The Distracting Notion of Meat’s Impact on the Environment
At this fall’s “Climate Crisis” town hall forum on CNN, Democratic front-runner Senator Elizabeth Warren dismissed the idea of reduced meat consumption as a simple distraction: “This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about... [They want to make this] your problem. They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, straws, and cheeseburgers.”1
Senator Cory Booker, the only vegan running for office, did not wish to draw more attention to his dinner plate: “Freedom is one of our most sacred values. Whatever you want to eat, go ahead and eat it.”2
When asked if she would support dietary guideline changes that would lower greenhouse gas emissions caused by meat heavy diets, Senator Kamala Harris responded that she loves cheeseburgers: “I mean I—I just do.”3
These presidential candidates were eager to discount the impact of our food system in a time of plentiful scientific research illustrating that current trends in meat consumption will soon exceed planetary boundaries for human life, after which Earth’s ecosystems will become unstable.4 It’s why a research team from the University of Oxford recently reported that a vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce one’s impact on the planet—far larger than cutting down on flights or buying an electric car.5 Yet rather than seize an opportunity to accurately address Americans about the negative environmental impacts of the meat industry, our elected leaders used the moment to suggest...cheeseburgers for everyone.
Meanwhile, every candidate participating in the evening’s town hall passionately explained their plans to levy carbon taxes on the fossil fuel industry. This is crucial to combating climate change—but why behave as if we cannot and should not address another principal factor driving the emergency? Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that such a question regarding our food system, which reflects an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance within the vast majority of American voters, failed to receive an appropriately sober response on this Democratic Primary stage. After all, the long discussed idea of carbon taxes on oil and gas companies, which points to a clear external villain, continues to draw indecisive figures from economists and wide-ranging inaction from the policymakers they advise.
Despite the harrowing scientific reports, we see policy suggestions such as a meat tax that would lower consumption of animal-derived products often met with raised eyebrows and jokes about the intensity of vegans. Rather than discomfort with the implication that eating meat is unethical, we might consider this reaction a simple rebuttal to higher taxes, for which history proves there will always be objections. In this case, we are in luck, because no tax is necessary, only a removal of the billions of dollars in subsidies Americans already provide animal agriculture every year.
A Subsidy Removal by Any Other Name Would Smell as Free of Manure
Is it possible that our political leaders shy away from addressing animal-derived products’ impact on the environment for reasons more complex and insidious than a lack of understanding the magnitude of the problem?
According to recent studies, the U.S. government spends up to $38 billion each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industries, with less than one percent of that sum allocated to aiding the production of fruits and vegetables.6 Most agricultural subsidies go to farmers of livestock and a handful of major crops, including corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton, with payments skewed toward the largest producers. Corn and soy inputs, in particular, are heavily subsidized crops for the production of meat and processed food by some of the world’s largest meat and dairy corporations. These farm subsidy programs supplement adverse fluctuations in revenues and production, and purchase farmers’ insurance coverage, product marketing, export sales, and research and development.7 This means that while shoppers pay lower immediate prices at the checkout counter, their tax dollars fund major meat operations and advertising. Meanwhile, meat and dairy producers accrue yearly retail sales to the tune of 250 billion dollars.8
In addition to subsidies, Americans pay for meat consumption through healthcare costs and climate disruption. As David Simon illustrates in his book Meatonomics, consumers foot an estimated $2 in external costs for every $1 of product the meat and dairy industry sells.9 In other words, a $4 Big Mac actually costs society $11.
The impact of meat consumption isn’t limited to America’s borders. Take for instance the findings of a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), which states that agricultural subsidies in economically advanced countries such as the U.S. artificially depress international market prices, so much that they induce poorer nations to import food that local farmers could otherwise produce more efficiently.10 These farmers are then forced to exit the market because they can’t afford to grow local crops, much less put food on the table for their families. The FAO reports that eliminating agricultural subsidies in the U.S. alone would lift millions of people out of poverty around the world. In contrast, American meat subsidies have spurred the average U.S. citizen to consume about 200 pounds of meat a year, more than twice the global average and nearly twice as much as Americans ate in 1961.11
We can’t limit the consideration of meat consumption’s impacts to land, either. Should humans continue fishing at current levels, research published in Science points to the global collapse of all targeted fish species by the year 2048.12 Already, more than half of the ocean’s surface is being impacted by industrial fishing, an area four times the landmass covered by agriculture, with billions of dollars in government subsidies creating the fitting conditions.13 Countries that provide the largest subsidies to their fishing fleets are Japan, Spain, China, South Korea, and the United States,14 with an aggregate cost far exceeding net economic benefits. Without these subsidies, the industry would not remain profitable.
