People tend to feel weird about meat, even if for no apparent reason. As Michael Pollan said, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It sounded good, anyway.
In reality, the argument for avoiding animal foods has never been strong. When it comes to health, the case against meat is almost exclusively derived from a scientific methodology known as nutritional epidemiology, a real weakling of the lab. Though it may arrive on the news as gospel, your typical study showing that eggs, butter or beef promotes disease almost always relies on questionnaires, and the unverifiable, approval-seeking recall of participants. Plus, the end result of an epidemiology study can still only show associations, not cause-and-effect.
But you wouldn’t know that from the confidence with which, for five decades now, we have been directed toward the salad bar.
Nor have large controlled trials confirmed the supposed common sense that a “mostly plants” or even a so-called Mediterranean diet leads to better health outcomes. If anything, the dense nutritional content of animal-derived whole foods can prove challenging to replace with the celebrated fruits, vegetables and whole grains of our dietary future.
Beef, eggs and dairy are unquestionably superior to the refined carbohydrates and plant oils at the center of the American diet. But after a long run of blaming the butcher, these sorts of inconvenient details about animal foods remain banished, and it’s safe to say most Americans believe it’s healthier to eat less meat.
You can think of it as our great vegetarian blind spot, and it has left us defenseless to the brassiest escalation yet in the cause against meat, the remarkable assertion that eating meat is bad for the planet. Talk about overplaying your hand. Where eating meat was once bad for a person’s arteries, now we are to do so with the shame that it’s bad for all of life upon Earth.
I suppose one has to give them credit for raising the stakes around steak, but was any of this necessary? Only a monster would deny the followers of vegetarian and vegan diets the moral high ground they are surely owed without reminding us, though many will do so anyway. Choosing to eat all or even “mostly plants” as Pollan put it, is of course a legitimate, wholly admirable personal dietary choice for reasons of ethics if not health — on the part of consenting adults.
But the campaign underway to shame the world into giving up animal foods in the name of climate change is pure vegetarian projection, a low-calorie mixture of facts and assumptions. It piggybacks on our anxiety over rising seas, shifting a worthwhile fear of greenhouse gases onto an unfounded fear of meat.
Mostly, the vegetarian appropriation of the climate crisis is reckless. Climate change will require our focused attention, collective sacrifice and unprecedented political courage. Transformative, disruptive changes will be necessary to make fossil fuels reflect their costs to the environment, then transition society to 100% renewable energy. These will be painful enough without battling the perception that food activism may have hijacked the agenda.
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Meatless Monday has been claiming the carbon argument for a while now, but 2019 was the year Wall Street placed a “buy” rating on the topic. In recent months we’ve witnessed the stock run-up for the makers of plant-based burgers like Beyond Meat (22 ingredients, $240 million raised, Nasdaq: BYND), and Impossible Foods (21 ingredients, $300 million raised, privately held), both of whom place climate messaging at the top of their sales pitch. Edible bugs, and “milk” made from almonds, soy and oats have all been financed with an eye toward environmental consumer preferences. Leaving the climate angle unstated, Cargill has begun growing meat in the lab.
Then there is EAT Lancet, a global initiative launched last January to propose a near-vegan, “planetary health diet,” one that promises a “radical transformation of the global food system.” The campaign, funded by a vegan billionaire from Scandinavia and the Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic organization with family ties to the vegetarian Seventh-day Adventist Church, was lead-authored by the Harvard nutritionist Walt Willet, a longtime sower of anxieties over meat and influential federal nutrition policy boss.
Another co-author of EAT Lancet, the University of Minnesota environmental scientist David Tilman, has promoted a climate-meat message since at least 2014. That’s when, in a widely cited publication for the journal Nature, he and a co-author gained wide attention for “Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health,” a paper trading in the same unproven linkages of meat with chronic diseases and offering a daunting series of calculations to prove that greenhouse gases will level by 2050 if we all just agree to eat “the average of the Mediterranean, pescatarian and vegetarian diets.” It was an extraordinary bit of math.
