Friday, November 15, 2013

Standing in Livestock’s ‘Long Shadow’: The Ethics of Eating Meat on a Small Planet

By Brian G. Henning
Ethics & the Environment; Fall 2011; Vol. 16 (2)

A primary contribution of this essay is to provide a survey of the human and environmental impacts of livestock production. We will find that the mass consumption of animals is a primary reason why humans are hungry, fat, or sick and is a leading cause of the depletion and pollution of waterways, the degradation and deforestation of the land, the extinction of species, and the warming of the planet. Recognizing these harms, this essay will consider various solutions being proposed to “shrink” livestock’s long shadow, including proposed “technical” or “market” solutions, a transition to “new agrarian” methods, and a vegetarian or vegan diet. Though important and morally relevant qualitative differences exist between industrial and non-industrial methods, this essay will conclude that, given the present and projected size of the human population, the morality and sustainability of one’s diet are inversely related to the proportion of animals and animal products one consumes.

In 2007, 275 million tons of meat (1) were produced worldwide, enough for 92 pounds for every person (Halweil 2008, 1). On one level, this fourfold increase in meat production since 1960 might be seen as a great success story about the spread of prosperity and wealth. President Herbert Hoover’s memorable 1928 campaign pledge to put “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” has, at least for many in the developed world, largely been realized. This juxtaposition of chickens and cars is appropriate in a way that Hoover did not intend: in an important sense, the same industrial processes that have put a “car in every garage” now make it possible to “put a chicken in every pot” or a burger on every plate. What has made it possible to realize the “prosperity” in Hoover’s promise is the industrialization of food production, and livestock are no exception. By applying some of the same principles that organized Henry Ford’s assembly lines to agriculture (combined with the economically distorting effects of vast agricultural subsidies and other environmental and economic externalities), once-expensive food items—such as beef, pork, and chicken—are now within the reach of billions of people; indeed, they are often cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables.

On Hoover’s measure, then, the shift to intensive, industrial methods
of livestock production have been wildly successful. Thanks in large part
to the adoption of intensive methods, worldwide more than 56 billion
animals are slaughtered each year; an average of 650 animals are killed
every second of every day (Halweil 2008, 2). At eight times the size of the
human population, livestock cast a very long shadow indeed. A primary
contribution of this essay is to provide a survey of the human and environmental
impacts of livestock production. We will find that, considering
both the direct and indirect effects, the overconsumption of animal meat is
now a (if not the) leading cause of or contributor to both malnourishment
and obesity, chronic disease, antibiotic resistance, and the spread of infectious
disease; the livestock sector may now be the single greatest source of
freshwater use and pollution, the leading cause of rainforest deforestation,
and the driving force behind spiraling species extinction; finally, livestock
production is among the largest sectoral sources of greenhouse gas emissions
contributing to global climate change.

Recognizing the inefficient and environmentally destructive nature of
intensive livestock production, this essay will consider various solutions
being proposed to “shrink” livestock’s long shadow, including “technical”
or “market” fixes, a transition to “new agrarian” methods, and the movement
to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Though important and morally relevant
qualitative differences exist between industrial and non-industrial
methods, this essay will conclude that, given the present and projected
size of the human population, the morality and sustainability of one’s diet
are inversely related to the proportion of animals and animal products
one consumes.

Meat, nutrition, and public health

Humans now derive, on average, one-third of their daily protein and
17 percent of their energy (calories) from animal sources (Steinfeld et al.
2006, 269). Yet, as one would expect, these averages mask great differences
in meat-eating patterns, from a low of 6.6 pounds of meat consumed
per person annually in Bangladesh (Fiala 2008, 413) to a high of
273 pounds per person annually in the United States (Steinfeld et al. 2006,
269). The way that people interact with livestock also varies greatly. While
many wealthy people only interact with animals when they are on their
plate, raising livestock is the primary livelihood of one billion (36%) of
the world’s poorest individuals (those who live on less than $2 US per
day) (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xx and 268). Reflecting this complex reality,
livestock production methods vary considerably, from small-scale operations
using extensive, pasture methods, to large-scale operations using intensive,
industrial methods. While several decades ago the geographical
distribution of these methods, extensive and intensive, would largely have
corresponded to developing and developed nations respectively, this is no
longer the case, with extensive methods increasingly being championed by
environmentally conscious consumers in developed nations and developing
nations seeking to meet rising demand and achieve economies of scale
through the adoption of intensive methods.

Despite these seemingly divergent trends, 80 percent of the considerable
growth in the livestock sector worldwide is from industrial livestock
production (278). The vast majority of the billions of animals raised for
food each year are not wandering the barnyard of a bucolic farm leading
long, relatively carefree lives until the day of slaughter. Most livestock
today, in both developed and developing nations, are raised using
intensive methods in what the industry calls “concentrated animal feeding
operations” (CAFOs, pronounced KAY-foes).(2) As Peter Singer recognized
decades ago in Animal Liberation, animals are no longer raised; they are
produced in modern factory farms where specially bred stocks of animals
are maintained in confined spaces and quickly fattened to slaughter
weight through a high-protein diet, often of corn or soy.(3) Rather than
being raised by many skilled farmhands, a large herd or flock can easily be
 “managed” by low-skilled (read low-wage) workers who maintain feeding
machines, occasionally remove dead or dying animals (“downers”),
and scrape waste into vast “lagoons.” Cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens are
no longer unique and valued (albeit instrumentally) members of an integrated
farm community, they are protein conversion machines; low-value
protein (e.g., corn or soy) goes in and high-value protein (animal flesh)
comes out.

Yet, at the heart of our global food supply is an insidious paradox.
“Today our food supply is nothing less than cornucopian, favoring the
world with unprecedented quantities and varieties of food. Yet more people
and a greater proportion of the world today are malnourished—hungry,
deficient in vitamins or minerals, or overfed—than ever before in
human history” (Gardner and Halweil 2000, 10). Taken on a global scale,
it is estimated that poor nutrition, whether through hunger or overeating,
“easily account[s] for more than half of the global burden of disease”
(35). Many policy makers and health professionals are rightly focused on
the introduction of fat, salt, and sugar (often in the form of corn derivatives)
involved in the industrial processing of our food products, whereas
the over-consumption of animals and animal products receives comparatively
little attention. Yet, by contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistant
infections, the spread of infectious diseases, and the occurrence of
chronic diseases, the mass production and overconsumption of meat now
constitutes one of the single greatest threats to public health. Let us briefly
consider each of these three factors in turn.