And so the multi-billion dollar question looms like a floating pink elephant in an increasingly overcrowded room: when will Americans acknowledge our cognitive dissonance around meat consumption and end subsidy programs benefiting animal agriculture in favor of public programs that promote fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based proteins that stimulate a more sustainable food culture?
As we saw on the CNN forum stage, this is an unnerving question for some and one that calls into question decades-long American cultural norms of meat consumption and the symbiotic relationship between industry and policy-makers. Even in simpler times, when the Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency instituted mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions across its agencies, Congress mysteriously defunded the program to track livestock emissions.15 Surely, it will be difficult to reform the obscured relationships and policies of the status quo, but with so much at stake, we have to try.
An Externality to End All Externalities
The Earth’s land surface and the way it is used forms the basis for human society and the global economy. But we are reshaping it in dramatic, dangerous ways. While the entirety of destruction wrought by our current food system is beyond the scope of this article, it is nevertheless important to shine a light on how modern animal agriculture is a predominant driver of the climate crisis.
Consider: meat and other animal-derived products constitute the third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions globally, following the energy and industrial sectors. They have a larger carbon footprint than the world’s entire transportation sector—every car, ship, train, and airplane on Earth.16 The meat and dairy industries alone account for 78% of all agricultural GHG emissions.17 These emissions aren’t derived simply from fossil fuels used to plant, fertilize, and harvest the feed to fatten livestock for market, but due largely to cows, sheep, and other animals’ especially potent methane gas. And while this gas doesn’t linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, in the first 20 years after release, its greenhouse effect is 25 times more effective at trapping the heat of the sun and warming the planet.18
The consumption of animal-derived products also impacts vital natural resources. More than a quarter of humanity’s water footprint goes toward the meat and dairy industries due to the incredible amount of water needed to produce food for livestock.19 Beef—the second most consumed meat in the United States—has the largest water footprint of all types of meat, requiring a whopping 1,800-2,500 gallons of water per pound, more water than is used to shower every day for six months. By comparison, most fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other plant-based proteins require anywhere from 15 to a couple hundred gallons of water per pound to produce.20,21 Likewise, one gallon of dairy milk requires 2,000 gallons of water inputs, roughly twice what is needed for a gallon of almond milk, the most water-intensive dairy substitute. Animal agriculture also drives unprecedented levels of deforestation as forests are cleared to make way for livestock grazing and growing crops for animal feed, which now accounts for more than one-third of the Earth’s total landmass.22,23 Across the countries of Amazonia, the world’s largest rainforest often referred to as “the lungs of the Earth,” livestock accounts for roughly 80% of current deforestation rates.24 In fact, natural habitats the size of 40 football fields are lost to deforestation every minute.25 This is especially alarming considering that tropical rainforests are a major carbon sink. Burn the trees down and they not only stop producing oxygen, their captured carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Place cattle on the land burnt down, and our most critical natural defense against climate change has been replaced with methane-making machines.
In the Amazon, man-made fires are set ablaze by ranchers cutting and burning forest to convert it to pasture for beef and its co-product, leather. These products are then exported around the world, to include the United States, even as scientists warn that an irreversible transition to a treeless savannah will be triggered should 20 to 25 percent of the Amazon Rainforest be further lost.26,27 According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland, the world’s second largest rainforest, the Congo Basin, also faces severe threat from slash-and-burn deforestation and may perish entirely by the end of the century. Between 2000 and 2014 alone, the Congo Basin lost an area of forest larger than the country of Bangladesh, due overwhelmingly to small-scale clearing for agriculture.28
The depletion of these wild areas sparks dangerous second- and third-order effects, too, one of which is the mass extinction event taking place now. A 2018 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades, naming the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation representing a frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”29 Whether an unknown insect population or a well-loved mammal, this annihilation is non-discriminatory. Koalas are the latest to be listed as “functionally extinct” due to bushfires ongoing in Australia’s forest habitat.30
We can connect the dots between this cataclysmic loss of biodiversity and the fact that 86% of the Earth’s land mammals are now livestock or humans.31 One billion to 1.4 billion head of cattle exist today due to our growing appetite for meat, and with cows in America tipping the scales at about 1,300 pounds apiece, their growing hoofprint easily outweighs the human race.32 Meanwhile, scales of the sea are coming up empty.