For a green-signaling campaign, EAT Lancet has the backing of some strange bedfellows. Cosponsors include the chemical manufacturers Dupont, the technology overlord Google, the accounting giant Deloitte, the PR behemoth Edelman, 13 other chemical companies, and 27 food and drugmakers, including refined-carbohydrate merchants Kellogg’s, Nestlé and PepsiCo, and the processed-oil giants Cargill and Unilever. What, one might ask, could possibly persuade these engines of capitalism to advocate the shuttering of every steakhouse, oyster bar and barbecue?
Perhaps the EAT Lancet diet holds a few clues. As envisioned, the organization’s supposedly low-emissions, health-extending diet of tomorrow is a post-apocalyptic plate of cellulose with just a few ounces of meat allowed per month. An anhedonic paradise (“you’ve pretty much had your last piece of pie,” as one critic put it), it does away with everything sensory about food and still manages to be a bit of a climate fraud in the process, mixing all the familiar hardship staples with jetliner-imported fruits and vegetables.
Though it does not say how, under the EAT Lancet plan we are supposed to eat plentiful servings of the so-called PUFAs, industrial plant, bean and seed oils that hold together most forms of processed food, including, surprise surprise, meat substitutes.
But PUFAs are the furthest thing from natural. As Nina Teicholz reported in “The Big Fat Surprise,” these low-quality substitutes for beef tallow, lard and butter cause oxidative particles when heated and require kitchens to purchase special cleansers to remove hardened solids from deep fryers and the clothing of fast-food workers. They probably should have remained restricted to their original use, the lubricating of machinery.
The EAT Lancet diet, no surprise, is also nutritionally deficient. According to an analysis by Zoe Harcombe, a researcher with a doctoral degree in public health nutrition, followers will need to forgo their daily requirements for B12, vitamin D, retinol, sodium, potassium, calcium and iron. The diet is a win, however, for any manufacturer capable of placing a V on its packaging. Ergo the sponsorships.
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Cattle do contribute to climate change. They belch the greenhouse gas methane. Ruminants have a second stomach for the digestion of fibrous plants, breaking down vegetation we can’t digest via the anaerobic pathway and thereby expelling methane.
Though more potent than CO2 at trapping heat, methane is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. Methane is also expelled by Mother Nature through termites, who, like cattle, also have to digest cellulose. Wetlands, another natural digester of cellulose (and a hothouse of biodiversity), are one of the biggest natural sources of methane on the planet. Human sources of methane include landfills, oil fields and, in an unexpected twist, an agricultural practice that will likely increase exponentially should a vegan utopia become real: rice paddies.
The other direct emission by cattle comes from manure, which releases both methane and the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. But we need manure in the ruminant carbon cycle, a regenerative system that removes carbon from the air over time.
It works like this: While grazing, cattle deposit manure and urine onto the ground (recycling the water they drink) which is then pressed by hoofs into the soil, fertilizing the deep root systems of prairie grasses. These grazing plants, vegetation that humans cannot eat, grown on lands humans cannot farm, pull carbon from the air, sequestering carbon. Grass-fed cattle in this way are a climate positive — they take more carbon out of the air than they release.
Except for feedlots, which concentrate manure in an unnatural fashion, both belching and manure from ruminants have been with us for millennia. An estimated 80 million wild buffalo once blanketed the Great Plains. Those numbers nearly equal the 90 million beef cattle alive in the U.S. today, 75 million of which are located on grasslands at any given time. At the end of the Late Pleistocene, 150 species of megafauna are believed to have existed in the Americas, including woolly mammoth, large cats, giant sloths and large bear. Regression calculations suggest the emissions of these oversized herbivores would have created methane levels close to those emitted by domestic cattle today.