In CAFOs cattle are often crammed into feedlots shoulder to shoulder
knee deep in their own excrement, pigs are kept in confined sow crates
with little room to move, and chickens are frequently kept in poorly ventilated
sheds with less than a sheet of paper’s worth of space in their overcrowded
cages. Because of the intense confinement and unclean spaces
found in CAFOs, producers are “forced” to give their herds and flocks
large doses of antibiotics in hopes of avoiding the rapid spread of disease
(and the attending loss of profit). Indeed, half of all antibiotics produced
worldwide are now administered to livestock (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xx
and 273). This routine, preventive use of antibiotics in industrial livestock
production is increasingly recognized as exacerbating what some are calling
an “epidemic” of antibiotic resistant infections (Spellberg 2008). As
within the human community, the overuse of antibiotics is facilitating
the evolution of more antibiotic resistant infections, threatening both the
human and non-human population with treatment-resistant strains and
further burdening already taxed health systems.

Secondly, the proximity of CAFOs to population centers is quickly
becoming a strong vector for the spread of infectious disease to the human
population. As the British medical journal The Lancet reports, this is a
particular challenge for officials in developing nations where the siting
of CAFOs close to population centers is facilitating “the emergence of
zoonotic infections, including various viral haemorrhagic fevers, avian influenza,
Nipah virus from pig farming, and BSE [“mad cow” disease] in
cows and its human variant” (McMichael et al. 2007, 1261). The World
Bank goes so far as to claim that the “extraordinary proximate concentration
of people and livestock poses probably one of the most serious environmental
and public health challenges for the coming decades” (cited in
Halweil 2008, 2).

Beyond antibiotic resistance and facilitating the spread of infectious
diseases, the overconsumption of meat is now a leading cause of obesity
(with its attendant health affects) as well as a leading cause of many
chronic or noncommunicable diseases, both in developed and developing
nations.(4) Indeed, the majority of those living in the developed world and
a growing number of individuals in developing nations receive far more
nutrition from animal sources than is healthy. Despite persistent claims
to the contrary, there is little debate among doctors and nutrition experts
that one can have a healthy plant-based diet.(5) For instance, contrary to
the protein myth surrounding a vegetarian diet, on average both vegetarians
and non-vegetarians consume more than the recommended daily allowance
(RDA) of 56 g of protein. For instance, the average meat-eating
American consumes 77 g of animal protein and 35 g of plant protein daily
for a total of 112 g, twice the RDA for protein suggested by the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Yet, the average vegetarian
consumes 89 g per day (Pimentel and Pimentel 2003, 661s).

As the average person now derives one-third of his or her daily protein
and 17 percent of daily calories from animal sources (Steinfeld et al.
2006, 269), health professionals are increasingly recognizing the link between
high intakes of meat and the rise of non-communicable or chronic
diseases. A diet high in animal-sourced foods contributes significantly to,
among other things, hypertension, heart disease, certain types of cancer,
diabetes, gallstones, obesity, stroke, and food-borne illness (Gardner and
Halweil 2000, 41–42; Steinfeld et al. 2006, 269). With an estimated 66
percent of Americans reported as being overweight or obese,(6) the costs of
treating the effects of obesity continue to escalate. According to the Centers
for Disease Control, in 2000 the total cost of obesity in the United
States was estimated to be $117 billion, which accounts for nearly 10%
of the nation’s health care tab. (7)

Given that half the world is malnourished and that more than half
of all disease is linked to poor diet (Gardner and Halweil 2000, 43), it is
no exaggeration to claim that we are in the midst of a nutritional crisis, a
crisis that is largely of our own making. What is often overlooked is the
ethical significance of the overconsumption of animal products and the
role that it plays in this global nutrition crisis. It is a sad testimony to the
great disparity in wealth that exists in the world that, perhaps for the first
time in human history, there are more overfed (about 1 billion) individuals
than malnourished (about 800 million) (Steinfeld et al. 2006, 6). What is
important to note in this context is the sense in which these two figures
are related.

A Protein Factory In Reverse

Though industrial livestock production has dramatically increased
production, this economic efficiency has come at the price of dramatic
ecological inefficiency: animals now detract far more from the total global
food supply than they provide (270). Because only a small portion of
the total energy consumed by an animal is converted into edible biomass,
each movement up the trophic pyramid away from primary producers
results in a significant loss of energy. According to the USDA, the ratio
of kilograms of grain to animal protein is 0.7 to 1 for milk, 2.3 to 1for
chicken, 5.9 to 1 for pork, 11 to 1 for eggs, 13 to 1 for beef, and 21 to
1 for lamb (cited in Bellarby et al. 2008, 36). In other words, it takes 21
kg of edible grain (or 30 kg of forage) to yield 1 edible kg of lamb and
13 kg of edible grain (or 30 kg of forage) for one kg of beef. Yet a 13:1
protein ratio for beef seems efficient compared to a more comprehensive
energy analysis that includes all “inputs,” such as fertilizers and pesticides,
required to produce a kilogram of beef. According to one study,
to produce one calorie of beef requires 40 calories of fossil fuel (40:1),
compared to 14:1 for milk and 2.2:1 for grain (Baroni et al. 2007, 285). If
animals are now seen by the meat production industry as protein conversion
machines—converting “low value” grain or forage into “high value”
animal protein—then they are very inefficient machines. Indeed, as Francis
Moore Lappé aptly put it, they are more nearly “a protein factory in
reverse” (1991 [1975], 70).

With a full third of the annual global harvest of grains being fed to
livestock, the scale of lost edible nutrition is as staggering as it is morally
unacceptable. “At present, the US livestock population consumes
more than seven times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire
American population” (Pimentel and Pimentel 2003, 661s). Indeed, the
grain fed to US livestock alone could feed all of the world’s 800 million
malnourished individuals (Ibid.). While concerns regarding dependency,
distribution and corruption are justified, in a world with increasingly
stressed ecosystems, a rapidly growing human population, and political
unrest caused by high food prices, it is difficult to morally justify this
profligate use of edible nutrition. As high as the human costs in terms of
health and lost nutrition are, much of livestock’s long shadow falls on the
Earth’s water, land, and air.

Water Pressure (8)

For those of us fortunate enough to live in wealthy nations where
sanitation and indoor plumbing are taken for granted and where fresh
water is available in seemingly limitless quantities, it is hard to fathom
the idea that, worldwide, one in six people do not have access to fresh
water and more than twice that number, 2.4 billion people, lack access to
adequate sanitation facilities (United Nations Environment Programme
[UNEP] 2003). It is no exaggeration to say there is a growing freshwater
crisis. Worldwide, humans use three times more water today than in 1960
(Houghton 2009, 188). John Houghton—the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—notes that in many areas the use of freshwater far exceeds the replenishment rate.

