Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

no-meat

Coal plants, fracking, pipelines, gas-guzzling SUVs, plastic bags, coffee pods—all are targets of environmentalists. Why not meat?

Eating less meat — chicken, pork and especially beef — may well be the most important thing an individual can do to reduce climate change.

Yet, even as animal-welfare groups like the Humane Society of the US, PETA, The Humane League and Mercy for Animals campaign against meat consumption and factory farms, environmental groups are mostly quiet.

This, despite the fact that rising meat consumption is “incompatible with the objective of avoiding dangerous climate change,” according to a thorough and nuanced report called Changing Climate, Changing Diets published last fall by the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Meat consumption isn’t just a climate problem, of course. The report notes:

Overconsumption of animal products, in particular processed meat, is associated with obesity and an increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. Livestock production is often a highly inefficient use of scarce land and water. It is a principal driver of deforestation, habitat destruction and species loss.

Meat consumption also causes the unnecessary suffering of billions of animals. 

Meat’s been on my mind lately for several reasons. I’ve just read The Humane Economy, an excellent new book by Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society, which chronicles the dramatic progress that the animal-protection movement has made in the last decade or so. I met and wrote (in the Guardian) about Bruce Friedrich, an animal welfare activist who has started a venture capital fund called New Crop Capital and a nonprofit called The Good Food Institute, both aimed at promoting alternatives to meat. And I moderated a panel discussion about food and sustainability at the annual conference of the environmental coalition Ceres which, to my delight, was preceded by a vegan lunch. 

Then again, just the other night, at a otherwise elegant dinner held at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an event devoted to the environmental and social sustainability of the apparel industry, everyone was served a fist-sized slab of beef. Which underscored my determination to write this post.

To be sure, the meat-climate relationship is not simple. The ecologist and rancher Allan Savory has famously claimed (3.5 million TED views) that grazing livestock on pasture can restore carbon to the soil and reverse climate change. I’m skeptical–to learn more, you can read this devastating critique by George Monbiot, this defense of Savory by Hunter Lovins and this analysis by my friend Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post food columnist, who says, quite sensibly, that it’s complicated.

What’s not complicated is that virtually all of the meat consumed in US, Europe and Japan requires more resources and has more negative environmental impacts than plant-based alternatives. If you care about food waste, which has become a cause celebre of late, the easiest thing to do is to eat less beef, pork or chicken.

You can find environmental groups making this argument, but without much vigor. One exception: The World Resources Institute last month published an excellent 90-page report called Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future. The report includes a protein scorecard (see below) that, using mean global data, demonstrates the GHG impact of animal products. Beef, lamb, goat and dairy all generate more emissions that plant-based proteins, as do pork and chicken. The report argues that the food industry, governments and NGOs should develop strategies to influence people to choose plant-based foods over animal products, and it lays out an array of behavior-change approaches that have worked in the past. But the WRI is a research organization, and the report has attracted little notice, so far.

Other big environmental groups have been mostly uninterested in campaigning against meat. Dig deep into their websites, and you find blog posts about animal agriculture, but no green group has made curbing meat consumption a priority. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins.

It’s hard to explain the reluctance. Some NGOs, like The Nature Conservancy and WWF, take money from food companies that produce or sell meat. (The Nature Conservancy, WWF and the National Wildlife Federation work alongside industry in an organization called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef that aims to limit the environmental impact of beef production.) Other green groups may be loathe to offend their boards or their members. Food is so personal and cultural; no one wants to be told that their mom’s treasured recipe for pot roast is bad for the planet.

Foundations have done no better. To their credit, they have made more than $1 billion worth of climate change grants since 2008, led by Hewlett ($663m), Packard ($365m) and the Sea Change Foundation ($129m), according to this accounting. But very little of that has focused on meat. Big climate change funders tend to go back to the same strategies and the usual suspects.

