Last week’s NY Times featured an op-ed entitled “The Carnivore’s Dilemma“–an ostensibly enlightened response to the chorus of voices promulgating a vegetarian diet as a way to significantly reduce one’s emission of greenhouse gasses (not least amongst these voices is Michael Pollan, author of “Omnivore’s Dilemma”). Unlike “The Omnivore’s Delusion“–a fluff piece by the industrial agriculture lobby that defends the status quo–the author of the Times’ piece, Nicolette Hahn Niman, is no great defender of current industrial agricultural practices; she’s a rancher and advocate of “traditional”, grass-fed livestock production. Hahn Niman’s argument focuses on debunking the notion that vegetarianism is inherently the most beneficial way of eating for the environment.
While Hahn Niman has several valid points, her arguments often fall short of a sale. She frequently compares best-case scenario meat consumption and worst-case scenario vegetarianism. She states, “It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.” First off, she doesn’t say that this theoretical conscientious carnivore will be more environmentally friendly, she merely uses the more hopeful “could” and “may”. Moreover, she never deigns to compare a conscientious meat eater to a conscientious vegetarian.
Hahn Niman structures her argument looking at the impact of meat consumption as it relates to emissions of the three main greenhouse gasses: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.
Concerning carbon dioxide and livestock production, she describes how the majority of emissions from American agriculture come from “fuel burned to operate vehicles and equipment” and how most international agricultural emissions come “primarily from the clearing of woods for crop growing and livestock grazing.” She does not refute the devastation of meat production, but merely says this needn’t be the case.
Of the traditional farm, who she sees as a possible remedy for the problematic industrial agricultural system, she writes,
Many smaller, traditional farms and ranches in the United States have scant connection to carbon dioxide emissions because they keep their animals outdoors on pasture and make little use of machinery. Moreover, those farmers generally use less soy than industrial operations do, and those who do often grow their own, so there are no emissions from long-distance transport and zero chance their farms contributed to deforestation in the developing world.
The devil is in the details though. She may be making claims about her own farm, but by writing “many smaller, traditional and ranches farms…” and “generally use less soy” she is, without factual substantiation, conjecturing that her farm is representative of all small farms. Just as “many” of these farms have scant connection to CO2 emissions, many may have a strong connections–who knows? And “generally use less soy” does not mean they use less soy. I don’t doubt that traditional farms are less harmful to the environment, but these conclusions are too soft for such an important subject.
She then suggests that vegetarians who rely on soy for their protein are unwitting contributors to Brazilian deforestation (a premise that seems founded on the notion that all vegetarians are protein-deprived consumers of soy). Her evidence of this is based on a statement by the Organic Consumers Association that much unlabeled soy is sourced from clear-cut rainforests. But might the OCA be building a case for their labeling? Hahn Niman doesn’t say anything about soy products with labels (like those supported by the OCA) that safeguard against unethically harvested soy.
Throughout, she severely weakens her arguments with such double standards: consume meat from traditional farms (ones that often require a lot of research and effort to find) or just go into the supermarket and buy any old vegetarian product.
For methane she comes out swinging, stating that 29% of methane comes from wetland rice fields. Here are there are two glaring factual omissions: 1. What percentage of the world’s population relies primarily on rice from these fields. 2. The amount of emissions produced by livestock production and the corresponding population it feeds. First off, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN attributes 37% of anthropogenic methane production to livestock; why didn’t she include this statistic? And with China and India’s annual consumption of rice being 96.1 and 81.1 kilograms per capita respectively, rice is the main staple of a significant percentage of the world’s population, as opposed to meat, which is relegated to the developed world; e.g. American’s consume 125 kilograms of meat to China’s 52 and India 5.
The rest of her methane argument relies on hypothetical scenarios of measures that “can” reduce methane emissions, but she never indicates when these measures will be implemented or how the meat consumer will know whether his or her meat is one of these reduced-methane varieties.
Hahn Niman claims that “More than three-quarters of farming’s nitrous oxide emissions result from manmade fertilizers,” and that we can mostly eliminate these emissions by moving to organic, grass fed animals. This is probably true, but again how would this hypothetical scenario of manmade fertilizer free meat stack up against the caloric equivalent of an organic vegetarian diet?
She makes other claims in the article like, “Several recent studies show that pasture and grassland areas used for livestock reduce global warming by acting as carbon sinks. Converting croplands to pasture, which reduces erosion, effectively sequesters significant amounts of carbon.” While this might be true, it is still a selective argument. She does not compare pastureland to indigenous vegetation. She does not mention that for example, one acre can produce 20K lbs. of potatoes versus 165lbs. of beef for the same tract of land. Perhaps if there were more vegetarians, we’d need less land in general, less pastureland in particular, and that a lot of land would be freed up for indigenous vegetation.
Hahn Niman cites a study that shows that, “Depending on how and where a food is produced, its carbon dioxide emissions vary by a factor of 10.” Indeed, with the proper constellation of conscientiously sourced meats and other foodstuffs, you can significantly lessen your emission of greenhouse gasses–probably lower than a careless vegetarian diet. But chances are without too much effort, a conscientiously-sourced vegetarian diet will reduce your impact far more (and nothing with eyes has to die!).
In closing, she notes:
None of us, whether we are vegan or omnivore, can entirely avoid foods that play a role in global warming. Singling out meat is misleading and unhelpful, especially since few people are likely to entirely abandon animal-based foods. Mr. Gore, for one, apparently has no intention of going vegan. The 90 percent of Americans who eat meat and dairy are likely to respond the same way.
I certainly concede the first point: between processing, packaging, distribution and countless other factors, it’s damn near impossible to avoid foods that play a role in global warming. To the next point I strongly disagree. Meat is singled out for very specific reasons. It’s not like singling out brussel sprouts. More often than not, meat has a very specific and pronounced detriment on the environment.
In Hahn Niman’s ideal world, all meat is made the way it is on her ranch, but she never says whether there is enough pastureland on the planet–the kind that’ll serve as a carbon sink–to produce enough of this primo meat to feed 6 ½ billion people? If there is not enough land, which of us get the meat?
And frankly, since when has Mr. Gore–God bless him for all he’s done for our ailing planet–or the average American been a good role model for healthy eating?