The demand is so great in some river basins, for instance the Rio
Grande and the Colorado in North America, that almost no water
from them reaches the sea. Increasingly, water stored over hundreds
or thousands of years in underground aquifers is being tapped for current
use and there are now many places in the world where groundwater
is being used much faster than it is being replenished; every
year the water has to be extracted at deeper levels. For instance, over
more than half the land area of the United States, over a quarter of
the groundwater withdrawn is not replenished and around Beijing in
China the water table is falling by 2 m[eters] a year as groundwater
is pumped out. (188)

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO), “The world is moving towards increasing problems of freshwater
shortage, scarcity and depletion…” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxii). By the
year 2025, the FAO estimates that 64% of the world’s population may
live in “water-stressed” basins (Ibid.).(9) And by 2050 the number of individuals
living in severely stressed water basins is projected to rise from 1.5
billion to 3 to 5 billion (Houghton 2009, 193). While it is certainly true
that the rapid growth of the human population is behind many of these
figures, how freshwater is used has as much or more to do with this crisis
than just how many people use it. What many often neglect is the key role
that agriculture, and livestock in particular, play in both the depletion and
degradation of freshwater supplies.

“Domestic” use of water accounts for only 10% of freshwater consumption
while agriculture accounts for 66–70% of global freshwater
usage, making it the single largest user of freshwater.(10) Hidden in this
percentage of water used for agriculture is the amount dedicated to livestock
production, which currently accounts for more than eight percent of
global water use (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxii). For instance, according to a
study by the National Geographic (2010), it takes 1,799 gallons of water
to create one pound (0.5 kg) of beef, 576 gallons for one pound of pork,
468 gallons for one pound of chicken, and 216 gallons for one pound of
soy beans. Overall, it is estimated that producing one kilogram of animal
protein requires 100 times more water than producing one kilogram of
grain protein (Pimentel and Pimentel 2003, 662s).

The negative implications of livestock production are not limited to
the grossly inefficient use of increasingly scarce freshwater. Livestock production
also has far-reaching impacts on both the replenishment and quality
of freshwater stocks.(11) In the United States, livestock produce ten times
more waste than the human population (Singer 2002 [1975], 168) but,
unlike human waste, which must be cleaned in waste treatment facilities,
livestock effluent is collected in vast lagoons that often leak into aquifers
and waterways. As Schlosser and Wilson vividly describe it, “Each steer
deposits about 50 pounds of urine and manure every day. Unlike human
waste, this stuff isn’t sent to a treatment plant. It’s dumped into pits—gigantic
pools of pee and poop that the industry calls lagoons. Slaughter-house
lagoons can be as big as 20 acres and as much as 15 feet deep, filled
with millions of gallons of really disgusting stuff” (2006, 166). To further
illustrate the sheer volume of livestock waste, Schlosser and Wilson go
on to note that the two cattle feedlots outside Greeley, Colorado produce
more in animal waste than the humans in the cities of Denver, Boston,
Atlanta, and St. Louis combined (167).

The problems with animal waste polluting aquifers and rivers are further
compounded by the agricultural practices used to create the crops
fed to animals. While global figures are not available, the FAO reports
that “in the United States, with the world’s fourth largest land area, livestock
are responsible for an estimated…37 percent of pesticide use…and
a third of the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus into freshwater resources”
(Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxii). These pesticides and fertilizers make their way
into the groundwater and run off into waterways, polluting freshwater
sources and weakening or destroying already stressed marine ecosystems.
Given the vast quantities of manure, pesticides, and fertilizers generated
by intensive livestock production, we can begin to understand why the
FAO finds that the livestock sector “is probably the largest sectoral source
of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead’ zones in coastal
areas, [and] degradation of coral reefs…” (Ibid., italics added).(12) Even before
the explosion and sinking of a deepwater drilling rig off the coast of
Louisiana (April 2010) dumped millions of gallons of oil into its waters,
the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico was bigger than the state of Massachusetts
(Venkataman 2008).

In a world with already fragile marine ecosystems and increasingly
scarce freshwater, we can ill afford to continue raising animals by such
methods. Indeed, given that eating meat is nutritionally unnecessary(13) and
detracts more from the global supply of food than it provides,(14) not only is
the inefficient and wasteful use of increasingly scarce freshwater ecologically
unsustainable, it is morally unacceptable to continue to preference
the acquired taste of meat over the need for life-giving freshwater. Unfortunately,
the impact of industrial livestock production is not limited to the
quantity and quality of freshwater or the damage done to fragile marine
ecosystems. The impacts of livestock production on the land and the flora
and fauna that depend on it are equally severe and unsustainable.

 Land degradation, deforestation, and the sixth great extinction

For millennia, agricultural production has been the driving force
behind what is euphemistically referred to as “land conversion.” As the
human population races toward an estimated nine billion people by midcentury,
the dimensions of this “conversion” are massive. Nearly a third
of the Earth’s land surface has already been cleared to make way for a
global farm and the rate of clearing is accelerating (Steinfeld et al. 2006,
xxi, 5, and 271–72).

Though few people connect the steak on their plate to deforestation
in the Amazon, the link is now undeniable. “In the Amazon, cattle ranching
is now the primary reason for deforestation” (Steinfeld et al. 2006,
272). Indeed, the ever-expanding demand for beef is the single greatest
contributor to deforestation worldwide. “In Latin America where the
greatest amount of deforestation is occurring—70 percent of previous
forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures, and feed crops
cover a large part of the remainder” (xxi). Moreover, after a brief period
of decline, the rate of deforestation for pasture land is once again
increasing, reaching an annual rate of more than 13 million hectares
(over 32 million acres) a year, “an area the size of Greece or Nicaragua”
(UNEP 2003). Not only is the rate of clearing unsustainable, but also the
way that these cleared lands are subsequently being “cultivated” is of
great concern.

The FAO reports that, worldwide, 20 percent of all pastures and
rangelands and nearly 75 percent of those in “dry areas” are being degraded,
“mostly through overgrazing, compaction and erosion…” (Steinfeld
et al. 2006, xxi). In the United States, nearly all (90%) of crop land is
being depleted thirteen times faster than the natural replacement rate of
one ton per hectare per year (Pimentel and Pimentel 2003, 662s). Overall,
in the United States, livestock are responsible for an estimated 55 percent
of soil erosion (Steinfeld et al 2006, 273). In some parts of the world the
conversion of forest and grasslands to pasture or feed crops is depleting
the land causing “desertification.”(15)

In hastening the destructive spread of deserts across ever-larger portions
of the globe, livestock production is threatening not only livestock
and agriculture, but the remaining, already-stressed ecosystems.(16) As
farmers and ranchers clear forested land and draw ever-larger checks on
the non-renewable stores of fossil energy to fuel our global farm, we are
pushing many species to extinction.

