If We Are Serious About the Climate Crisis, What About Meat?

Cowspiracy exposes industrial meat’s contribution to methane release, vast consumption of water, deforestation & destruction of swathes of arable land… Yet it barely registers a whisper from environmentalists. What gives?

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Cowspiracy Point-Counterpoint

Cowspiracy paints meat production with very broad strokes and has acknowledged the inaccuracy of their initial projection that the meat industry contributes 51% of the world’s emissions. However, even with down-scaling that claim from 51% to 14-18%, there is no question that industrial scale grazing is a huge problem. The growth of the meat industry and the world’s appetite for meat isn’t just a methane emissions problem but, as explained in Cowspiracy, industrial meat production contributes to deforestation, and with mono-cropping of corn and grain needed to support it, destroying our arable land. For a multitude of reasons the scale of meat consumption and production is simply unsustainable.

So while regenerative ranchers have criticized Cowspiracy for not fairly treating regenerative ranching, that practice is a very small fraction of the ranching done worldwide and could never meet the world’s voracious appetite for meat. And regenerative ranchers do not in any way dispute the negative impact of industrial ranching. And how destructive is our appetite for meat? From Ecowatch:

“If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million,” reports ecologist David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He adds that the seven billion livestock in the U.S. consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire U.S. population.”

Livestock emissions make up anywhere between 14.5 and 18 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Comparably, the transportation sector is responsible for around 14 percent of emissions. By those numbers alone, our current system of meat production is extremely damaging. Perhaps more looming, however, is that while transportation creates CO2, livestock farming is hugely responsible for producing methane. As you may know, methane is 23 times more potent when it comes to warming the planet.”


And from the Center for Sustainable Systems: Each of the statements below is footnoted on the Sustainable Systems site.

  • On average, U.S. household food consumption emits 8.1 metric tons of CO2e each year. The production of food accounts for 83% of emissions, while its transportation accounts for 11%.
  • The emissions associated with food production consist mainly of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (NO2), which result primarily from agricultural practices.
  • Meat products have larger carbon footprints per calorie than grain or vegetable products because of the inefficient transformation of plant energy to animal energy.
  • Ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats produced 170 million metric tons (mmt) in CO2e of methane in the U.S. in 2016 through digestion.
  • Eating all locally grown food for one year could save the GHG equivalent of driving 1,000 miles, while eating a vegetarian meal one day a week could save the equivalent of driving 1,160 miles.
  • A vegetarian diet greatly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but switching to less carbon intensive meats can have a major impact as well. For example, replacing all beef consumption with chicken for one year leads to an annual carbon footprint reduction of 882 pounds CO2e.
  • Organic food typically requires 30-50% less energy during production but requires one-third more hours of human labor compared to typical farming practices, making it more expensive.

So with that as your context, check out Cowspiracy. Click here.

Given all of this, my question is: why is the beef industry given a virtual pass while the major environmental organizations focus almost exclusively on carbon?

Click here for a Cowspiracy rebuttal. There is a good short video at this site along with info about where Cowspiracy over-stated the impact of ranching in terms of emissions. Nonetheless, regenerative ranchers can’t dispute the catastrophic impact of industrial scale, grain-fed ranching on our ecosystem: methane release, water use, deforestation, and the destruction of invaluable arable land due to mono-cropping and over-grazing.

Bottom line, unless we consume far less meat, industrial scale beef, pork and lamb production will only continue to increase and that is not even remotely sustainable.

In solidarity, Paul & Roxanne….time for a salad.

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15 replies

  1. Hi Paul and Roxanne. The fiercest addictions always yield the most ardent defenses. Blooded meat is an addiction akin to nicotine or opioids. All three decrease both overall health and ultimate lifespan. This is all well documented. And, if we take off the blinders for a minute, it is obvious to the observing eye in most of our daily routines, anecdotal evidence if you dare to look.

