04 June 2010

Go veggie -- save yourself, save the planet

Stehfest et al. published "Climate benefits of changing diet" [pdf] in Climatic Change (2009)

Abstract: The livestock sector... accounts for 18% of the greenhouse gas emissions and for 80% of total anthropogenic land use... we found a global food transition to less meat, or even a complete switch to plant-based protein food to have a dramatic effect on land use. Up to 2,700 Mha of pasture and 100 Mha of cropland could be abandoned, resulting in a large carbon uptake from regrowing vegetation. Additionally, methane and nitrous oxide emission would be reduced substantially. A global transition to a lowmeat-diet as recommended for health reasons would reduce the mitigation costs to achieve a 450 ppm CO2-eq. stabilisation target by about 50% in 2050 compared to the reference case.

Sounds like we've got to put a price on those cow farts.


  1. BAD. This is assuming that a meat diet comes only from monocultural livestock operations that do not account for their footprints (though true for much of the world). A complete switch to veggie would still have an impact, especially because growing without animals is unnatural monoculture, too.

    I hunt and fish, and I procure meats from local, humanely raised sources that also farm other crops. I also raise three ducks that lay, and provide nutrients for my garden.

    It's the separation that causes the problem, and the belief that separating (doing one thing at a time) is providing efficiencies, not the meat-eating, per se.. Eating meat can be as green as anything - ay, more green: consider the impacts of a monocrop of soy vs. grass-fed free range buffalo.

  2. Read Ms. Niman's comments in the Atlantic Monthly for a far more nuanced, better look:


    (I'm in the comments, refuting the moral claim that "eating animals is wrong")

  3. Oh my Josh, you have really missed the point. Animal farming is less efficient than vegetable/crop farming. That is just a fact.

    Feeding one person with an omnivorous diet requires more land, water, fertilizer etc than feeding one person with a vegetarian diet.

    I don't care that you like hunting and fishing. Just don't be so entirely wrong in your defense of it.

  4. Mr. Engine,

    What you claim is not factually accurate, except within the constrains of monocultural practices.

    Efficiency is a very, very tricky concept when it comes to farming, and ecosystem services in general. By separating animals and plants from each other in farming operations, you very often seriously decrease the amount of edible nutrients/acre, and that is what is showing up in reports like the one David linked.

    Really, read the article I posted; it isn't long, and it alludes to many of these points. Better yet, read her book, "Righteous Porkchop."

    Many of the efficiencies gained by farming with both plants and animals are lost in the subsidies we've organized for major corporate interests. For example, did you know that we can grow a grass-fed cow using the same amount of land as a feedlot cow? However, the grass-fed cow improves local habitats and watersheds, helps renew native vegetation, and contributes to carbon sequestration. The feedlot cow contributes to global warming and local pollution through the massive amounts of energy needed to grow a single food source for it, process it, and transport it.

    How is a feedlot human different from a feedlot cow? Vegetarianism creates the illusion that one is avoiding deaths and pain for sustenance (wrong), and it encourages large monocultural operations separate from the local nutrient-fixing and other ecosystem benefits that arise when one farms the way the Earth farms - with animals.

  5. Also, Mr. Engine, compare the values created by a grass-fed cow to those created by a monoculture soy crop to provide the same amount of protein, as well as the chemical processing to synthesize the vitamins we need that plants don't give us.

  6. That analysis smacks of a selective comparison of an average vegetarian diet to a 'super-eco' omnivorous diet. Other than to demonstrate that animal farming can be done well or badly (which I am happy to accept) it does not offer much to this debate.

    Ultimately the omnivore diet adds a step in the process of food production (1plant-2animal-3human, as opposed to 1plant-2human). This step is far from 100% efficient and results in a less efficient conversion overall between inputs like 'land', 'water', 'sunlight' and the 'food' output.

    The idea that hunting wild animal or grazing animals on marginal land has some merit. But meat from these sources is a niche product and, if anything, this debate should be about how best to feed the planet - not just rich meat-loving hippies.

    As for your comment that joining animals and plant production increases the amount of edible nutrients/acre... I am extremely skeptical and would love to hear more about that.

  7. Mr. Engine, I agree that, currently, grass-fed beef is a niche, as are laying birds in vegetable gardens and the like. However, that fact does not then require the notion that they are less efficient.

    Did you read Ms. Niman's article? One thing she notes is that we have about the same amount of biomass in large hoofed ungulates now that North America had prior to whites arriving. She also notes that natural wetlands emit gigantic amounts of greenhouse gasses, yet we don't want to eliminate them.

    What I'm getting at by these claims is this: The food web isn't simply A+B+C. There are synergies (and I do hate that word, but I'm left with no alternative) that arise from interactions among plants, animals, people, bacteria, and fungi. These interactions oftentimes benefit the total biomass, which is why live takes hold so quickly on Earth, and often explodes.

    For example: How does the land from a monocultural soy crop (used to give humans protein) replenish itself after harvest?