There is wide consensus among biologists that the present rate of
extinction is 50 to 500 times the normal “background rate” revealed by
the fossil record (Woodruff 2001, 5471). It is because of this that some
claim that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction in the history
of our planet. Though many environmental philosophers recognize
the seriousness of rapid anthropogenic species extinction, few note that
the production of meat may now be “the leading player in the reduction
of biodiversity, since it is the major driver of deforestation, as well as
one of the leading drivers of land degradation, pollution, climate change,
overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas and facilitation of invasions by
alien species” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxiii, italics added). To adapt a memorable
phrase from Peter Singer: we are quite literally gambling with the
future of millions of forms of life on Earth for the sake of hamburgers.(17)

Cooking the Planet

In considering responses to global climate change, what has largely
been lost in all of the “green” talk about fuel efficient cars and compact
fluorescents, windmills and photovoltaics, is the fact that the food we
eat contributes more to global climate change than what we drive or the
energy we use. Worldwide, emissions from agriculture exceed both power
generation (McMichael et al. 2007, 1259) and transportation (Steinfeld et
al 2006, xxi; Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010a, 2), contributing as much as a
third of all greenhouse gas emissions (Bellarby et al., 2008, 5).(18) The portion
of these emissions dedicated to livestock production is substantial,
constituting approximately 18 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxi; Halweil 2008, 2;
Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010a, 2). Beyond the unstated taboo against publicly
criticizing the morality of various food choices, part of the reason that
the livestock sector is often omitted or ignored in discussions of global
climate change may be that it is responsible for a relatively small portion
of direct global carbon dioxide emissions (9%), primarily from the burning
of biomass (deforestation) to create feedcrops or pasture. However, a
closer analysis reveals that meat production has a much larger role in the
emission of methane (CH4), a potent heat-trapping gas.

Whereas carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased
by more than a third over pre-industrial levels, the concentration
of methane has more than doubled in the last two centuries (Houghton
2009, 20, 50). Methane is formed through anaerobic breakdown of organic
matter. Thus, there are “natural” sources of methane, the most
important of which are wetlands and termite mounds. The major anthropogenic
sources are coal mining, leakage from natural gas pipelines and
oil wells, rice paddies, biomass burning (burning of wood and peat), and,
most important for present purposes, waste treatment (manure) and enteric
fermentation (bovine flatulence) (Houghton 2009, 50).(19) Though still
present in the atmosphere in far smaller amounts than carbon dioxide
(1.775 parts per million (ppm) vs. 380 ppm), methane plays a disproportionate
role in global warming, contributing 21 percent of all anthropogenic
warming (35). The reason for this has to do with differences in the
molecular properties of atmospheric methane.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which is gradually “taken up” by land biota
or the ocean,(20) methane is chemically broken down in the atmosphere,
lasting an average of only twelve years.(21) This relatively short lifecycle is
offset by the fact that methane is far more potent at trapping heat than
carbon dioxide. Indeed, molecule-for-molecule, methane traps twentythree
times as much heat as carbon dioxide. Taking this differing global
warming potential into account, we can calculate the overall footprint of
livestock production in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent. According
to a recent study, “to produce 1 kg of beef in a US feedlot requires the
equivalent of 14.8 kg of CO2. As a comparison, 1 gallon of gasoline emits
approximately 2.4 kg of CO2. Producing 1 kg of beef thus has a similar
impact on the environment as 6.2 gallons of gasoline, or driving 160 miles
in the average American mid-size car” (Fiala 2008, 413). Overall then,
factoring in both direct and indirect emissions and the differences in lifecycle
and potency of different gases, the livestock sector is responsible for
nearly a fifth (18%) of all GHG emissions worldwide. It would seem that
the chickens in our pots are more responsible for global climate change
than the cars in our garages.(22)

This realization is alarming as the effect of even the relatively small
amount of warming (0.6oC ± 0.2 oC) in the twentieth century is already
being felt, particularly in northern latitudes, where the effects are amplified.(23) 
In the coming decades these changes will accelerate with the rising
temperature. Though there will be regional winners and losers, generally
those least responsible for causing the heat trapping gases (the developing
nations) are expected to be most severely affected by the changing climate,
including melting icecaps and glaciers, rising sea levels, shifting weather
patterns, more intense storms, drought, desertification, species extinction,
salinization of freshwater, spread of infectious disease, and millions of
environmental refugees.

In sum, we have found that livestock cast a very long shadow indeed. The
mass consumption of animals (and the intensive, industrial methods that
make them possible) is a primary reason why humans are hungry, fat,
or sick and is a leading cause behind the depletion and pollution of waterways,
the degradation and deforestation of the land, the extinction of
species, and the warming of the planet. The urgency of this realization becomes
even more apparent when considered in light of the rapidly accelerating
rate of meat consumption, which is expected to more than double
by 2050 from the 1990 level of 229 million tons per year to 465 million
tons (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xx). As the FAO notes, the “environmental
impact per unit of livestock” must be halved just to maintain the current
level of environmental damage, which is itself already environmentally
unsustainable (ibid.).

Even in its characteristically guarded manner, the FAO is surprisingly
direct: “Better policies in the livestock sector are an environmental requirement,
and a social and health necessity” (4). Given that livestock’s
“contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale…its potential
contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so
significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. Major reductions in
impact could be achieved at reasonable cost” (xx). Let us transition, then,
to consider how, according to the FAO, livestock’s long shadow might be

Efficiency, technology, and the market

The FAO suggests the following specific measures to mitigate the environmental
impact of livestock production.

• Agricultural subsidies—Governments should commit to the
gradual elimination of “often perverse subsidies,” which too
often “encourage livestock producers to engage in environmentally
damaging activities” (xxiii-xxiv).
• Overgrazing—The impact of grazing can be mitigated
through the institution of grazing fees (pricing the commons),
and restricting livestock access to waterways, which
reduces erosion, sedimentation, and pollution (xxi).
• Freshwater—Irrigation water should be properly priced.
Livestock access to waterways and riparian areas should
be strictly limited. Producers should utilize irrigation practices
and technology that reduce loss of freshwater through
evaporation and leakage (xxii).
• Manure—Research and implementation of integrated manure
management practices should be accelerated, including
biogas digestion and methane capturing systems. This technology
has the benefit of capturing heat trapping methane
as an energy source, reducing water pollution, and creating
high-quality fertilizer that can return nutrients to the soil
• Soil conservation—Soil erosion and degradation can be
mitigated through already known practices, such as avoiding
bare fallow, the appropriate use of fertilizers, “silvopastorlism,”
and controlled exclusion from “sensitive areas”
• Decentralization—Zoning laws should be created or
changed to site CAFOs away from population centers. This
will mitigate infectious disease vectors and “bring waste
generated into line with the capacity of accessible land to
absorb that waste” (279).
• CAFOs—Developing nations should accelerate the transition
to intensive, industrial livestock production to increase
resource efficiency and decrease environmental damage per
unit of livestock (278).