Even the much smaller number of foundations that support animal welfare tend to focus on wildlife preservation or pets, not on factory farming or meat consumption. In that context, the progress made by HSUS and its allies around such factory-farming issues as caged hens and gestation crates for pigs is remarkable. In The Humane Economy, Wayne Pacelle writes that commitments by such big companies as Walmart and McDonald’s to meet higher animal-welfare standards create “a roadmap to the end of the era of intensive confinement of animals on factory farms.” Gains in animal welfare will raise the costs of meat and, presumably, reduce consumption.

Imagine what could be accomplished if foundations and environmental groups directly took on the issue of meat. The WRI Shifting Diets report says:

The funding community should increase support for research and actions to shift diets, especially those that go beyond information and education campaigns. As this paper has shown, diet shifts can deliver significant environmental, health, resource use, and food security benefits, serving multiple objectives. Yet the amount of funding currently focused on shifting diets is tiny relative to the amounts focused on increasing the efficiency of food production. There is no dedicated funding mechanism for investing in new ideas for shifting diets, even though it holds significant promise for closing the food gap, reducing climate change, and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals….

A new initiative should be established to convene marketing and consumer behavior change experts and others involved in food value chains, catalyze new approaches to shifting diets, conduct pilot tests, build an evidence base, and share and scale up successes. Its goal should not be to turn everyone into a vegan or vegetarian, but rather to promote diets that encourage greater consumption of plant-based foods, while reducing consumption of animal-based protein and beef specifically.

Is anyone listening?

WRI_Protein_Scorecard_final_1

 

11 thoughts on “Why won’t environmental foundations (and nonprofits) go after meat?

  1. Katina Orive says:

    I am a firm believer of consumers changing their methodology of thinking and thus their purchasing custom. Furthermore, I also believe that consumers have a stronger influence than they might think. But with this I wonder if inst also the responsibility of the Meat and Poultry companies to change their production methods. Consumers are already starting to do their part but in order to have a complete impact companies should also start changing. We need to encourage both consumers and producers to change their ways, not just appeal to the greater costumer force.

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  2. Thanks for this Marc. I know that James Cameron’s Avatar Alliance Foundation is working on this. It’s a key issue for them. But communicating around food issues like this is really tricky and there is very little research on good practices. As you say, “Food is so personal and cultural; no one wants to be told that their mom’s treasured recipe for pot roast is bad for the planet.”

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  3. Hi, Marc –

    Thanks for the conversation over e-mail. As you suggested, I’d like to share my thoughts here as well.

    America’s farmers and ranchers are committed to raising animals not only in an ethical manner but also in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner – not only because it is the right thing to do, but to ensure that they can pass their farms on to the next generation. Continuous improvements in efficiency have allowed U.S. farmers to considerably reduce resource use and GHG emissions over the past century. For example, pork producers in the U.S. use 67 percent less feed than they did in 1959, with corresponding reductions in water use (41%), land use (22%) and carbon footprint (35%).

    The animal rights activist groups you mention in your blog that are working to convince consumers that consumption of meat and dairy products is environmentally unsustainable are using inaccurate calculations, flawed data and broad exaggerations. One example is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report, which stated that livestock contribute 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The report was soundly debunked in 2009, and the original authors later admitted this figure was an overestimate, but it is still commonly shared by activist groups today. I’d encourage you to read more about how these groups mislead consumers in a piece by Dr. Jude Capper titled “The True Impact of Animal Agriculture on the Environment.” (http://animalagalliance.org/images/upload/FINAL-The%20True%20Impact%20of%20Animals%20and%20the%20Enviroment%20LONG.pdf)

    Dr. Frank Mitloehner, a professor and air quality specialist at the University of California, Davis, tackled this same topic in a white paper released last month (http://www.afia.org/rc_files/804/Mitloehner_us_livestock_ghg_05_05_2016.pdf). Dr. Mitloehner points out that the Environmental Protection Agency gives a figure of 4.2 percent for GHG contributions from livestock production in the U.S. and that needs to be compared to the main sources of GHG – the transportation sector (responsible for 27%) and the energy sector (31%). Just last week, the United States Department of Agriculture posted the most recent EPA GHG emissions data, showing that all of agriculture contributed just 10 percent of GHG emissions in the U.S.

