Burger Battle is Over. Let's Talk about Beef. (Again.)
Reconsidering the cows and the climate.
Before deleting my Instagram account, I reposted an article from last year on beef and climate change. A butcher soon slid into my DMs, taking issue with my take. His messages were very respectful (a benefit of being Bro online: respect from the other Bros) and ran through familiar arguments about regenerative agriculture, the problems with fake meat, and so on.
In light of that exchange – and to mark the end of this year’s Burger Battle – I’m resharing the article here with an updated reading list. As I note in the piece, “Clearly, it’s not an easy conversation”, but we need to make space for it – for many messy conversations, in fact. -JRS
(Originally published on April 6, 2022.)
Many are the problems associated with the meat industry, e.g. soil degradation, species extinction, deforestation, working conditions and, obviously, animal welfare. My focus here, however, is climate – maybe you’ve noticed, it’s a bit of a problem. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, red meat in general is bad, but beef and dairy are the worst. There’s no way around this: Wealthy countries need to reduce production and consumption.
But, how? One thing is certain: atomized consumer solutions do not help. As the study “Discourses of Climate Delay” points out, “individualism” serves to prevent or prolong action on the climate crisis. In effect, it represents a shift in blame to individual consumer choices – which consumers then shift amongst themselves. (If you use social media, you may be familiar with the game of Most Righteous Consumer.)
Effective action requires that we act like citizens, not consumers. As to what shape that might take, Finland offers one example. Fifty years ago, the country’s easternmost region, North Karelia, had the highest rate of mortality due to heart disease in the world. This was a result of lifestyle factors, i.e. smoking and a diet very high in saturated fat and salt (a consequence of agricultural policy following World War II; you can read more about that here.)
The North Karelia Project took a diversified approach to the problem. It used surveys to gather information, involved local organizations, recruited “lay ambassadors” (think influencers, without the selfies), and held talks in churches, community centres, and schools. The project worked with food producers – e.g. to lower the salt content in sausages and replace part of the fat and meat with a filler of local mushrooms, or have dairy farms allot some of their land to growing berries.
The result? Over the decades that followed, mortality due to heart disease dropped by 85% in the region, and 80% in Finland (the country later took the project national). This is what effective action looks like – education and advocacy, political and social mobilization, and collaboration with industry.
Turning back to the beef with beef, then, the question is not what you can do, but what we can do. Clearly, it’s not an easy conversation – but this is where the conversation starts.
Naomi Henson, Is There Such A Thing As Sustainable Beef
A recent and comprehensive look at the complexities of beef and the environment, from a Canadian perspective.
Zulmira H. Coimbra, et al., Human carnivory as a major driver of vertebrate extinction
“Our results suggest that human carnivory is the major driver of the current biodiversity crisis, and we hope our findings may contribute to raise awareness about this fundamental yet overlooked aspect of human ecology.”
Jessica Scott-Reid, New Study Shows Canadians Should Eat Less Meat and Dairy to Reach Climate Goals
A report from World Animal Protection and Navius Research aruges that a 30 percent reduction in meat and dairy consumption alone can meet emission reduction targets for 2030.
A summary of a study from the journal Nature Sustainability.
A survey of some of the other environmental issues associated with the animal agriculture sector.
Food Climate Report Network, Grazed and Confused? How much can grazing livestock help to mitigate climate change?
An independent examination of livestock production and climate. The eight-minute video provides a helpful summary.