    That sounds like a silly question, until you compare it to a prairie habitat with millions of bison upon it. How does that land replenish itself? Because it's obvious that some sort of replenishment is occurring.

    In Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma", Joel Salatin comments that he is a grass farmer, not a pig, cattle, or chicken farmer.

    The soy crop has to be forcibly replenished, and with no animal wastes, that would be with artificial fertilizers. Also, since the method of growing is highly unnatural (plants naturally grow in communities), the crop has to be engineered to resist herbicides. Pesticides and fungicides must also be used, because the crop isn't hiding among other plants, but stands out like a gigantic feast for particular creatures. However, these efforts are general-purpose, which denudes the soil of good microbial and animal activity, too - thus increasing the need for artificial fertilizers.

    You also assume that animals drinking water is subtractive of water, but it isn't. That water goes somewhere, and if they are living in a diverse system, then that water often gets "cleaned" by plant communities, which we can often eat. However, when they are raised in a sterile feedlot, that same process becomes highly toxic to humans.

  8. Mr. Engine, as for your last question, about efficiency gains:

    UCS has a good run-down of CSA meats, their benefits and increased nutrition, as one example:

    Aquaponics (raising fish-veggies) is another example of animal-plant interactions. Google aquaponics (or duckponics!)

    "Keep Main Free" has a great page talking about efficiency gains from small, multi-cropping farms:

    http://www.keepmainefree.org/myth3.html (ignore the title: The contents are good)

    Among their points: "According to a 1992 U.S. Agricultural Census report, relatively smaller farm sizes are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones. The smallest farms surveyed in the study, those of 27 acres or less, are more than ten times as productive (in dollar output per acre) than large farms (6,000 acres or more), and extremely small farms (4 acres or less) can be over a hundred times as productive."

    As they point out, it's about output, not yield.

  9. @Josh and TTE -- I agree that meat CAN be more sustainable, but you guys shoudl be arguing with apples -- the median meat eater diet vs the median veggie diet. I'd bet that TTE would them be correct (as would I :)

    It's not the leaders, but the masses, who worry me :)

  10. David, that last comment goes against every other thing you've ever written at this blog.

    Besides, the median is pushed to support the inefficient and unsustainable practices because of the decisions by "leaders" to maintain their leadership: Subsidies; price gouging; heavy processing and expensive regulations to artificially constrict entry to competition and maintain huge economies of scale; relationships through political donations and collusion; &etc. Just look at the number of cases brought before the big food companies in the 90's, starting with ADM's collusion over lycene.

    To argue at the median is to infer that decisions creating the pressures that put us at the median are correct. My whole argument is with that inference.

    This suggestion is analogous to somebody coming onto this blog and saying, hey, let's just assume that free water is the most efficient allocation. You'd come unglued if that were to happen!

    Basically, I respectfully disagree with the way you frame this argument: I won't assume that the current models are the most efficient or effective means to produce food.

  11. I found the metric used in the abstract to be very, very interesting. They say that making this change reduces the cost of meeting some CO2 goal by 50 percent. I was expecting to read what fraction reduction this might address, but I wasn't expecting cost.

    Why did they choose cost? Presumably because the cost of reducing CO2 emissions is very non-linear - the more you reduce the most costly it is to reduce more. So switching to vegetables is less costly than the most costly CO2 reduction method currently under consideration. Wow, what a ringing endorsement. By the way, does this include the foregone consumer surplus for no longer eating meat? I really dig a good steak. In fact, I just bought a few pounds to feed the family today.

    This all kind of avoids the question of whether reductions in CO2 are worth it in general. I say, No, we should want to increase emissions, not because they're good, but because they're the inevitable byproduct of people producing wealth. But that's me.

    I guess I'm sort of in David's camp in one way: we should price cow farts. However, the devil is, as always, in the details. How do you get the price of a cow fart to match the cost? Is it what Josh says it should be, or what I say? Tough to see how you're going to resolve that one.

  12. @Josh -- we agree. I think that current food policies are terrible -- they encourage bad diets of unsustainable food. I'd prefer that there were NO food policies and that food prices/practices internalized all externalities (as outsider says).

    But that's NOT what I was saying. I was saying that "the best diet" under current norms is vegetarian, or better, vegan. That's just a reflection of waste under each diet in its current phase.

    If we ended silly programs, I reckon that veggie and meat diet would be healthier and more sustainable, but veggie would still have a lower impact, given the food used to produce protein.

    I would agree with you if we went to a hunter-gatherer diet of meat and other stuff. I'm not sure that we'd be better off on a Polyface farm diet -- with 100 % participation -- since the animal-share of our diet would probably still be too large.

    But I am making the pragmatic case for veggie under the current flawed system, not one that we could have, or even the one that YOU practice :)

  13. Outsider, pricing flatulence is not as hard a problem. First, you contrive a market by forcing a cap on the total amount of poots (which doesn't mean I'm against it, but that's what one does). Then, you let those playing in the market determine what it is worth to them.