So our atmosphere has shown itself capable of handling the burping and waste of the animal kingdom, just as it has the methane released by termites and wetlands. If that methane was not burped out by cattle, it would have been released when the uneaten grass began to rot. Truly man-made sources of methane — landfills, air conditioners, agricultural rice paddies and, to an extraordinary level, leaks in the production chain for natural gas — these are pressing subjects of concern for combating climate change. Gas leaks due to fracking, for instance, are believed to give off a disastrous 13 Tg (teragrams) of methane each year. That is twice the methane released each year by cows. EAT Lancet should be pressing us to swear off stove gas and rice. But that wouldn’t advance the vegetarian imperative.
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There are, of course, indirect climate costs of cattle, and these make up the majority of the blame now being placed on meat. Cows are implicated for everything from the release of CO2 by trucks involved in meat shipping, to the smokestacks from packing plants, to the carbon released by the tilling of cropland for feed, including the disastrous practice of clearing CO2-storing forests for cropland in the developing world. These arguments emerged in the earliest papers blaming cows, and they quickly turned up problems.
The trouble started in 2006, when the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that 18% of greenhouse gases were due to livestock, a sum greater than the entire transportation sector. But the FAO would eventually adjust this figure downward (to 14.5%) after it became clear it had essentially compared the direct and indirect emissions of cows to just the direct emissions of cars. The FAO still has no comparison figure for the indirect climate costs of cars, no doubt because the number is impossible calculate.
When you stick to the knowable, direct emissions, the climate burden of cattle fall away. The EPA estimates that 9% of all direct emissions in the U.S. are due to agriculture, compared with 20% from industry, 28% from electricity and 28% from transportation. Just 3.9% are due to livestock. That’s half the CO2 attributable to concrete.
“Live Stock and Climate Change,” a 2009 cattle-blaming report from the World Watch Institute, famously asserted that meat was responsible for 51% of greenhouse gases, a sum repeated in the meat-blaming Netflix documentary “Cowspiracy.” But World Watch had tallied not only the burping of cows and the plowing of fields for feed but even the very CO2 exhaled by livestock, gases that are, of course, subsequently re-inhaled. They essentially penalized cattle for breathing. Which is odd for a sustainability organization, but only marginally more so than penalizing cattle for digesting. “Livestock,” its authors had rationalized, “are a human invention and convenience (like the automobile), not part of pre-human times.”
Tell that to Buffalo Bill.
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Climate change is daunting. We all want to do something, and the temptation to pair it with dinner is strong. It offers a feeling of success, far more immediate than the messy business of political change.
And it would be nice to just, you know, nail your health and environmental stewardship at the same time, then hit the gym and the laundromat. We all just move over to bean pie, the temperatures stop rising, and it’s job over.
But beans are not a complete protein. You need to add rice to them. Rice, the biggest source of methane in all of agriculture. And that soy in your plant-based burger? It required fertilizer, which released nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than CO2.
“For many Gen Z Americans, now roughly 7 to 22 years old … they want authentic, transparent food brands that are slowing climate change, not contributing to it.” That’s how one reporter described the mood for a recent soft feature in the Los Angeles Times. The desirability among twentysomethings is high, apparently, for “egg-free eggs” and plant-based mayonnaise. It turns out that the kids are flipping off the olds by eating vegan butter and burgers held together with soybean or sunflower seed oil, also known as linoleic acid, unstable lipids that create cancerous free radicals when heated.
Which is wild, because when I was in college we rebelled against our parents by listening to the Clash.
Joe Strummer was a vegetarian. I have to account for that. He cared about the fate of all living things. But he also saw the money men for who they are. I’d like to think that were he still alive, he would have warned us not to be naive about the profiteers lining up to capitalize on our fears. That in directing our worries toward hamburgers, we take our eyes off the cars and the smokestacks and the fracking. He’d tell us that what we really need, at this late hour, is to make every warning count.
Paul John Scott is a writer in Rochester.