Ocean and freshwater dead zones, for one, are intensifying around the world as a result of climate change and low levels of oxygen (hypoxia) in our aquatic ecosystems. Nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff are the primary culprits of this dissolved oxygen in the water which then kills fish.33 As a result of both the hypoxia and overfishing, 90 percent of the world’s marine life is now depleted, with one-third of commercial fish stocks collected at biologically unsustainable levels.34 Unsustainable fishing practices like deep sea bottom trawling have further pushed highly demanded species such as bluefin tuna to critical endangerment, while also commonly harming non-targeted, protected species like dolphins and sea turtles.35 All marine life, in fact, is threatened by industrial fishing as its abandoned fishing gear results in the greatest accumulation of plastic waste in our oceans today—a title to be pulled from single-use straws despite what’s often shared on our social media platforms.36
This fall, a landmark UN report warned that maximum yield from fisheries could decline another 24 percent by the end of the century should business and emissions proceed as usual.37 The world must grapple with this decimation while attempting to double food production by 2050 to sustain the growing human population. Clearly, our food choices, and the policies we implement to regulate those choices, will have dire implications on whether life on land or sea builds upon itself or collapses.
Meat The Better Option: Plants
Put simply, our one viable planet cannot sustain today’s meat-centric diets. Drastically reducing animal-derived foods in exchange for mostly plant foods is necessary if we are to combat the most disastrous effects of climate change.
As a bonus, a plant-based diet can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, and is rich in all the necessary vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Soy beans and quinoa are “complete proteins” in that they contain all nine essential amino acids required for a human diet, and other foods such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, and tempeh have high-protein and essential nutrient content per serving. In fact, scientists have found clear lower health risks when plant proteins are substituted in place of animal-derived protein such as red meat and eggs.38
Of course, like animals, plants require inputs from the environment in order to grow, but their magnitude is significantly less. Consider for a moment that if Americans simply replaced the beef in their diets with beans and other legumes, the U.S. would meet up to 75 percent of its entire 2020 GHG emissions reduction targets pledged by President Obama in 2009.39 This is because cows emit roughly 20 times more greenhouse gases per gram of beef than do beans and other sustainable plant-based protein sources,40 and require 25 times more land area than plants to produce the same amount of protein.41 These stunning numbers have sparked a rise of conscious consumerism and a corresponding growth of plant-based meat substitute companies, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, that are working to provide consumers with the “meaty” taste they’re accustomed to, but from protein-rich plants.
Of course, eating less meat also means sparing animals, billions of whom are bred and raised under cruel conditions every year. As a matter of course, farmed animals endure mutilation, genetic manipulation, and unsanitary and tightly confined conditions in modern animal agriculture. Their misery is shielded from the public in large part due to animal agriculture-backed “Ag-Gag” legislation which outlaws filming within farms in many states.42 While arguments concerning animal rights or welfare could theoretically be used to justify the end of government subsidies for animal agriculture, there is certain disagreement regarding the amount of consideration that should be given to animal suffering or animal life. As we’ve seen, without making the treatment of animals a focal point, policymakers have ample reason to incentivize the growth of plant-based foods.
Turning Distraction Into Action
So returns the expensive floating elephant: Why not end these subsidies for meat production and do more to point consumers in the direction of healthy, sustainable plant based foods? We can be fairly confident that such a policy would be effective—a subsidy removal by another name (behavioral taxes) has a proven track record of nudging people away from products like sugary drinks and tobacco towards other goods that achieve positive social impact. As many economists project, implementing such programs would save Americans significant sums within many of our lifetimes. Research from the University of Oxford calculates that eliminating animal-derived protein from the global food system would save $1.6 trillion in environmental costs by 2050.43
Still, some Americans may deem such a subsidy removal, which would increase the cost of most animal-derived foods, an infringement on their personal liberty. I would urge people in this camp to consider it a matter of protecting one’s free will. After all, eating meat and other animal-derived products would not be made illegal, but those who choose to consume them would be paying for the more accurate, divorced-from-government cost of their inputs and externalities which affect the health of everyone, to include the consumer and the planet at large.
And while big agriculture has significant lobbying power and political clout to deter elected officials from action, this does not diminish the ethical necessity of pushing for change. To allow for a successful transition, strategic planning over the course of several years should be considered to ease the country into the necessary shifts:
Support Smaller Farming Productions And Retrain Livestock Farmers.
The larger the producer, the fewer subsidies it should receive, and the smaller the farm or company, the higher the percentage of subsidies, to a certain threshold. Doing so would break down the power structure of large meat and dairy corporations and prop up locally based agriculture. Inevitably, this will move the emphasis of food production and its profits away from factory farming and toward small-scale farms owned and operated by the very working people who’ve long been marginalized at the hands of big animal agriculture.
