As part of Change.org’s Blog Action Day, happening today in over 126 countries around the globe – and focusing on climate change – I’ve decided to get to the
meat dairy of the matter.
You’ve probably noticed that the mainstream media have been focusing on farm animal issues more than ever before. This is partly because the public is waking up to the fact that consuming animals is cruel, unnecessary and unsustainable. And that, in turn, is because so many advocates like you are making hay.
In this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Safran Foer’s feature, “Against Meat,” told the story of how he became vegetarian over and over again, until he finally once-and-for-all settled down into a life destined to be flesh-free. “Meat and seafood are in no way necessary for my family,” Safran Foer says. “[U]nlike some in the world, we have easy access to a wide variety of other foods. And we are healthier without it. So our choices aren’t constrained.”
Meanwhile, the recently-released documentary Food, Inc., which is playing to sold-out theaters, “lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry,” according to the film’s Web site. It continues, “Our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment.” Food, Inc. aims to shed light on the many misperceptions people have about how our food gets to our plates.
A less widely released documentary, No Impact Man, has gained a lot of buzz for its portrayal of the out-of-the-box (and nobly-intended) mission of one man (Colin Beavan) to reduce the impact that he and his family have on the environment for a solid year. Among the (somewhat arbitrary) steps that Manhattanite Beavan takes to lower his footprint are to take the stairs (instead of the elevator), use no electricity or un-self-propelled transport, and consume a diet of locally-produced vegetarian food.
These two films, plus Safran Foer’s article, have two distinct things in common:
1. On the plus side, they are raising consciousness about the connection between eating meat and climate change.
This connection, the overarching and oftentimes unspoken inconvenient truth, is profound. The United Nations estimated that livestock production accounts for a whopping 18 percent of all greenhouse gases. (That’s more than the entire transportation sector.)
According to Safran Foer’s article, “Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.” And according to Food, Inc., “Approximately 10 billion animals (chickens, cattle, hogs, ducks, turkeys, lambs and sheep) are raised and killed in the US annually. Nearly all of them are raised on factory farms under inhumane conditions. These industrial farms are also dangerous for their workers, pollute surrounding communities, are unsafe to our food system and contribute significantly to global warming.”
Last, but not without impact, according to the No Impact Man Web site, the number one guideline for living a low impact life is to “save the world by improving your diet,” since “cutting beef out of your diet will reduce your CO2 emissions by 2,400 pounds annually.”
The fact that more and more films and articles like the ones mentioned above are speaking up about these connections shows great progress. People are starting to get it.
Just a few years ago, in 2007, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which was about Al Gore’s efforts to educate the public about the severity of the climate crisis, brought home the Academy Award for Best Documentary. In his acceptance speech, Gore stated, “My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis. It's not a political issue; it's a moral issue.” Yet in its attempt to “solve the climate crisis,” An Inconvenient Truth failed to even mention the connection between climate change and the consumption of animal-derived foods, setting us vegan environmentalists into a tailspin.
So the fact that the new wave of climate-conscious environmentalists is paying attention to the food connection is great news. But going back to the two distinct things that “Against Meat,” Food, Inc., and No Impact Man have in common, the second one is this:
2. None of them get into the environmental ramifications of dairy production.
Oh how this pains me. Food, Inc. and No Impact Man even go so far as to endorse the dairy industry. Neither film even goes near the environmental impact of dairy. Needless to say, these films also blatantly ignore the inherent cruelty within dairy production. (You wouldn’t have veal calves without dairy cows: You can’t have milk without constantly inseminating and impregnating the mamas, and when their babies turn out to be boys, those calves are soon turned into veal. Moreover, when their milk production declines, it’s too expensive to keep dairy cows alive, and they are soon turned into hamburger.)
(Hope does spring eternal, though. In an interview, Safran Foer proclaimed that he is going to give veganism a go.)
According to Brighter Green (a “non-profit action tank that works to transform public policy and dialogue on the environment, animals, and sustainable development, both globally and locally, with a particular focus on equity and rights”), each adult cow emits 176 to 242 pounds of methane per year, and dairy cows emit more than cows raised for beef. There are approximately 1.5 billion cows alive today. That equals 264 to 363 billion pounds of methane a year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 23 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. And according to a University of Chicago study from the journal Earth Interactions, entitled “Diet, Energy & Global Warming,” by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, switching from the standard American diet to a vegan one for one year would reduce your carbon-dioxide emissions more than switching from a normal car to a hybrid.
As part of the United Nations’ Climate Week held earlier this month, I participated in a panel discussion along with Mia MacDonald, executive director of Brighter Green. The PowerPoint presentation she gave was staggering – and is viewable here. You can also see her full presentation here. Also on the panel was the outreach director of Kind Green Planet, Marisa Miller Wolfson, who has a short video about the connection between global warming and animal agriculture that’s as funny as it is frightening. (Warning, though: Third grade humor alert.)
While it’s great that people are becoming aware of the undeniable connection between meat and climate change, what about the dairy connection? Perhaps this key component can be the next big topic of discussion, the next environmental exposé?
And perhaps, in addition to discussing the harsh environmental repercussions of dairy production, we can also talk about the fact that it’s really horrifically mean to cows, and does no body good?
Where to go from here:
• Whenever you see articles in the media pertaining to the environment, write a letter to the editor drawing the connection between climate change and animal production. Whenever possible, point out dairy (as well as meat) as a major contributor.
• When you see a film that exposes the meat/climate change connection, write to the filmmaker or producers (you can usually find a contact e-mail through some good old-fashioned googling) thanking them for illuminating this, and urging them to also consider the impact that dairy production has on the planet. (Here are some more tips for responding to articles on farm animals in the media.)
• Go vegan. It’s the best possible thing you can do for the animals, yourself and the planet.