The FAO suggests that industry and political leaders worldwide
should urgently consider implementing these changes to how animals are
raised for food. For centuries the price (if they are priced at all) of water,
land, and feed have not reflected their actual scarcity. The failure to internalize
the cost of these “externalities” has led to artificially low prices
and the “overexploitation and pollution” of the global commons (xxiii
and 277). From an economic perspective, better “internalizing” costs will
allow market forces to moderate demand; paying the “true cost” of meat
will make it more expensive, which in turn is likely to result in a reduction
in consumption and production. The elimination of agricultural subsidies
and the pricing of water and pastureland would help to reduce the ongoing
destruction of the commons. Given the entrenched nature of global
subsidies schemes around the world, the political viability of this route is
in doubt.

From the perspective of ethicists and activists concerned with animal
welfare, the FAO’s most controversial recommendation is likely to be
that nations should hasten the transition to CAFOs. In its report the FAO
claims that the environmental problems caused by industrial livestock
production are not from their “large scale” or “production intensity,” but
from their “geographical location and concentration” (278). For instance,
the FAO argues that raising animals in concentrated animal feeding operations
(CAFOs), rather than using pasture-based methods, will decrease
deforestation for pasture, thereby reducing a major source of greenhouse
emissions caused by the livestock sector.(26)

I will evaluate the sustainability of adopting the FAO’s suggestions
more fully in the final section. Presently I note that, as important as many
of the FAO’s suggested changes are, it is misleading to suggest that they
would significantly mitigate livestock production’s high cost to animals,
human health, and the environment. For instance, while increasing the
intensity of livestock production would likely decrease deforestation for
pasture, it would do nothing to reduce (and may in fact increase) deforestation
for feedcrops. Further, increasing the industrial production of
livestock would result in a corresponding increase in the loss of edible
nutrition, use of freshwater, spread of antibiotic resistant disease, and increase
in disease caused by the overconsumption of animals.

As Pelletier and Tyedmers conclude in their analysis of the FAO report:
“Given the magnitude of necessary efficiency gains, it would appear
highly unlikely that technological improvements alone will be sufficient
to achieve the objective of maintaining the proportional contribution of
the livestock sector to cumulative anthropogenic contributions to these issues…”
(Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010a, 3). As I will argue more fully in the
final section, even if all of the FAO’s recommended measures were implemented,
meat production practices would remain woefully unsustainable.
As Pelletier and Tyedmers put it, there is a “profound disconnect between
the anticipated scale of potential environmental impacts associated with
projected livestock production levels and the most optimistic mitigation
strategies relative to these current, published estimates of sustainable biocapacity”

In focusing exclusively on reforming livestock production methods
and refusing to recommend explicitly the reduction of meat consumption,
the FAO’s report gives the false impression that current meat consumption
practices can indefinitely continue, if only methods were made more “efficient”
by applying industrial techniques.(27) Unfortunately, as I will show,
these market-based “technical fixes” would do little more than slow the
bleeding of a gaping, infected wound. Indeed, in a telling passage the FAO
seems to recognize this, noting that “by applying scientific knowledge and
technological capability” we can at best “offset” some of the damage.
“Meanwhile, the vast legacy of damage leaves future generations with
a debt” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, 5). Recognizing that current industrial agricultural
and livestock production methods are unsustainable, some are
calling for more dramatic changes to the way animals are raised.

Let them Eat Grass

 A raft of largely popular books decrying the industrialization of food
production has reached a new high-water mark, led most vocally and
eloquently by the journalist Michael Pollan.(28) Unlike the philosophers and
activists of an earlier generation who, inspired by the work of Peter Singer
and Tom Regan, fought against industrial farming because of the excessive
suffering caused to animals, this “new agrarian farming movement”
is focused more on the human and environmental costs of industrialized
food production.(29) Though the movement is diverse, it is largely characterized
by a return to more “natural” methods of producing food and raising
animals, including local, organic produce and free-range animals. Thus,
there is a hue and cry for a movement away from CAFOs, not necessarily
because of the pain and suffering that they undeniably cause to the animals,
but because of the human and environmental damage they inflict.
While a complete analysis of the new agrarian movement is not possible
here, it is important to consider whether and how a move away from
intensive, factory farming and toward extensive, pasture-based methods
would address the significant human and environmental harms currently
caused by livestock production.

First, although perhaps not its explicit intention, new agrarian methods
would dramatically improve the lives of livestock. As philosophers and
animal activists have rightly noted for decades, intensive factory farming
methods (especially in the United States) are unimaginably cruel. There
is little dispute that most of the animals raised in CAFOs lead short lives
of intense suffering. “The crucial moral difference,” Pollan rightly notes,
“between a CAFO and a good farm is that the CAFO systematically deprives
the animals in it of their ‘characteristic form of life’” (2007, 321).(30)
Animals should be returned, Pollan argues, to their rightful evolutionary
role as members of a complex farming community symbiotically related
in complex webs of interdependence.(31)

The new agrarians argue that the elimination of CAFOs would not
only be good for the animals themselves, it would also be good for humans.
First, the widespread adoption of new agrarian methods would reduce the
spread of treatment resistant infections by eliminating the preventive use
of antibiotics. Second, by eliminating the confined, unsanitary conditions
of CAFOs and their close proximity to population centers, pasture-based
livestock production would reduce the risk of spreading infectious diseases
from livestock to the human community. However, the most significant
benefit to human health would probably come from the reduction of meat
consumption caused by dramatically higher meat prices. Presumably, the
methods advocated by the new agrarian movement would entail much
smaller herds and flocks which, combined with the proposed elimination
of agricultural subsidies, would dramatically increase the price of meat
(and other industrially processed foods). This decrease in supply and increase
in price of meat would likely result in a reduction in consumption,
which would have significant benefits for human health. As The Lancet
found in its recent study, a “substantial contraction” in meat consumption
should benefit human health “mainly by reducing the risk of ischaemic
heart disease…, obesity, colorectal cancer, and, perhaps, some other cancers”
(McMichael et al. 2007, 1254). In this way, proponents of the new
agrarian movement argue, meat would remain a part of the human diet,
but it would play a noticeably smaller role.

This return to a more “traditional diet” was first championed by the
Rachel Carson of the food movement, Francis More Lappé (1991 [1971],
13). Animal flesh has been part of homo sapiens’ diet for millions of years,
but until recently it has always played a minor role. This evolutionary
perspective on meat eating is also at the heart of Pollan’s discussion in
his acclaimed The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan takes issue with animal
welfare advocates who equate the domestication and raising of animals
with “exploitation” or “slavery,” arguing that this portrays a fundamental
misunderstanding of the relationship between humans and livestock.
“Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development”
Pollan writes. “It is certainly not a regime humans somehow imposed on
animals some ten thousand years ago” (2007, 320). Rather, Pollan argues,
the raising of animals for food and labor is an instance of human predation
and, as such, it is an instance of “mutualism or symbiosis between
species” (Ibid.). The suggestion, then, is that humans should see the raising
and consuming of animals not as a regrettable moral failing but as an ecologically
vital part of our evolutionary heritage. “Indeed,” Pollan argues,
“it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without
animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern
is for the health of nature—rather than, say, the internal consistence
of our moral code or the condition of our souls—then eating animals may
be the most ethical thing to do” (327).

