solar panels are proposed for powering everything except submarines. Oilman T. Boone Pickens wants to put windmills on every empty patch of land in Texas, and Republicans have finally found something to like about France: nuclear power.
But when Rajendra Pachauri, who runs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made a suggestion that could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 18 percent, he was excoriated. Why was his proposal so unpalatable? Because he suggested eating less meat would be the easiest way people could reduce their carbon footprint, with one meat-free day per week as a first step. "How convenient for him: He's a vegetarian," sneered a Pittsburgh Tribune Review editorial. "Dr. Pachauri should be more concerned about his own diet. A new study shows that a deficiency of vitamin B-12, found primarily in meat, fish and milk, can lead to brain shrinkage." Boris Johnson, London's outspoken mayor, posted a long screed on his blog, declaring, "The whole proposition is so irritating that I am almost minded to eat more meat in response."
Johnson may not appreciate the environmental value of replacing his steak and kidney pie with a tofu scramble, but the benefits would be quite real. Animal agriculture is responsible for local pollution from animal waste and chemical use and for greenhouse gas emissions from the energy-intensive process of growing feed and raising livestock, plus the, ahem, byproducts of animal digestion. It would be much easier -- and cheaper -- to give up meat than to, say, convert an entire country's electrical grid to using solar, wind, or nuclear energy. A rural Montanan might have no choice but to drive to work, but he can certainly switch out his pork chop for pinto beans. While Pachauri was correct to note that one need not go vegan to help the environment -- simply eating less meat would help -- he could have also emphasized the more politically appealing point that one can be a carnivore and still reduce one's impact by choosing different meats. Even limiting one's meat consumption to chicken yields major environmental benefits -- not to mention health and financial benefits.
What should be a surprise is not that Pachauri made the comments he did but that it took him so long to do so. In fact, the environmental movement has largely ignored meat consumption. The man with whom the IPCC shared its Nobel Prize for raising climate change awareness, Al Gore, has never mentioned the environmental impact of meat consumption. Green groups tell their conscientious constituents to trade in their SUV for a Prius and buy compact-fluorescent light bulbs but haven't dared suggest that they give up steak.
Perhaps even more so than cars, meat is deeply embedded in American culture. Apple pie may be the quintessential American food, but McDonald's hamburgers aren't far behind. We carve turkey on Thanksgiving and host Fourth of July barbeques. Without meat, how do you know it's a meal? To most Americans, veggies and tofu are a laughable substitute. "It was a reaction to the '60s hippie cooking that gave this important idea of vegetarianism a bad name," says Alice Waters, the chef and author who is widely credited with creating the organic-food revolution. Environmentalists, who know they must change the stereotype that they are all either tree-hugging radicals or self-righteous scolds, may be reluctant to embrace vegetarianism because of those easily caricatured cultural connotations.
"Environmental groups don't want to come out too strongly on it," says Danielle Nierenberg, who researches the intersection of animal agriculture and climate change for both the Humane Society, an organization that promotes the compassionate treatment of animals, and the World Watch Institute, an environmental think tank. "People get very upset when they feel they are being told what to eat."
Now should be environmental vegetarianism's big moment. Global warming is the single biggest threat to the health of the planet, and meat consumption plays a bigger role in greenhouse gas emissions than even many environmentalists realize. The production and transportation of meat and dairy, particularly if you include the grains that are fed to livestock, is much more energy-intensive than it is for plants. Animals, especially cattle, also release gases like methane and nitrous oxide that, pound for pound, are up to 30 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Internationally there is an additional cost to animal agriculture: massive deforestation to make land available for grazing, which releases greenhouse gases as the trees are burned and removes valuable foliage that absorbs carbon dioxide. As a result, according to a 2006 United Nations report, internationally the livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions -- more than the transportation sector.
The numbers for the United States are more hotly contested. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that meat is only half of the U.S. agriculture sector's share of domestic greenhouse gases and that the entire agriculture industry produces 7.56 percent of the U.S.' contribution. This is considerably less than the transportation sector, which the EPA estimates accounts for roughly 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The American Meat Institute, an industry trade association, cites the EPA numbers as credible. But they fail to take into account that 50 percent of grain is being fed to livestock and that its production and transportation costs should also be attributed to what you find in the meat or dairy aisle of the supermarket. Additionally, the EPA numbers do not include large categories such as the transportation of plants and animals.
