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December 04, 2008

Your Plate, Your Planet

We as a nation are adept at sidestepping big problems. Take the mortgage crisis. Or look at how we kept pandering to the Detroit carmakers and how we failed to get them to raise their fuel efficiency standards. Japanese carmakers grew their market share because they saw the trajectory of consumer behavior, in terms of pocketbook issues and protection of the environment.

Readers of this blog know I am distressed about the harsh turn that animal agriculture has taken in the last few decades—confining animals in small cages and crates, mutilating them by cutting off their tails or their beaks without painkillers, force-feeding ducks and geese to gorge their livers, slaughtering cows and other animals too sick or injured to walk, reengineering turkeys and dairy cows to exaggerate certain body parts or reproductive capabilities that cause the animals chronic pain or disease, administrating non-therapeutic antibiotics to accelerate growth, allowing untreated waste to pollute groundwater and to putrefy the air. There's been an absence of leadership among the major trade associations and agriculture-oriented academics. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill and regulators at USDA have largely abdicated their responsibilities to check the excesses of industry, especially when it comes to animal welfare.

Cows grazing in grass
© SXC/Gerbrak

But I have been particularly distressed about the omission in the climate change debate about the large role that animal agriculture plays in contributing to this problem. This week and next, 187 environment ministers meet in Poznan, Poland and will, perhaps for the first time in a serious forum, place the issue of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from animal agriculture on the agenda. In 2006, the United Nations issued a report revealing that the global farm animal sector is responsible for 18 percent of all GHG emissions, more than the entire transportation sector, which includes the world’s cars, trucks, SUVs, airplanes, and ships.

Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has urged consumers to shop less, drive less, and eat less meat (and eggs and dairy)—all to mitigate climate change. Dr. Pachauri has also noted that reducing our consumption of animal products is more effective at mitigating climate change than driving a hybrid car, and he's quoted to that effect in a major front-page story by Elisabeth Rosenthal in today's New York Times.

Unfortunately, the delegates in Poznan may be too easily diverted from the focus on changing what and how we eat and regulating animal agribusiness on both national and international levels, and instead address techno-fixes, or silver bullets, to control emissions from the farm animal sector. One of these so-called “fixes” includes constructing anaerobic digesters that collect the methane gas from decomposing manure on factory farms for use as energy.

While such biogas projects can help small farmers in the developing world by reducing fuel costs and providing household energy, on a large-scale, this is not a proper framing of the solutions. We must eat less meat and other animal products as a nation and as a global community. And we must begin to examine and adopt policies that do better for the environment and for the extraordinary number of farm animals raised and slaughtered every year. Factory farms need to be regulated like any other industry that pollutes the air, soil, and water, and punished with strict fines and other enforcement measures when they don’t comply. The Bush Administration wants to give them a free pass, and the incoming Obama Administration needs to hold them accountable—to protect the planet.

The excesses of industrial agriculture, including its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, may be largely unintentional, but that does not diminish the importance of tackling the issues head on.

The stakes are as big as they come, and it's time for leadership.  And perhaps even a little bit of sacrifice.

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