Overall, then, advocates of the new agrarian movement argue that,
compared to the dominant industrial model, the organic, pasture-based
methods are better for the animals raised, for the humans who eat them,
and for our shared natural environment. As a comparative judgment, I am
in agreement with this claim. The methods of the new agrarian movement
are in many ways an improvement over the industrial livestock practices
encouraged by the FAO and used by the majority of producers around
the world.

Further, advocates of the new agrarian movement are right to note
that vegetarians and vegans should not presume that the elimination of
meat automatically makes their diet environmentally sustainable. The
more industrial the agricultural processes involved in producing one’s
food, whether meat or plants, the greater the ecological impact. Ecologically
speaking, a vegetarian diet based on heavily processed meat substitutes
made out of plants that were raised in monoculture on formerly
forested lands using large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers may be
more ecologically destructive than eating a grass-fed cow.

Thus, I join those in the new agrarian movement in recognizing that
the act of eating (whether plants or animals) is a fundamentally ecological
act. The consumption of one organism by another is perhaps the most
basic form of ecological relation. Through the act of consumption, the
other literally becomes part of one’s being. Indeed, it is important to recognize
that every organism destroys others that it might live and thrive;
such destruction is at the very heart of the act of living. As Alfred North
Whitehead once noted “Life is robbery…” (Whitehead 1978 [1929], 105).
Every organism takes from others to sustain itself. This view is consistent
with an appropriate, ecological view of our world. Ecologically speaking,
the destruction of life is a vital part of the flow of energy through natural
systems. And yet while life does indeed involve robbery, as Whitehead
rightly recognized, “the robber requires justification” (105). As moral
agents, our robbery of life must be justified.

Given the ecological standpoint adopted here, the morality of one’s
diet is not merely determined by what is eaten, but also how what is eaten
is produced. That is, the question is not whether one’s diet is environmentally
destructive, but how destructive it is. While there are important,
morally relevant differences between plants and animals, vegetarians and
vegans should not be seduced into thinking that their hands are clean because
they don’t eat animals. Once we appreciate the embedded nature of
our ecological existence, we realize that no living being has “clean hands.”
Every living organism must destroy others in order that it might sustain
itself. Humans are no exception. It is not possible for humans—or any
other living being—to sustain themselves without destroying other beautiful
and complex forms of life. Such a moral position resists the temptation
to reduce the moral life to simplistic binary states of “good” and “bad.” In
the final analysis, there are only ameliorative grades of better and worse
relative to that ever-evolving moral ideal. In a world replete with beautiful
and unique achievements of life, our aim as moral agents should be
to avoid destroying or maiming another being unless such destruction is
necessary in order to achieve the most robust, rich, and beautiful result
possible.(32) The act of eating is an inherently moral act; our robbery of life
must be continually justified.

Yet is pointing, as Pollan and Lappé do, to the evolutionary basis of
our meat consumption a sufficient moral justification of continuing the
practice? No. Explaining the genesis of a practice is not yet to give its
moral justification. Indeed, Pollan himself makes this point. “Do you really
want to base your moral code on the natural order? Murder and rape
are natural, too. Besides, we can choose: Humans don’t need to kill other
creatures in order to survive; carnivorous animals do” (2007, 320). Given
that humans don’t need to kill other creatures in order to survive or even
thrive, we need to morally justify the choice. Beyond the evolutionary
argument, the moral weight of the argument for continuing to eat animals
would seem to rest on the claim that truly sustainable agriculture requires
the use of livestock to complete the nutrient cycle. Yet is this the case? To
conclude that such methods are better than industrial methods is not yet
to have shown they are good. Is in fact eating meat “the most ethical thing
to do”?

In his recent essay Vasile Stãnescu has noted that there is an often unrecognized
“dark side” to Pollan’s and Kingsolver’s new agrarian model.(33)
By creating “an idealized, unrealistic, and, at times, distressingly sexist and
xenophobic literary pastoral…” the new agrarian movement encourages
“traditional” gender roles and national or regional identities over against
foreign workers and food (Stãnescu 2010, 10). While there is no necessary
connection between the adoption of pasture-based livestock production
and a nostalgia for supposed “traditional ways,” Stãnescu is right to question
whether, embedded within the call to return animals to the land, is
also a call to return women to the kitchen and men to the range.

However, Stãnescu’s critique goes beyond questioning the narrative
that underlies the new agrarianism. He also notes that the problem with
the new agrarian model is that “it is simply factually untrue” (12). Given
the world’s current and projected rate of meat consumption, he argues
that it is doubtful whether it is physically possible to raise livestock via
pasture-based methods. “[L]ocally based meat, regardless of its level of
popularity, can never constitute more than either a rare and occasional
novelty item, or food choices for only a few privileged customers, since
there simply is not enough arable land left in the entire world to raise
large quantities of pasture fed animals necessary to meet the world’s meat
consumption” (Stãnescu 2010, 14–15). This brings us finally to the crux
of the issue: is it in fact possible to feed sustainably the present and projected
human population on a diet based significantly on the consumption
of animals?

A More Sustainable Diet

The human population will soon pass the seven billion mark.(34) Over
the next forty years (by 2050), the United Nations estimates that at least
two billion more humans will be born.(35) Those billions of people will
need significant quantities of freshwater and food. If present trends are
any indication, much of this food will be in the form of animal products.
Assuming the wide adoption and continued improvement of livestock
production methods as suggested by the FAO’s report, what are the likely
environmental impacts of a future with nine billion meat eaters? Is the
FAO right that livestock production can be made sustainable through the
intensification of livestock production? Or are advocates of the new agrarianism
right that the only form of sustainable agriculture is one based on
pasture-raised animals? On our increasingly small planet, what form of
diet is the most ethically responsible and environmentally sustainable?

To help answer these crucial questions, I turn to a recent study of the
FAO’s report by Pelletier and Tyedmers. In their study they use “simplified
but robust models to conservatively estimate” the likely environmental
impacts in 2050 of different dietary scenarios for meeting the USDA
recommendations for protein consumption (2010a, 3). The “FAO projection
scenario” represents the status quo baseline of projected increases
in animal product consumption, which as we have seen is expected to be
double that of 1990 levels (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xx). In the “substitution
scenario,” less efficient ruminant products (cows, sheep, goats, milk) are
replaced by monogastic products (chickens, turkeys, eggs). Finally, Pelletier
and Tyedmers consider the anticipated environmental impact of a
“soy protein scenario,” in which the recommended daily allowance (RDA)
of protein is derived entirely from soy protein sources (vegan diet).