In fact, some environmentalists allege that the Bush administration's EPA chose the lowest possible estimate, which the meat industry routinely cites, for political reasons. "With the EPA being in the pocket of the meat industry, it's not in their interest to come up with the best numbers," says Bruce Friedrich, who works on environmental issues for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The real U.S. figure is roughly halfway between the UN's and the EPA's numbers, according to independent experts. "There are many assumptions that one needs to make when quantifying emissions," explains Gidon Eshel, an environmental studies professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock. "It's not that any one assumption is correct. Almost all of them are defensible." Eshel estimates that if you used the UN's standards, animal agriculture would account for 10 percent or 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases.
Consumers may not have a say in whether or not another coal power plant will be built, but they do have control over how much meat they personally eat. A University of Chicago study co-authored by Eshel found that, for the average American, "the greenhouse gas emissions of various diets vary by as much as the difference between owning an average sedan versus a Sport Utility Vehicle." One meat eater going vegetarian results in putting the equivalent of 1.5 fewer tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Further, according to the study, if all Americans ate a vegan diet it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 percent, probably more. Those savings would have a more immediate impact than would reducing the same amount of carbon through other means, because the average time scale for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is about 10 times as slow as for methane. Most important, as Eshel notes, one can reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions through dietary change more easily and comfortably than, say, cutting back on electricity use by living in the dark or forgoing air conditioning all summer.
But meat eating has grown dramatically in developed countries in recent decades, with developing countries beginning to catch up. The average American eats 200 pounds of meat, poultry, and fish per capita per year, 50 pounds more than Americans did in the 1950s. Between 1970 and 2002 the average person in a developing country went from consuming 24 pounds to 65 pounds of meat annually. In all, the world's total meat consumption in 2007 was estimated to be 284 million tons, compared to 71 million tons in 1961. It is expected to double by 2050. "You're seeing now India and China, with a growing middle class, are eating more meat," says Laura Shapiro, a culinary historian and author of Something from the Oven, about the cuisine of 1950s America.
Yet the environmental conversation remains solely about cars and power plants, not beef and pork.
Unlike the vitriol that Rajendra Pachauri encountered, Caryn Hartglass has been met with a different reaction when she suggests people eat less meat: deafening silence. Hartglass is the only paid staffer for Earth Save, the most prominent (using that term loosely, as it only has 3,000 members) organization dedicated solely to promoting an animal-free diet for environmental reasons. "I go to [environmental organizations'] Web sites and it's supposed to tell you what to do to reduce global warming and it doesn't say eat less meat," says Hartglass. "So I ask them why not. They say they're focusing on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions not methane-gas emissions."
Why are environmental groups and even politicians willing to tell Americans to drive smaller cars or take the bus to work but unwilling to tell them to eat less meat? If you live in a recently built suburb you must drive most places whether you wish to or not. Walking or public transit simply isn't an option. But you could stop buying ground beef and start buying veggie burgers tomorrow, saving yourself some money and sparing yourself some cholesterol in the process. And yet no one, other than a small cadre of lonely fringe activists like Hartglass, devotes much energy to making the connection. Food experts and environmentalists generally worry that Americans might react with hostility similar to Boris Johnson's if asked to put down their hamburgers.
Their timidity is understandable. On the rare occasion that the federal government has tried to even suggest that Americans lower their meat consumption, it has failed. In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs recommended eating less meat and dairy to combat heart disease. But the meat and dairy lobbies complained vociferously, and the committee rephrased the report to say that people should instead choose animal products that would "reduce saturated fat consumption." Just to be sure no one else got the foolish idea of suggesting Americans eat less meat, the beef industry spent heavily to successfully defeat Committee Chairman George McGovern in 1980.