    I do find the 'trading farts' part particularly funny. I would definitely invest in fart futures.

    David, if I practice it, then it's possible. I'm not encouraging everybody eat the Polyface diet, either. What I'm doing is bringing up facts that show a multi-crop system that uses animals is much more efficient in food production and land use than is an all-vegetarian farming system.

    You also believe that it would be easier to convince everybody to switch to veggie than to convince people that their diet doesn't have to change, just the manner in which their diet is produced. I'm thinking the latter would be easier than the former.

    Do you really, in your heart, believe that telling everybody that the centralized decision is for all of them to eat vegetarian, rather than give up our subsidies to Monsanto, is the "pragmatic" road here?

    Telling everybody to switch to veggie is not environmentally preferable. For example, if we did switch to veggie, where would we get our fertilizer? From synthetics, which create huge dead zones in oceans.

    So, it's centralized planning, it's less efficient, it's not pragmatic, and it's not environmental. What's left?

    Functioning ecosystems require interaction and interdependence. That's just the way the natural world works, and trying to treat food production like the auto industry is false economy, which is why they need subsidies and heavy-handed regulations to survive. How is it I'M the one having to make the libertarian argument here? I am no libertarian.
    : )

  14. Josh, you think cap-and-trade is the same as knowing the cost? It isn't.

    Cap and trade is artificial, and any improvement it causes in terms of economic efficiency is coincidence.

  15. Outsider, I understand what you are saying, and believe me, I do not for one second believe that capping emissions sets a price equal to costs.

    However, that's not always the right tree up which to bark. For example: What's the MU of money?

    No price is ever going match cost, except coincidentally. Should we, therefore, eliminate markets altogether?

  16. Hm. I don't think I agree. In a functioning market, the price does match the marginal cost. So, no, let's no eliminate markets, I like them.

    I don't think I get your question about the marginal utility of money. What am I missing?

    The problem with cap-and-trade is that the price established due to the regulation is no more likely to be the correct one than the one used before, i.e., zero. However, like all regulation, it is vulnerable to capture, rent-seeking, and all sorts of other nastiness. The cure seems worse than the disease, by my lights.

  17. Outsider, if you can't even quantify the marginal utility of money (which nobody really can), then how can you prove that prices = costs?

    Prices, over time and depending on market characteristics, tend toward an equilibrium price where the costs to production would equal the costs associated with the utility of consumption. However, this in no way says anything about a particular item bought at a particular time.

  18. So? I have no idea what you're getting at. Who care about "proving" price equals cost? Is it your contention that micro-economics is flawed? If so, just come out and say it, don't pussyfoot around.

    By the way, you're the one saying nobody can define the marginal utility of money, not me. I'm pretty sure I can do it: the marginal utility of money is what I'll give up to get my next dollar. There.

  19. Outsider, don't get mad. You, too can participate in the cow farts futures market!

    You define your money's utility your way, and I define it mine, and that's partly how markets work, I agree. That's not a quantity you gave there, but a quality, but still, I know it works whether you spend that extra dollar on milk, or a car, or shoes.

    If that extra dollar added to the milk price for the cow emissions isn't worth it to you, then you won't buy the milk. Others may or may not, too. I'm willing to guess that when you set a cap on emissions, and then allow people to put their additional dollars on the line (or not), there will still be room for milk. The price, then, will equal the "cost" to each who participate, I suppose.

    The price doesn't have to relate to the cost of the externality - heck, the money isn't even necessarily going to mitigate whatever damage has already been done. The mitigation of the externality is to occur by applying the appropriate cap. The costs relate to the myriad individual MU's of money out there, just like any other market, and are there to try to encourage behavior that will most efficiently bring down the emissions, themselves.

    Now, on a much more theoretical and esoteric level, can you prove to me that the additional dollar you spend matches the "cost" of its utility to you? I posit it is impossible: First, we are not perfectly efficient economizing machines; second, "utility" is itself a quality, not a quantity. But, I've been wrong before.

  20. @Josh -- I NEVER said anything about centrally planned diets. I am talking about the outcomes that we are observing and what would happen if we "spontaneously" moved to vegetarian...

  21. David, THAT'S pragmatic??? Dude.

    By the way, I've addressed the environmental impact of vegetarianism vs. omnivory at my blog. Check it out and slam me, if you are so inclined.

  22. @Josh -- no need to slam you. You're just wrong, as far as impact of these diets, right now.

  23. David, where am I wrong in measuring the impact of a conventional vegetarian diet vs. a conscientious omnivorous diet? Do you have facts to dispute that grass-fed, local beef is environmentally worse than a veggie diet of soy? Or, is your only argument to say that I'm "wrong"?

    With what shall we fertilize soybean fields? Do you really think that soy burger (which I like) didn't require animals in its creation?


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