This study is particularly useful for our purposes because each of these
scenarios is then compared against recent estimates of “environmental
boundary conditions” for sustainable greenhouse gas emissions, reactive
nitrogen mobilization,(36) and anthropogenic biomass appropriation. These
boundary conditions are defined as “biophysical limits which define a safe
operating space for economic activities at a global scale” (Pelletier and Tyedmers
2010a, 1–2). For instance, citing work by Allison, et al., Pelletier and
Tyedmers suggest that—if warming this century is to be limited to two degrees
Centigrade, which is required to avoid the most severe environmental
disruptions projected by the IPCC—annual per capita greenhouse emissions
must be limited to one metric ton (2).(37) On the other hand, Pelletier and Tyedmers
use Bishop, et al.’s estimate that humanity can “sustainably appropriate
9.72 billion tons of net primary production annually without undermining
the biodiversity support potential of global ecosystems” (2010b, 3).38

Although far from a complete account of sustainability, Pelletier
and Tyedmers’ study provides a helpful model for evaluating whether
human activity is sustainable with regard to these three critical areas. All
of human activity—including not only food production, but also energy
production, manufacturing, transportation—must fall within these “environmental
boundary conditions” if humanity is to avert “irreversible
ecological change” (2010a, 3).

The results of Pelletier and Tyedmers’ study are staggering. While recognizing
that their models still embody “considerable uncertainty,” they
find that “by 2050, the livestock sector alone may either occupy the majority
of, or considerably overshoot, current best estimates of humanity’s safe
operating space in each of these domains” (2).(39) Specifically, by 2050, in
order to meet FAO projected livestock demand (FAO scenario), livestock
production will require 70% of the sustainable boundary conditions for
greenhouse gas emissions, 88% of sustainable biomass appropriation, and
294% of sustainable reactive nitrogen mobilization (2). Thus, according
to these conservative estimates, if humans consume animal-sourced proteins
at the rates projected by the FAO, livestock production alone will
consume the majority of or exceed entirely the sustainable boundary conditions
in these three critical areas.

Note that, since they are limited to direct greenhouse gas emissions
and direct appropriation of biomass, these figures are, if anything, likely
to be overly conservative. If indirect emissions and biomass appropriations
are included, for instance by including the effects of land-use conversion,
then it is likely that the sustainable boundary conditions for both
GHG emissions and biomass appropriation would also be exceeded (Pelletier
and Tyedmers 2010b, 3). In modeling the likely direct emissions and
biomass appropriation, Pelletier and Tyedmers provide an important response
to the widely touted work of Pitesky, Stackhouse, and Mitloehner,
which takes issue with several of the FAO’s conclusions.(40) Relevant here
is the claim that increasing the intensity of livestock production in developing
nations would alleviate the need for deforestation and would be
sufficient to make livestock emissions sustainable. However, Pelletier and
Tyedmers’ model demonstrates that this reasoning is likely to be mistaken.
Even with the widespread use of the most “efficient” livestock production
methods, livestock production would use an unsustainable portion of the
environmental boundary conditions for carbon dioxide emissions, nitrogen
emissions, and, especially, biomass appropriation.

What if, instead of relying on ruminant sources of protein (beef,
sheep, goat, and milk), humans derived their protein from more efficient,
monogastric sources (chicken, turkey, and eggs) as in the substitution scenario?
(41) According to Pelletier and Tyedmers, if poultry products were
consumed instead of ruminants, “anticipated marginal CO2-e emissions
would rise by 22% and biomass appropriation would increase by 15%
relative to year 2000 levels.… However, relative to the FAO projections
scenario, substituting poultry for marginal ruminant production would
reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 13%, biomass appropriation by
5%, and reactive nitrogen mobilization by 8%” (Pelletier and Tyedmers,
2010b, 3). Thus, overall, the substitution scenario would only yield an
aggregate reduction in impacts of 5–13% over that of the FAO projection
scenario, suggesting that the sustainability of a diet of mainly monogastric
animals is also doubtful.

What if all humans obtained their recommended daily intake of protein
from plant (in this case soybean) sources as in the soy protein scenario?
Creating the 457,986 thousand tons of soy beans (ibid.) necessary
to feed the projected nine billion humans in 2050 would no doubt have
a considerable impact on the environment. However, relative to the FAO
scenario for 2050, it would represent a 98% reduction of greenhouse gas
emissions, a 94% reduction in biomass appropriation, and a 32% reduction
in reactive nitrogen mobilization. Thus, the entire human population
could, in principle, meet its protein needs from plant sources and only
contribute 1.1% of sustainable greenhouse gas emissions, 1.1% of sustainable
biomass appropriation, and 69% of sustainable reactive nitrogen
mobilization (ibid.). Thus, a plant-based diet is not only more healthful
than the other diets,(42) it is also the most sustainable form of diet.(43)

Thus, even under the most optimistic scenarios for technological improvements
in livestock efficiency, nine billion humans could not continue
to eat animals at the current and projected rates and avoid catastrophic
environmental harms. “As the human species runs the final course of rapid
population growth before beginning to level off midcentury,” Pelletier and
Tyedmers (2010a) write, “reining in the global livestock sector should be
considered a key leverage point for averting irreversible ecological change
and moving humanity toward a safe and sustainable operating space” (3).
In the end, the more animal products one consumes, the more destructive
one’s diet is to the environment. Though important and morally relevant
qualitative differences exist between industrial and non-industrial
methods, given the present and projected size of the human population,
the morality and sustainability of one’s diet are inversely related to the
proportion of animals and animal products in one’s diet. Thus, if we are
to ensure adequate food and water for all humans without exceeding the
Earth’s capacity to support life, we must find the courage to address directly
the morality of eating meat on an increasingly small planet.


The title of this work was inspired by the report of the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Henning Steinfeld et
al., Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, Food
and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006, http://www The author wishes to extend
his sincere thanks to the generous blind reviewer, whose comments
and suggestions have greatly improved this essay, and to Suzie Henning
and David Perry for their keen copyediting skills.