But while politicians may have reason to fear the meat lobby, environmental groups are supposed to push the political envelope. They began calling for caps on carbon emissions in the late 1990s, before it was politically palatable, and both major party candidates for president endorsed cap-and-trade in 2008. Many people see their car or truck as a part of their identity, but that hasn't stopped the Sierra Club from ensuring that every American is aware of the environmental threat their vehicle poses. And yet, the major environmental groups have been unwilling to push the meat issue. "I don't know of anyone in the environmental community that has taken a stance of 'we support no meat consumption because of global warming,'" says Tim Greef, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters. Adds Nierenberg, "It's the elephant in the room for environmentalists. They haven't found a good way to address it."
The Sierra Club's list of 29 programs -- which includes such relatively small-bore issues as trash-transfer stations (they threaten "quality of life and property values") -- does not include any on the impact of meat consumption. Their main list of things you can do to help prevent global warming mentions hanging your clothes out to dry instead of using a dryer but makes no mention of eating less meat. "The Sierra Club isn't opposed to eating meat, so that's sort of the long and short of it. [We are] not opposed to hunting, not opposed to ranching," says Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization.
Of course, asking Americans to eat less meat is not the same thing as actively condemning ranching and hunting, but ranchers and hunters might consider it a threat to their livelihood and lifestyle all the same. And there's the rub. Though the Sierra Club does not have a position on meat consumption, it does ally with small ranchers and hunters on an array of issues, from opposing the development of giant feedlots to preserving land. "We believe that making connections with hunters and anglers is critical to ultimately getting a solution to global warming," says Dave Hamilton, director of the global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club. "They are often in places that are targets for what we're trying to do, and they are a key constituency for policy makers."
Calling for less meat consumption would almost certainly endanger that relationship. But the Sierra Club denies that is the reason for its lack of a stance on meat, saying that it focuses instead on issues where it can have a greater impact. "It does not necessarily pay to appear to be telling people how to live their lives," says Hamilton. "We want to give positive solutions. We've tried to focus on the things that we feel can make the greatest difference with the energy and resources that we have."
Other environmental groups, such as Natural Resources Defense Council, acknowledge that reducing meat consumption would be helpful in ameliorating emissions, but it simply is not a high priority. "We haven't taken a position [on meat]," says Elizabeth Martin Perera, a climate-policy specialist at the NRDC. "There's no reason not to; we just haven't gotten around to it." The League of Conservation Voters, which coordinates environmental political efforts, explains it as a process of fighting one battle at a time. "Once you deal with the largest emitters of carbon, complementary policies need to get passed," says Greef. "After they pass cap-and-trade, you will see work for a better transportation bill, work on deforestation and the logging industry. Meat falls into that bucket." When it comes to sorting out legislative priorities, Greef's position is sensible. The car-dependence of the American landscape and other energy-intensive consumption habits make attacking those larger emitters a higher priority domestically.
But environmental groups do more than just lobby Congress. First and foremost, they explain how our activities affect the environment. It is obvious that a car spews pollution, but to see your beef burrito first as a burping cow, and before that as oil being burned to grow corn to feed that cow, requires education. The movement also can advise the public on lifestyle choices and demonstrate how those choices can be practical. A typical Sierra Club member cannot do much to pass cap-and-trade, but she can skip the bacon in her breakfast sandwich.
Remember those TV commercials that declared, "Beef, it's what's for dinner"? Only a few foods are so central to American cuisine and culture that they can assert their primacy simply by reminding you that you've always consumed them. Americans do indeed eat an extraordinary amount of meat, roughly twice their daily recommended dose of protein. But contrary to the commercial, this was not always the case -- consumption has not just been driven by market demand. The other culprit is cheap corn.
Meat has become cheaper -- and therefore more prevalent in American diets -- in the last 30 years because it has been heavily subsidized, albeit indirectly. Ever since Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz declared in 1973 that "what we want out of agriculture is plenty of food," American agricultural policy has encouraged overproduction and lower prices, primarily in the form of massive subsidies for corn. Livestock, in turn, consumes more than half the corn grown in the U.S. because it is cheaper to confine animals to a tight lot and funnel corn in than to allow them to graze freely on grass. With cheaper grain and denser, dirtier feedlots replacing free-range ranches, meat prices and meat quality have dropped, while meat's environmental impact has increased.
