Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The meat of Environmentalism

The controversy over meat within the environmental movement is a long-running one.  Not having originated from what is known as the hippy-crunchy enviro. crowd, I'd always considered eating meat a natural human activity, though my own concerns with the sadness of death and the moral implications of causing pain gave me pause in my life, and continue forcing me to consider my actions and impacts.
Lately, a number of articles and conversations formed the impetus for a post about the environmental consequences of eating meat.  A couple of months ago, I started receiving emails from Grist, an environmental e-zine, and quickly found a number of articles and blog posts on the meat-eating controversy.  Then, David Zetland posted this on vegetarianism, and Ms. Niman wrote this article for the Atlantic Monthly.  Most recently, Tovar Cerulli posted a piece on providing game for the homeless, and Holly at Nor Cal Cazadora just posted a review of the book, "The Vegetarian Myth."

I, too, have posted some thoughts and feelings about eating meat, in particular this post on the Calculus of Death, where I look at the nature of death and sustenance, and compare the environmental impacts of a typical vegetarian vs. a conscious meat-eating diet.

Although I don't mind a person making a choice to eat vegetarian, or even vegan, I do have serious problems with the ethical claim that vegetarianism is environmentally preferable to omnivory.  Vegetarianism may be a religious requirement for some, or a health decision for others, but its impacts on the environment are negligible, at best; and at worst, the practice may lead to an unnatural perspective on the world parallel to our current food industry.  Now, I'm not arguing that it is as bad as our current agricultural system - vegetarianism in the current system, as an individual choice, may have some positive impacts.  But what is lacking in vegetarianism as a system tends to perpetuate the same problems we have under our current regime, though probably on a smaller scale.

For example:  One tendency appearing in 'vegetarian-as-green' arguments is the belief that since feedlots are usually sources of pollution, eliminating meat in the diet eliminates this pollution.  Another argument notes the size of agricultural land needed to feed these animals, land that could be used for growing a veggie diet with room to spare for the wild.  But, these arguments miss a big point.  As Wendell Berry has pointed out:

Nature farms with animals. 

In nature, lands are fertilized and revitalized by animal and fungal activities.  Ms. Niman points out that the very slightly tilled North America prior to European migration maintained at least as many large, hoofed ungulates as it does now.  And yet, there were no gigantic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, no need to process chemical fertilizers, no need to truck food here and there.

Right now, big ag. desperately tries to separate each ecosystem component into its own box, ala other large-scale enterprises, from the belief that this is more efficient.  But this is not more efficient in terms of food production.  The organization 'Co-op Voices Unite' cites a USDA study showing that smaller, multicropping farms are far more efficient at food production than large-scale, monocropping ranches.

Right now, big ag. separates cows from farms and puts them into CAFO's (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).  Their effluent then becomes a waste product that must be contained, cleaned, and trucked out, and much of its nutrients are lost.

Right now, big ag. separates plant species into huge fields, and must artificially plow and apply processed fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides, because nature keeps wanting to creep into these huge chunks of land.  With no real infrastructure in the soil, these lands become susceptible to erosion and quickly slough off much of the artificially produced and applied fertilizers, etc.

And so, due to the tremendous loss of nutrients at the CAFO and the at the field, we are forced to artificially produce more nitrogen and other components to maintain "healthy" plants.  This raises the levels of these nutrients outside of the feedlot and land - these become pollutants, where otherwise they would have been food.  

This is just one example of the problem with specializing and separating ourselves from our food.  Unfortunately, an all-veggie diet doesn't leave this system, it tends to perpetuate it, but without the animal part, which requires more artificial fertilizers.  Much of the protein acquired from plants comes from soy cultivation, which needs this sort of treatment, in addition to the pest eradication that kill many millions of mice, rats and voles each year.

The environmentally aware answer, for me, is to understand that nature puts animals, plants, and fungi together.  Instead of deciding to stop eating cows and drinking milk, for example, we should encourage them closer to home, on grasslands and near plant crops.  We want them working within a system that improves watersheds and provides nutrients where they are needed.  If we pretend we can live without animals, we will find ourselves still trapped in an artificial world of false economy and separation from the land.  Nature needs animal life and death, and we are here a part of nature.

I've not yet heard how the pro-veggie side expects we will fertilize these lands, but if I've missed something, please let me know.  In the meantime, I will take my cues and lessons from nature, which needs animals, life and death, to farm, and not pretend that I know better how to make food.


Tovar said...

Good post, Josh, and thanks for the mention.

When I was a vegan, the environmental impacts of industrialized meat production comprised one of my objections to meat. I was, of course, equating "flesh foods" to "industrially produced flesh foods." And, mentally, I was compartmentalizing the animal and plant kingdoms: something nature doesn't do.

Josh said...

Thanks, Tovar! It means that much more coming from a person who has been on both sides of the issue.

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