Veganism: All or nothing?
The average American weighs about 170 pounds, eats about 180 pounds of meat, gets about 24 mpg, has about two kids, owns about one-third of a cat or dog, and lives in a 2,350-square-foot home. There are lots of ways to alter your carbon footprint. Depending on your personal proclivities, some ways are “easier” than others. You get to pick what is “easiest” for you. For some, the “easiest” thing to do is not have kids. For others it is to go car-free. Not having cats and dogs is easy for many. Choosing a small, energy-efficient home, condo, or apartment works great for some. Eating less meat or less environmentally destructive meats is also an option. This explains why a street person (being largely child-free, car-free, pet-free, meat-free, and homeless) would win any carbon-footprint pissing match. I suppose one could eat meat but still promote veganism, just as I support women’s reproductive rights even though I have two children.
Here in America, corn ethanol is supposed to be about 13 percent carbon neutral, and soy biodiesel about 40 percent. Let’s say just for the sake of discussion that the less meat you eat, the more vegan you are. Eating no meat makes you 100-percent vegan (100-percent meat neutral). Eating half the national average would make you 50-percent vegan, and eating the national average would make you 0-percent vegan. The beauty of this concept is that we all get to be vegans! I put together a spreadsheet to see how your degree of veganism compares to other choices when it comes to carbon neutrality:
- A 0-percent vegan without pets is equivalent to a 100-percent vegan who owns two dogs and three cats.
- A 0-percent vegan without a car is equivalent to 1.5 100-percent vegans driving Subaru Outbacks.
- A childless 0-percent vegan without a car is equivalent to 3.5 100-percent vegans driving Subaru Outbacks.
- A 50-percent vegan driving a Prius is equivalent to 1.5 100-percent vegans driving Subaru Outbacks.
- A childless 50-percent vegan driving a Prius is equivalent to 3.5 100-percent vegans driving Subaru Outbacks.
Now of course we could quibble over these numbers. For example, I assumed that a 100-percent vegan diet has no carbon footprint. Any human being feeding his or herself has a carbon footprint. Cooking a pot of beans can take a lot of energy. A person without a car probably uses buses, which also have a carbon footprint and so on. Precise answers are not possible. The exercise is demonstrative. Some more interesting things that came from that spreadsheet:
- It would take about 25 million 100-percent vegans to compensate for our cats and dogs.
- It would take about 43 million 100-percent vegans to compensate for American obesity.
- A 20-percent-overweight 100-percent vegan is equal to 2.6 cats.
Some will argue that you can’t be a little bit vegan anymore than you can be a little bit pregnant. I recall an earlier thread where a couple of vegans earnestly discussed the fact that a vegan can’t eat Skittles because they contain a meat by-product. Imagine how bizarre that discussion would look to a Masai pastoralist. If my idea takes hold, being vegan wouldn’t be special anymore, but wouldn’t that be a good thing? My spreadsheet also shows that if every American were to become 100-percent vegan, we would collectively reduce the world’s greenhouse gases somewhere between 1 and 2 percent. So, is it really worth all the vitriol?
Let’s take a closer look at this FAO report. Note that the word vegan does not appear anywhere. The recommended mitigation options begin on page 114. Animal rights and veganism are not part of their game plan. The biggest ticket item by far is the usurpation of new grasslands and forests.
Nowhere in the report does it say that “Meat is the #1 Cause of Global Warming,” as PETA’s Matt Prescott claims on his infamous ad. It says livestock activity contributes an “estimated” 18 percent, which is bigger than transport, but not by much. I duplicated table 3.12 as a spreadsheet, and it shows a range from 13 to 18 percent. Take a look at this chart for the United States. Clearly meat consumption isn’t even close to being the main CO2 emitter for Americans. According to this chart, livestock activity is behind power stations and about tied with transportation and industrial processes from a global perspective.
The report mentions vegetarianism in four places, noting that although it is a growing trend, it remains at very low levels in most societies. It talks about a study that suggests that a shift towards vegetarianism in the United States could improve the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. It points out that India is largely vegetarian, and milk is a major source of protein there. Although not included in their mitigation list, they do mention in their summary and conclusions that the relatively affluent, middle- to high-level income class is probably ready to absorb the inevitable price increases for more sustainably produced products, and that there is a trend toward vegetarianism and healthier diets in this same group.
In addition, the report says:
The production of meat will double from now to 2050 and that we need to halve impacts per unit of output to achieve a mere status quo in overall impact.
In other words, meat consumption is outpacing conversions to veganism about a gazillion fold, which helps explain why they don’t include PETA’s viewpoint (that a few million American vegans would make a measurable dent) in their solution set.
… simply enhancing awareness will not lead to widespread adoption. Moreover, by far the largest share of emissions come from more extensive systems, where poor livestock holders often extract marginal livelihoods from dwindling resources [deforestation and grassland usurpation].
The report points out that emissions from the livestock food chain are small when compared to changes in land use and land-degradation (deforestation and grassland usurpation). This is why a reduction in beef consumption in the United States would have limited impact and is not included in their mitigation strategies. Beef is the main problem, and deforestation and grassland usurpation is the main problem with beef worldwide — but much less so here. In addition, Americans eat more chicken than beef.
Poultry is the most efficient form of production of food of animal origin and has the lowest land requirements … Poultry manure is of high nutrient content, relatively easy to manage and widely used as a fertilizer …
Some other pertinent quotes:
… the livestock sector … employs 1.3 billion people and creates livelihoods for one billion of the world’s poor. Livestock products provide one-third of humanity’s protein intake, and are a contributing cause of obesity and potential remedy for undernourishment.
70 percent of previous forest land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures … livestock are often the only source of livelihoods for the people living in these areas …
In terms of health and nutrition, therefore, livestock products are a welcome addition to the diets of many poor and under and malnourished people, which frequently suffer, from protein and vitamin deficiencies as well as from lack of important trace minerals. Children in particular have show to benefit greatly in terms of physical and mental health when modest amounts of milk, meat or eggs are added to their diets, as shown by long-term research carried out in Kenya.
The chart on page 294 says that livestock products are a possible remedy for 864 million malnourished people.
I have presented the results of my spreadsheet a few times in various comment fields. Usually I get a response pointing me to the FAO report called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” or a study from Japan on the carbon intensity of beef, even though my spreadsheet is largely based on the data found in those two papers.
Most of us are familiar by now with the concept of a carbon neutral fuel. Remove carbon from air with a crop (convert the crop into a fuel), release carbon into air by converting the fuel into work, remove carbon from air again to repeat cycle. A car converts fuel into work by rapidly oxidizing it (combusting it) in an engine. A living organism converts fuel into work by metabolizing it inside cells.
In other words, biofuels and livestock are very similar. Allowing a sustainable number of cows to sustainably graze natural grasslands is essentially a carbon neutral exercise, especially if the meat is processed and consumed locally with little or no fossil fuels. It is only when expansion of that grazing is accomplished by destroying grasslands or forests that it becomes carbon intensive.