"The livestock doesn't get direct subsidies per se, but they have until recently done very well by getting subsidized corn," says Larry Mitchell, director of government affairs at the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), a rival offshoot of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), which the ACGA contends represents agribusiness conglomerates rather than small farmers. "Most of the huge, confined animal-feeding operations, factory farms, wouldn't be viable if they had to pay the true cost of corn," Mitchell says.
Some environmental scientists contend that, in addition to filling local groundwater with animal waste and destroying the open spaces of the West with feedlots, grain-fed meat creates more emissions per pound than grass-fed meat. "Some work from the EPA suggests that you can reduce methane by half by not confining animals and not feeding them high-energy grains," says Nierenberg. But, she concedes, the evidence is mixed. Other studies, such as those promoted by conservatives, find the opposite: Eating grass gives cows gas. A spokesperson for the NCGA declined to comment for this article but referred me to Alex Avery, a researcher at the conservative Hudson Institute. Avery, who acknowledges that his research is underwritten by industry interests, cites studies suggesting that corn-fed livestock emits less methane.
Fundamentally, though, Avery and food-industry spokespeople don't acknowledge the role that cheap corn plays in the prevalence of meat in the American diet. "The world needs to eat," says Tamara McCann Thies, chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, "and demand dictates how much beef is produced in the U.S. and elsewhere." Of course, demand is a product of price, and price is a product of production costs, and production costs are affected by subsidies. The world needs to eat, but it does not need to eat burgers.
Indeed, while a public-relations campaign would have some marginal impact, it has long been established that only government regulation can be certain to change America's consumption patterns. Despite all the publicity surrounding the ills of oil, average auto fuel efficiency has stagnated. And how many people do you know who hang-dry their clothes to keep the polar ice cap afloat?
So what would a political agenda to reduce the emissions from animal agriculture look like? The answer is surprisingly simple.
As with so many environmentally damaging habits, such as driving, our over-consumption of factory-farmed animals is the product of a set of indirect subsidies that make its cost artificially low. Much of the agriculture industry is exempt from compliance with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, thus reducing its business costs. Grain subsidies lower the cost of feed. And the Government Accountability Office recently found that the EPA has failed to hold factory farms accountable for massive violations, essentially another form of government subsidy by freeing them of the cost of compliance. Undoing any of these boondoggles would raise the cost of meat. Another option is to raise the standards of animal treatment, which would also make the production of meat more expensive. California recently passed a ballot proposal to ban cruelly overcrowded conditions in factory farms. By eliminating dense feedlots, which animal-rights activists and even many farmers regard as inhumane and which create local pollution, it should become more expensive to produce meat because it will require more land per animal. Although it is not clear how much meat consumption would fall as a result, it makes sense, as it does with driving, to at least remove the price advantage of such an environmentally destructive activity.
And, of course, the government could remove corn subsidies. Whatever the merits of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat, an increase in the price of corn would mean more expensive meat. But the institutional barriers to removing subsidies -- the key committee positions of senators from farm states, the power of the Iowa caucuses, the political largesse of agriprocessor Archer Daniels Midland -- make such a dramatic reversal in American agricultural policy an incredibly tall order. In any case, the environmental movement has not shown any desire to make this a top priority.
In the meantime, activists are taking small bites out of the problem. Food experts like Shapiro and Waters say that raising awareness about reducing portion size, which has grown over the years, is one first step. And a Web site called PB&J Campaign, launched in February 2007, encourages a plant-based diet for environmental reasons. Bernard Brown, the site's 31-year-old creator, says he is careful to advocate not outright vegetarianism but intermediate steps that are more realistic.
Yet they still have a long way to go. "I think it's amazing that even the greenest of green liberal environment activists, the vast majority of them tend to consume meat at the same rate as people who think global warming is a hoax," says Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "Meat consumption seems to be the last thing that progressive people address in their lifestyle. If I had a nickel for every global warming conference that had roast beef on the menu, I'd be rich."