    This is why the ‘free pass’ exists – to defend the indefensible. Humans evolved mostly in forests, probably spending great parts of any given day in trees or close to them, where fruit, nut and leafy green energy was abundant. Without weaponry or very daring assaults by several determined persons, killing another blooded being for food takes a lot of work. For Type O blood types, converting raw meat protein into useable food has around a 30 percent efficiency, at best. The killing act is dangerous, takes a lot of exertion, and alters the psychology of the killer.

    With the exception of a single-family system of agrarian animal husbandry, where one or more humans personally kill their domesticated food, all but a tiny fraction of the world human population never encounter the living form of the food they eat, let alone being required to physically destroy that living being one-on-one.

    All the data surrounding the agri-business function of mass food production are astounding. 900 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. The methane. The uric acid and nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater via feedlot realities. The transfer of anti-biotics from animal to human. The other drugs used to keep them alive until slaughter. Many other pollutants generated from chicken, hog, cattle, sheep, turkey and other operations, including food born illness and death. The slaughter process itself and the energy required. The cold storage, transportation, cutting, packaging and selling of the dead flesh. The FF energy of cooking and the disposal of the unused portions, like fat, bone and gristle. The human waste stream of consuming the flesh and its safe sequestering (or not). I have not even mentioned the dairy industry, and it is scary.

    Seven billion ‘livestock’ in the us of a, to feed 300 million-and-change humans??? And then the spin-off of using the animal carcass for other manufactured products? When you mix the total swirl of energy expended on this one behavior, and you compute the REAL cost/benefit analysis, only vigorous denial fed by addiction and resistance to any change in behavior will forestall the obvious consequences – unhealthy humans, a ravaged environment, a toxic psychology within the population, an upside-down logic that stretches reason way beyond the breaking point, extinction or endangerment of nearly all wild animal populations, animals that once kept the Earth’s natural systems in balance – to justify the completely subjective decision that “I just gotta have my juicy burger cuz it tastes sooo good, and where else will I get my protein?”

    I lived this life as a kid. I know whereof I speak. I witnessed, first-hand, the murder of innocent domesticated animals, watched them being shot, bludgeoned to death with steel pipes, sledgehammers and boards, strangled and gassed, held down forcibly while their heads were lopped off with a hatchet. I had two feedlots within a mile of my family home. My uncle owned a butcher shop. I was surrounded by heavily poisoned plant products almost entirely devoted to feeding the animals in those feedlots, and ingested the herbicides, insecticides and fungicides used to get them to market. Tradition and habits are hard to change. It is all very threatening.

    I have been a vegetarian for 46 years, mostly vegan, half raw food. More or less like my ancient, arboreal ancestors. Why did they leave the trees?

    Soon I hope you two soon will tackle the massive elephant in the room – the incessant breeding within the human animal that has led to war after war, famine after famine, domestic and social unrest ad infinitum, almost complete toxification of the planet and unmatched denial of the obvious. There are far too many of us here, doing little if anything to justify our existence, let alone steward our only home and our co-evolving cousins, who have done little or nothing to deserve our violence-laden amnesia.

    Copulation without consequence should be the motto of humankind (or not so very kind at all). This is not only tradition, but also addiction.

    Mick Nickel

    • Mick,
      I agree with much of what you say, but I cannot agree with “…doing little or nothing to justify our existence…”
      That is repugnant to me. No one needs to “justify” their existence! To think that is to step onto the slippery slope to eugenics, ethnic cleansing, and other evils.

      • rhetorical flourish, but duly noted about the slippery slope and the intention was not meant literally. but words matter, so thanks.

  2. Hi Paul, Roxanne and Friends of Retake,

    I agree that changing one’s eating habits is important and a significant factor in reducing all forms of greenhouse gas, methane, and other polluting emissions that are killing life on earth.

    We’ll give thought to reducing the amount of beef we eat in our home. Does buffalo in lieu of beef make a difference? Several vegetarian meals per week and more chicken are also a reasonable option.

