Your Burger or Your Car (And More Fun with False Dichotomies)

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, whose blog is a must-read look at the political dynamics of congressional policy-making, makes an eyebrow-raising assertion in his food column today:

homecoming.jpeg(Photo: CowCar)

It’s
not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it’s that it
is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global
transportation sector.

Really? Klein cites a 2006 report
by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which found
that the livestock industry — the process of bringing meat from farm
to table — generates 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions
"measured in CO2 equivalent."

Transportation, according to the UN report, generates 13.5 percent of global emissions measured by the same method.

And
that’s an important caveat. Two gases produced in large quantities by
livestock are methane and nitrous oxide, which have 23 times and 296
times the "global warming potential" of CO2. Measuring methane and
nitrous oxide in "CO2 equivalent," then, pads the climate impact of
livestock versus CO2 emitters such as cars and power plants.

The
2006 UN report’s comparison rings hollow in another way as well.
Measuring the movement of feed to factory farms, not to mention the
movement of packaged meat to supermarket shelves, means that livestock
is part of the world’s transportation sector, not a separate and
distinct source of emissions.

Later in his column, Klein also cites a University of Chicago study
that found adopting a vegan diet would be healthier for the environment
than driving a hybrid car. As Dan Lasher of the Natural Resources
Defense Council discovered,
however, the Chicago researchers drastically underestimated the amount
of CO2 released by one gallon of gas, among other "generic
calculations."

So what’s the lesson? Cutting down on burger
consumption could be a positive choice that also helps the environment.
But setting up false dichotomies that suggest gas-guzzlers can be
mitigated by salads, that’s pretty unhealthy.

  • Interesting how all of our consumption decisions seem to be related in many more ways than we realize.

    Just a couple nights ago, I wrote a short piece about the relationship between meat consumption and urban planning. If you are interested in that sort of thing, take a read (and drop a comment!): http://publicspacesf.blogspot.com/

  • Albert J.

    I know you’re all about the evils of cars around here, but you’re in way over your head if you’re trying to suggest that “cutting down on burger consumption could be a positive choice that also helps the environment. But setting up false dichotomies that suggest gas-guzzlers can be mitigated by salads, that’s pretty unhealthy.” Animal agriculture, in its present state, is an ECOLOGICAL DISASTER.

    A few points:

    “Measuring methane and nitrous oxide in “CO2 equivalent,” then, pads the climate impact of livestock versus CO2 emitters such as cars and power plants.”

    How is a calculated equivalent measurement “padding” anything? They are suggesting that the impact that certain gasses have on our atmosphere outweighs others, in terms of equal volumes. They aren’t magically adding anything in there to make it “seem worse.” I think it is more an attempt at quelling the CO2 buzzword that everyone is so attached to. (Hint: there are more gasses to be concerned about!)

    You go on to say that: “the 2006 UN report’s comparison rings hollow in another way as well. Measuring the movement of feed to factory farms, not to mention the movement of packaged meat to supermarket shelves, means that livestock is part of the world’s transportation sector, not a separate and distinct source of emissions.”

    No meat, no feed, no packaging, no associated transportation. Did you even consider what you wrote here? IIRC, the emissions during the transportation involved in the agricultural production was factored into both analyses (agriculture and transportation), so it’s not separate and distinct, as you claim. So it would seem that the only thing that “rings hollow” up to this point is your analysis.

    Dan Lasher’s article makes some glaring omissions as well. For example, he admits they left out emissions from fertilizer for the feed that is used for the livestock. The amount of grain, soy, corn, and other feed that we use for animal agriculture is astounding. Overlooking any of the emissions involved in the production of that feed, then, is quite a mistake. So his “recalculation,” then, is making omissions as well, just different ones you seem more inclined to accepting…?

    Finally, and I’ll admit this has little to do with the environment, you sum up your post with a tired cliche about how, after meat, there’s nothing but salads left. Stone-age mentality, and the sign of an ill-informed environmentalist. You sound like a teenage Greenpeace schlep, seriously.

    I applaud your efforts toward making living streets a reality (really, I love this blog). But brushing something as devastating as animal agriculture off to the side, as if it’s laughable compared to the evil of cars, is just pitiful. Stick to transportation, it’s what you know best.

  • Alex

    Thank you, Albert J., for kindly and gently taking apart the fallacious reasoning of the original post.

    The only thing I would like to add is that the original poster is seeing a dichotomy where there is none. No one is suggesting that we need not be concerned with CO2 emitted from cars simply because the global warming gases emitted from the ag industry have a larger effect. Instead, the purpose of the comparison is to emphasize the magnitude of the problem that ag represents. The reason the comparison is helpful is because folks *already understand* that transportation emissions are a huge problem. It just so happens that the ag industry is worse, so those folks concerned with global warming should worry about that too.

  • Jeff

    Thank you Albert J. There is so much quality information out there on this issue, so I would suggest folks read Ezra Klein’s article and do some of your own research. It’s not hard to find clear and incriminating evidence of animal agriculture’s adverse effect on our environment, yet folks at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club for some odd reason decline to suggest plant based eating as one of the most effective and easy choices we can make to mitigate global warming. Al Gore is equally blind to this.

  • Reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” will put you off industrially-raised meat for life. But not all meat has the same carbon emissions footprint. Beef is by far the worst, especially corn-fed beef.

    The answer to sustainable life on the planet cannot be found with one silver bullet. (Just go vegan! Just ride a bike!) To avoid catastrophic climate change, each of needs to lower our carbon footprint 20% a year for the next three years. (Then we will be at the level of an average European.) The best way to do that, however, depends on the circumstances of one’s life. This last year, with some attention, my family has dropped our electricity consumption by a third, our natural gas by half, our water by half, and our gasoline usage by 20%. And we’ve cut our beef-eating by two-thirds. (Okay, my family thinks I’m torturing them, but they’ll live.)

    Eating less meat, eating little beef, eating only grass-fed beef when eating beef, is certainly an important part of the picture. Obviously someone who rides a bike but eats a Big Mac everyday hasn’t gotten the message. But just as obviously a vegan who still drives a Hummer hasn’t gotten the message either.

    The road is long, folks. We just need to get people started on the journey.

  • lyqwyd

    While I feel that using CO2 equivalents is legitemate, since it’s really about the amount of global warming caused, I do not believe the transportations elements are relevant.

    If there is a reduction in meat eaten, there will be an increase in non-meat shipping, all other elements being equal. Also, if we were to eat the same amount and type of meat, but only eat it from locally produced sources that grass fed the animals the amount of transportation would be much lower.

    Therefore the transportation sources are not fixed to the amount of meat eaten, but to the choices we make about where we source our meat and how it is fed, whereas every cow out there will generate a specific amount methane/NO, no matter where it’s raised, or what it’s fed.

  • bm

    “But setting up false dichotomies that suggest gas-guzzlers can be mitigated by salads, that’s pretty unhealthy.”

    Hey Elana, what about setting up false dichotomies that not eating meat automatically means salads? Harris Ranch thanks you for contributing to the general misinformation campaign about eschewing animal products.

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