cowspiracy: a lesson in naivety.

The newest calf! - Photo Cred: David

I’ve always struggled with vegetarianism.

In college I tried to stop eating meat, several times. As an environmental science undergrad, the more I learned about food systems, the more I felt compelled to convert. I had a burning desire to succeed, almost as if my morality depended on it, but I never found the resolve.

So I tried, failed, tried again, failed again, etc.

Over time, I’ve come across three main arguments for renouncing animal protein:

  1. Humans were meant to be herbivores
  2. Eating other living things is ethically deplorable
  3. Factory farms are terrible

I’m not an anthropologist, but I simply don’t buy the herbivore argument. I seriously struggle with the carnivore sin idea. I love animals, I’ve raised them, and I’ve slaughtered them – maybe some people think it’s insensitive, but I still (very much) like to eat them. The factory farm angle I can get behind 100%… but on just that foundation, it’s very, very difficult to refuse a juicy, grass-fed burger and fatty, free-range bacon.

No argument has successfully managed to turn me off the omnivore path, despite my noble aspirations – until now (sort of).

If you haven’t seen Cowspiracy, you should (it’s on Netflix). Especially if you think you know everything about food, because you probably don’t. It’s not the most brilliant documentary ever made, and the narrator is a bit annoying, but the facts… man, oh man, the facts.

After four years studying food systems and climate change (my two concentrations in college), I couldn’t believe I had never seen these facts and figures before. Cowspiracy successfully tore off my very comfortable blindfold of ignorance.

Climate Change

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissionsmore than the combined exhaust from all transportation.
  • Methane, the greenhouse gas emission that animals are most responsible for (through their actual waste), is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • Emissions from animal agriculture are predicted to increase 80% by 2050, while energy related emissions are only expected to increase by 20%.

What!? I studied climate change intensively for an entire semester and I never heard these facts. I knew methane was stronger than carbon dioxide, but I didn’t realize how big the problem was. The climate change conversation currently centers on our burning of oil and gas – but even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, we will exceed our international climate goals by 2020, all because of livestock production.

Water

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Fracking water used in the United States in natural gas drilling ranges from 70-140 billion gallons annually, but livestock production uses 24-76 trillion gallons!
  • One third of the world’s fresh water use goes to animal ag.
    • Eggs: requires 477 gallons of water
    • Cheese: requires almost 900 gallons of water
    • 1 Gal. Milk: requires 1,000 gallons of water

We give fracking, a form of natural gas production, a bad rap for water consumption and pollution, and I am by no means giving them a pass… but by comparison, water use for animal agriculture is incomprehensible.

“Sustainable” Agriculture

I kept waiting, during this terrifying and depressing movie, for the “sustainable, grass-fed” clause, the moment when they would assuage my fears; tell me as long as we eat grass-fed meat it would all be okay. Well, the moment came, and it didn’t help much. The average American eats 209lb of meat per year, if all of that meat was raised on grazing land we would need 3.7 billion acres to feed just the United States. For perspective – that’s every inch of the United States and Central American as well as parts of Canada and South America.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 5.10.00 PM

Amount of grazing land needed to feed the meat consumption needs of JUST the United States. Image from the movie.

 

And that’s just what struck me most. See this page for more stats on oceans, land use, and economics.

Here’s the movie’s summary:

“A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water, and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food.”

Here’s my summary:

I can’t call myself an environmentalist if I don’t respond to this.

Among other things, I’ve been focusing lately on reducing my water use and driving less – but eating one quarter pound hamburger negates 2 months of daily 4min showers and one day of biking to work (5mi). How discouraging is that?

But I’m not becoming vegan.

This isn’t an all or nothing problem, if it were, we’d be in serious trouble. We don’t all need to go vegan, livestock don’t need to go extinct. We’ve raised ourselves on animals since our beginnings, but meat must become a rarity again. If it doesn’t, the rest of our actions to combat climate change won’t matter.

This is a difficult subject – I get that. It’s personal, people love their meat (I certainly do), but our carnivorous love is leading us to a place we won’t be able to turn back from.

So I propose a “Meat Mondays” motto*: One meal, once a week, with meat.

If that terrifies you because you have no idea how to cook without meat, I started a list of my favorite vegan and vegetarian recipes that I will actively update: Emily’s V. Recipes.

The single biggest thing you can do to save the planet is cut your meat consumption – today. And if you’ve made it this far in the post, sorry, you can’t claim ignorance anymore.


* local, grass-fed if possible, it might not be better for the climate but I believe in the ethics and economics of eating locally.

Fact Sources:
http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/
http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/10/909.full
http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/HFStudyPlanDraft_SAB_020711.pdf

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3 Comments

  1. Carrie

    I, too, have struggled with this for years, and can’t quite commit to full time vegetarianism. Grazing land and water usage for red meat seem to be the biggest culprits, from what I understand. I lean towards Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” or Mark Bittman’s “flexitarian” notions – trying to eat “real food, mostly plants,” and again, locally sourced meat. I also find the health data compelling, too. It’s a little bit harder as a household, as we’re at different stages of commitment, but awareness helps. Thanks for sharing –

  2. Count me in! I know it’ll be easier for me to commit to than many others, since I practice a mostly vegetarian diet anyways, but you have my support!

  3. I sympathize and appreciate your suggestion for “Meatless Mondays”. That, of course, includes the meat of fish since the oceans are in such terrible shape.

    And for those who can’t imagine even going meatless for one day, here is another thought: make it your routine to eat very small portions – but savor every bite and remain mindful of the big picture this post paints so well.

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