    It’s my opinion that different bodies have different nutritional requirements. We eat organic in both veggie and meat consumption. But I find that, particularly in the coldest and darkest months, I crave some meat. I used to be a vegetarian for years, but when I moved to Europe for a decade, it was absolutely impossible to remain a total vegetarian in those days.

    The issue is that many Americans and Europeans eat much more meat than they really need. My husband says that it should be a condiment, rather than a main course. We do that a lot.


  3. As we read this children are exposed to advertising by the fast food industry, inducing them to want meat. The negative consequences are rarely discussed in corporate media. The industry has essentially censored the negatives. Locally the fast food industry continues to proliferate, at every intersection, exploiting an over-stressed populace, and subsidized labor. Once again the costs are offset by these industries, and the rest of us pay for it. They created a “Wellness campaign” in order to make it appear that it is an individual issue, like “bad choices” instead of a societal problem. Here in Northern New Mexico, the distribution of fast food restaurants, looks genocidal.

    The local politicians did “Tax Reform” to give the appearance they did something for the low income working families, instead of raising the minimum wage. The “Worthy Poor” get tax credits, so they can continue to work for billion dollar corporations at a reduced wage. They are better than nothing, yet only give the appearance of helping the poor without acknowledging the societal problems.

    • Propaganda is a massive force for primal addictions. Wimpy said it best – ‘I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.’ Mary, you are a cogent human.

  4. I would like to offer a defense of meat. There is a wave of regenerative agriculture taking over the country. The focus is on increasing the microbial biodiversity of our destroyed soils. Pasture lands treated without chemicals and with a focus on polyculture can increase the carbon in ag soils by doubling or tripling the carbon content. One aspect of this regen. ag. is grazing the land to fertilize the land as well as stimulate growth of plants by grazing. Unlike commercial intensive cattle raising, grass fed beef is much more humane and adds carbon to the soil.

  5. I also want to defend meat. Surely, Mick is correct that corporate meat production is killing our planet. So is corporate production of soy beans. He believes that we don’t need meat to exist, and he is not wrong, just limiting his perspective. We evolved from plant eaters into meat eaters and what I have read suggests that is the reason for our bigger brains and smaller bellies. There is also a problem for our health from corporate and chemical-drenched grains creating unhealthy guts in large numbers of our population. I have learned that our modified and contaminated carbohydrates can also be a killer and may be adding to the increase in dementia. He reports that meat is making us sick, but I suggest it isn’t the “meat.” New research has determined that meat and animal fat is NOT the cause of high blood pressure. Animal fat does not metabolize into body fat and in fact our brains need some fats to function.

    He is blaming the animals for the horrible practices that have been adopted for their raising. Is it the fault of people who eat pork that the growers are causing algae blooms by dumping their poop into the Gulf waters? There are sustainable ways to grow our meat but we have government agencies, influenced by Big Ag money, that ignore the obvious and tax structures that subsidize those bad practices. Cattle can turn grass into human food and do it in areas that will not grow crops. We could also raise and eat more Deer but they are harder to herd. We do not need to feed cattle corn which they don’t digest well and thus creates more flatulence. We grow alfalfa on land that should be growing human food and is only needed to feed animals kept in restricted areas. And so on.

    Buying local is a very good idea. Eating less meat at each meal is a good idea. Paying more for the products produced on a smaller scale to match the actual cost is a good idea, except we don’t want it to become a Rich Only food again. With more and smaller production farms/ranches spread all over and a tax structure to encourage them, we could indeed feed everyone and reduce the transportation costs and carbon footprint he refers to. The same is true for his vegetables. We need to be creating more farms with a variety of crops anyway and that allows for the multi use paradigm so the pig poop is not a “waste” product. This will require a major shift in the way we do business and will be resisted by Big Ag.

