A couple of nights ago I gave a presentation on the environmental impact of meat for SMU's vegetarian club. Here's the slide show--comprehensible without my voice-over, I think.
The slide show makes an argument--that the future will bring either vastly more factory farming or more plant eating. It cannot bring more traditional farming, with animals grazing under the wide blue sky. Why not? Because 30% of the earth's non-ice land surface is already covered in livestock (26%) and feedcrops (4%). Lovers of wildlife should be extremely concerned. "Mild" animals--billions of grazing cows and sheep--are literally crowding wild animals out of existence. They are also contributing to climate change and depleting valuable resources.
There are lots of cool graphs, charts, and maps in the slideshow, many from the UN report Livestock's Long Shadow--a really fabulous resource.
I think it's quite clear we should eat more plants, but here's what's less clear to me. From a green point of view, how far (ideally) would we roll back animal farming? Would we ideally reduce the 30% to 25%...to 20%...to 15%...or to what? Some animal pastures can be converted to plant farming, with much higher nutritional yields. Plant farming is much more efficient. But some pastures cannot, so that eliminating animal farming on that land means expanding plant agriculture elsewhere. I suspect the greenest possible world feeding 9 billion people (in 2050) couldn't be a purely vegan world.
On the other hand, the greenest possible world will also not be one in which the whole world consumes animal protein at the rate that affluent countries do today. Consumption of animal products has to decline, if 9 billion people are going to be fed in 2050, with any land left for other species. From a strictly environmental standpoint, the moral rule to promote is "eat more plants." It's all to the good for some to eat none, to compensate for others who over-consume. But in the greenest and most egalitarian of all possible worlds (that involve 9 billion people living on this planet), I think everyone will eat a little meat.
That's a surprising conclusion to reach, I think. It's not ethically unproblematic to take the life of any animal, whether or not they have robust rights just like ours. So it's odd to admit that it's got to be done. Perhaps the best diagnosis is this: there are so many humans that our options are tragically narrowed. We simply cannot all survive and also grant animals the full moral status they are entitled to. Going into a future with too many people and not enough land, we cannot completely stop using them as food.
On the other hand, we also can't use animals as food to the degree that we do now. The average American's animal consumption is the highest in the world--250 pounds of meat per year! Consumption of animal products is going to have to decrease, but perhaps not to zero.
Sound right? Look at the charts, maps, and graphs in the slide show, and let me know what you think.
"The Emperor's Gnu Clothes" (from January 25) has recently been much discussed (Stangroom, Blackford, Coyne, Schoen, Rosenau). That's for your reading pleasure. I think I've run out of things to say on the topic.