    According to Dr. Mitloehner, the U.S. population would have twice the impact on reducing GHG emissions by replacing incandescent bulbs with Energy Star versions than adopting “Meatless Mondays” – 1.2 percent compared to 0.6 percent. The “Meatless Mondays” effort is a well-funded campaign working to eliminate consumer choice and pushing an unbalanced animal rights and environmental agenda by promoting false claims about animal agriculture.

    If you’re interested in learning more about animal agriculture and today’s farmers and ranchers, please consider visiting our website: http://www.animalagalliance.org.

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    1. Dan Schiff says:

      This is the first I’m hearing about the sinister ulterior motives of Meatless Mondays! A bit alarmist, no? I think any effort to get people to eat a more varied diet with vegan protein sources is a good thing, regardless of how ranchers may feel about it.

      As a society, we also need to get away from this deference toward limitless “consumer choice.” Many things that consumers choose are very bad for our planet.

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    2. josefray says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful contribution. This is a philosophical point, but I’m curious what you would say if you were somehow convinced that animal agriculture is not sustainable. If it were true, as you suggest animal advocates represent, that cow ranching were irrevocably destructive to our natural resources, would you feel that finding a new occupation were “the right thing to do”? Do you think many other ranchers you know would?

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  4. You have the polarity reversed in one sentence: “The report argues that the food industry, governments and NGOs should develop strategies to influence people to choose animal-based food products over plant-based foods, and it lays out an array of behavior-change approaches that have worked in the past. But the WRI is a research organization, and the report has attracted little notice, so far.” I presume WRI is arguing for more plant-based foods.

    CBD is one of the environmental charities I know that is willing to speak up on this issue.
    http://action.biologicaldiversity.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=15304

    Also, the movie Cowspiracy tackles this very issue, and does a pretty good job (IMO):
    http://www.cowspiracy.com/about/

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Dave, I fixed the mistake, and I will check out the movie and CBD as well.

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  5. Laura Asiala says:

    I think the key here is “appropriate” and “inappropriate”. Barbara Kingsolver makes a great point in her book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” that there are places where animals are better farmed than vegetables, but it needs to be out of consideration for the appropriate use of land and the ethical treatment of animals. Moderation, of course, is key. No one needs to eat pot roast everyday (or cook and clean up after it!). Once again, a GREAT post–well written, researched, and thought provoking.

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  6. Dan Schiff says:

    Great post, Marc. As someone who ate that slab of beef in Copenhagen but understands the true costs behind it, I agree.

    In the US, mainstream consumers are not paying anywhere close to the real cost of our subsidized meat. There’s also the degrees of separation between a meat-eating consumer and the environmental damage — though I can intellectualize the impacts of a cheeseburger, it doesn’t make me feel as guilty as, say, driving an SUV and pumping CO2 directly into the atmosphere myself.

    I suspect the major environmental NGOs aren’t jumping on this because it’s a fight they don’t think they can win now. Plus, you still have influential food people like Michael Pollan arguing that a certain amount of meat does have a place in our food production system and diets.

    On the plus side, we should feel encouraged by the mainstreaming of concepts like Meatless Mondays, the proliferation of vegan restaurants and menu options, and even the emergence of insects as an alternative source of protein (wait and see, it’s going to be a big market). All of this is laying the groundwork for a future, not far off, when the price of meat rises out of necessity.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thanks, Dan, that’s a great point that there’s a disconnect between the act of consuming meat, and the impacts. That’s the problem, as you well know, with all kinds of consumption. We buy an $8 T-shirt and don’t think about the factory where it was made, or the person who made it.

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