    He suggests my love of meat is an addiction, but I would argue that carbohydrates are the addiction and the primary cause for our national obesity. It isn’t the hamburger patty that makes us fat, it is the bun, and the cereal, and the pasta as well as the desserts which all convert to sugars and all that that implies. The surprising thing about the Keto diet is that it’s followers are less hungry in between meals because there is not the “sugar crash.”

    Do we need to improve our diets and farming methods? Absolutely. But it isn’t the car’s fault we burn fossil fuels to make it go, and it isn’t my desire for meat that drives the factory farms. It is our inability to change the corporate paradigm. We have the technology to change both if we only could find the political will to make it happen.

  6. I watched Cowspiracy some time ago and it was riddled with errors and inaccuracies. It’s really a pseudo-documentary, in my view–hopelessly one-sided and that one side isn’t even accurate.
    I produce a podcast (http://downtoearth.media) about regenerative agriculture, and over the years of exploring this world it has become clear to me that the difference between regeneratively produced meat and industrially produced meat is like night and day. The former actually regenerates landscapes and provides healthy meats; the latter, the opposite.
    As long as there is a market for meat–which there will be for the foreseeable future–then meat production should be done in the healthiest way possible. And those who think we will all somehow become vegans are living in a dream world. Furthermore, if vegetables and other crops are not regeneratively produced, they are also terrible for the earth. Monocropped soy grown with glyphosate is a nightmare for the land, and one of the many contributors topsoil loss. (There are a lot of people calling the Impossible Burger the Monsanto Burger.)
    The Santa Fe Farmers Market has vendors who are growing healthy meat. It’s a good idea to support them and foster the market for healthy, local ag practices.

    • I actually don’t feel it is riddled with errors at least not of importance. Their omission of discussion of regenerative ranching is unfortunate, but also somewhat besides the point as–at least based on my knowledge–which is not complete at all, there is no way regenerative farming can grow to a scale to produce sufficient meat to address the rising demand internationally. I think the point that is made accurately by Cowspiracy is the impact of industrial meat production. I think they are on pretty firm ground there. But since I knew that Cowspiracy had flaws, I included the link to criticism of Cowspiracy, which came from the regenerative farming community.

      • We’ll have to disagree on this one.

      • The film’s general point about the evils of the industrial meat industry is well taken. But there were many specific points in the film were inaccurate/misleading, and the film has the tone of an entirely one-sided advocacy piece and not a balanced documentary–and this is by no means a one-sided issue.
        You say, “there is no way regenerative farming can grow to a scale to produce sufficient meat to address the rising demand internationally.” On what data is this statement based?
        I speak regularly with people who are working on exactly this, how to scale regenerative meat production. For example, if one were to return to the great plains to being the grasslands they were meant to be and if one were to raise livestock on native plants, what would be the carrying capacity? How many bison were on this continent pre-conquest, and how does that compare to the number of cows and bison we have now? These are big questions that are being actively studied. Nobody has all the answers.
        I can envision a healthy and robust, regeneratively-produced market for meat, where the meat is a bit more expensive, a lot healthier and better for the planet, and we eat a bit less of it so that we’re not spending any more per month that we did on unhealthy meat. I know people deeply involved in this topic who say that regeneratively-produced meat will in fact be able to keep up with demand, and others who say we’ll have to cut back.
        The question of how to do away with the most egregious factory meat production is front and center. My own sense is that it’s in everyone’s interest to support the market for healthy meat. I think it’s also important that vegetarians, vegans, conservationists, environmentalists, and regenerative-ag supporters all get together and support one another in their common goal of a healthy, sustainable, non-toxic, soil-conserving food system.
        There’s a week-long conference next week here in NM on Rewilding North America Bison. This is an indigenous-led effort that’s worth looking at.

  7. i forgot to add my website, downtoearth.media

    • Thank you for all of this. I will return to it to review it more thoroughly soon. Very good to hear of the promise of regenerative ranching. My skepticism that it could ramp up to a scale to meet the demand for beef internationally is admittedly based on info from 4-5 years ago but also from common sense. However, I am eager to read more on what may now be possible.

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