To ensure that existing farmers are financially secure in their transitions to localized agriculture, appropriate investment should be allocated toward regenerative and veganic farming training programs that implement organic standards and maintain soil fertility. Once off the ground, this government-backed training program can and should prioritize hiring farmers from its rural communities to manage it, as their inclusion will further strengthen and empower these sustainable farming communities.
Reallocate Subsidies Toward The Production Of Whole Plant-Based Foods.
Such a rearranging of a portion of subsidies would incentivize Americans to reach for more sustainable and healthy foods, and would allow farmers and small businesses to produce crops at lower prices for consumers, in turn lifting up half of the country which currently struggles with food security. Low income communities in particular are often made to consume cheaply made, highly processed fast-foods such as hot dogs and hamburgers due to limited access to grocery stores with affordable fresh and nutritious options as well as insufficient public transportation. Our current meat and dairy subsidy program only exacerbates this issue.
By investing in the production of whole plant-based foods instead, we can begin to heal the negative health impacts experienced by vulnerable low-income groups, while encouraging shifts toward diets that are more environmentally sustainable.
Launch A Nation-Wide Public Campaign Celebrating Plant-Centered Nutrition.
The Department of Health and Human Services should work with our elected officials and diverse groups of plant-based food experts to carry out a public education campaign emphasizing a turn toward sustainable and healthy food production and consumption. For many cultures, meat is a prominent ingredient, which has resulted in some efforts to reduce its consumption being regarded as an appropriation of ethnic recipes. However, by prioritizing input from people in the communities that campaign literature is directed toward, such efforts can celebrate plant-based recipes for varied cuisines in a manner that is inclusive and sensitive toward cultural considerations.
This campaign must be paired with a strong component within American public schools where students and families can learn scientifically-backed information regarding balanced diets that do not necessarily include meat and other animal-derived products. Children of all ages should receive plenty of plant-based nutritional food options in schools, with a policy of at least one vegan meal offering every day in their cafeterias. This is an important way to positively shift Americans’ behavior from the groundup and reduce stigma or confusion around plant-centered nutrition.
Without taxpayer-funded subsidies, the prices of mass produced animal-derived products would more closely reflect their true production costs. Government subsidies dedicated to the animal-derived food system hugely abet the climate crisis, which is inconsistent with our claimed goals and international commitments—as it should also be to our survival instinct. Despite how our elected officials and hopefuls currently protect their constituents’ cognitive dissonance and the industry’s profit margins, it is wholly unrealistic to address climate change without considering the impact of the food industry. Modern animal agriculture causes unprecedented levels of greenhouse gas emissions, reduced food and water supplies around the world, the mass extinction of species, and diverse ecosystems to be bulldozed to the ground— this is just the tip of a melting iceberg.
We can allay these significant contributors to the climate crisis, but it won’t be through a tax on meat. Rather, we can remove taxpayer dollars from animal agriculture, allowing the price of meat to rise to a level representative of the actual cost of its inputs and its wide-ranging externalities. Such a policy would allow freedom in both production and consumption, while organically driving demand for healthier and sustainable fruits, vegetables, and other plant based foods. In so doing, everyday Americans can make an empowered choice to combat the looming threat of mass hunger, poverty, and extinction of species in our lifetimes—and avoid leaving future generations an unsolvable crisis and unlivable home.
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12 Worm, Boris, Edward B. Barbier, Nicola Beaumont, J. Emmett Duffy, Carl Folke, Benjamin S. Halpern, Jeremy B. C. Jackson, et al. 2006. “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services.” Science 314 (5800): 787–90. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1132294.
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26 Phillips, Dom, Daniel Camargos Andrew Wasley, and Alexandra Heal in London. 2019. “Revealed: Rampant Deforestation of Amazon Driven by Global Greed for Meat.” The Guardian, July 2, 2019, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/02/revealed-amazon-deforestation-driven-global-greed-meat-brazil.
27 Phillips, Dom. 2019. “Amazon Rainforest ‘Close to Irreversible Tipping Point.’” The Guardian, October 23, 2019, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/23/amazon-rainforest-close-to-irreversible-tipping-point.
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31 Damian Carrington Environment. 2017. “Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event Under Way, Scientists Warn.” The Guardian, July 10, 2017, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-event-already-underway-scientists-warn.
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39 Hamblin, James. 2017. “If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef.” The Atlantic. August 2, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/08/if-everyone-ate-beans-instead-of-beef/535536/.
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