1 Although “meat” should be inclusive of all forms of animal flesh, including
aquatic, following standard usage in this field, the term “meat” will largely
refer to beef, pork, chicken, and lamb.
2 According to Halweil (2008), “Factory farms account for 67 percent of poultry
meat production, 50 percent of egg production, and 42 percent of pork
production” (2).
3 See Singer 2002 [1975].
4 Cf. “Worldwide the number of overweight people (about 1 billion) has now
surpassed the number of malnourished people (about 800 million). And a
significant part of the growth in obesity occurs in the developing world. For
example, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 300
million obese adults and 115 million suffering from obesity-related conditions
in the developing world” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, 6).
5 Cf. “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately
planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful,
nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention
and treatment of certain diseases” (“Position of the American Dietetic Association:
Vegetarian Diets” 2009, 1266).
6 Cf. “Results from the 2005–2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination
Survey (NHANES), using measured heights and weights, indicate that an
estimated 32.7 percent of US adults 20 years and older are overweight, 34.3
percent are obese and 5.9 percent are extremely obese” (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention 2008).
7 Cf. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2010; Gardner and Halweil
2000, 8.
8 This appropriate heading was used in a recent issue of the National Geographic
focused on water use (National Geographic 2010).
9 See also, “The extent to which a country is water stressed is related to the
proportion of the available freshwater supply that is withdrawn for use…”
(Houghton 2009, 188).
10 See Houghton 2009, 188 and Steinfeld et al. 2006, 5. According to Pimentel
and Pimentel, “in the Western United States, agriculture accounts for 85% of
freshwater use” (Pimentel and Pimentel 2003, 662s).
11 Cf. “Livestock also affect the replenishment of freshwater by compacting soil,
reducing infiltration, degrading the banks of watercourse, drying up floodplains
and lowering water tables. Livestock’s contribution to deforestation
also increases runoff and reduces dry season flows” (Steinfeld et al. 2006,
12 This quote continues, “The major sources of pollution are from animal
wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and
pesticides used for feedcrops, and sediments from eroded pastures.”
13 Cf. note 6.
14 Cf. “In simple numeric terms, livestock actually detract more from total food
supply than they provide. Livestock now consume more human edible protein
than they produce. In fact, livestock consume 77 million tonnes of protein
contained in feedstuff that could potentially be used for human nutrition,
whereas only 58 million tones of protein are contained in food products that
livestock supply” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, 270).
15 Cf. “Desertification…is the degradation of land brought about by climate
variations or human activities that have led to decreased vegetation, reduction
of available water, reduction of crop yields and erosion of soil” (Houghton
2009, 197).
16 Cf. “The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)
set up in 1996 estimates that over 70% of these dry lands, covering over 25%
of the world’s land area, are degraded and therefore affected by desertification”
(Houghton 2009, 197).
17 Cf. “We are, quite literally, gambling with the future of our planet—for the
sake of hamburgers” (Singer [1975] 2002, 169).
18 Cf. “The total global contribution of agriculture, considering all direct and
indirect emissions, is between 8.5–16.5 Pg CO2-eq, which represents between
17 and 32% of all global human-induced GHG emissions, including land use
change…” (Bellarby 2008, 5).
19 For a breakdown of methane emission by source, see Houghton 2009, 53,
table 32.
20 Although the shorthand of one century is often used for the lifetime of carbon
in the atmosphere, the actual lifecycle is more complicated because reservoirs
“turnover” at a wide range of timescales, “which range from less than
a year to decades (for exchange with the top layers of the ocean and the land
biosphere) to millennia (for exchange with the deep ocean or long-lived soil
pools)” (Houghton 2009, 37).
21 Cf. “The main process for the removal of methane from the atmosphere is
through chemical destruction. It reacts with hydroxyl (OH) radicals, which
are present in the atmosphere because of processes involving sunlight, oxygen,
ozone and water vapour. The average lifetime of methane in the atmosphere
is determined by the rate of this loss process. At about 12 years it is
much shorter than the lifetime of carbon dioxide” (Houghton 2009, 50).
22 Cf. “With rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting icecaps and glaciers,
shifting ocean current and weather patterns, climate change is the most serious
challenge facing the human race. The livestock sector is a major player,
responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2
equivalent. This is a higher share than transport” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, xxi).
Pitesky, Stackhouse, and Mitloehner have rightly noted that the FAO’s comparison
of the livestock and transportation sectors is potentially misleading
because it is “based on inappropriate or inaccurate scaling of predictions”
(Pitesky et al. 2009, 33). However, Pitesky, Stackhouse, and Mitloehner do
not dispute that livestock production accounts for 18% of global greenhouse
gas emissions. Rather, their claim is first that the FAO’s comparison of the
livestock and transportation sectors is misleading because, whereas both direct
and indirect emissions are included for the livestock sector, only direct
emissions are counted for the transportation sector. Secondly, they note that
while it is true that the livestock sector has a larger footprint than transportation
in many developing nations, it is not true of the United States (and
most developed nations) where livestock account for only 2.8% of emissions
(4). Thus, Pitesky, Stackhouse, and Mitloehner rightly note that a more precise
formulation would be to say that “agriculture is considered the largest
source of anthropogenic CH4 and N2O at the global, national, and state
level…while transport is considered the largest anthropogenic source of CO2
23 For instance, a June 2009 report of the Government Accountability Office
(GAO) found that 31 native villages face “imminent threats” from “growing
impacts of climate change in Alaska.” At least twelve of these villages have
elected to relocate entirely (United States Government Accountability Office
24 The immediate viability of manure management systems is questioned by
Fiala, who claims that “this technology is a long way from being used in the
US and Europe, let alone the rest of the world, this is not likely to be a solution
in the near future” (Fiala 2008, 418).
25 Silvopasture is the practice of combining forestry and animal husbandry to
enhance soil preservation and animal welfare. For more on silvopastoralism
see Sharrow 1999, 111–126.
26 Cf. “Expansion of livestock production is a key factor in deforestation, especially
in Latin America where the greatest amount of deforestation is occurring—
70 percent of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by
pastures, and feedcrops cover a large part of the remainder” (Steinfeld et al.
2006, xxi).
27 In its otherwise comprehensive and detailed analysis, the FAO makes only
one brief reference to the role of meat consumption. “While not being addressed
in this assessment, it may well be argued that environmental damage
by livestock may be significantly reduced by lowering excessive consumption
of livestock products amoung wealthy people” (Steinfeld et al. 2006, 269).
28 See, for instance, Schlosser 2001; Schlosser and Wilson 2006; Pollan 2007,
2009; Kingsolver 2007; Petrini 2007; Foer 2009; Fairlie 2010.
29 I will use the phrase “new agrarian movement” to refer to the loose collection
of popular writers and scholars who seek to move society away from
industrial food production. This phrase is inspired by the book series created
by The University of Kentucky Press, Culture of the Land: A Series in the
New Agrarianism. (See
series_agrarianism.html.) My thanks to Lee McBride for bringing this to my
30 Pollan 2007, 321.
31 On the symbiosis between livestock and humans, see Pollan 2007, 321f.
32 For a more developed defense of this kalocentric or beauty-centered position,
see Henning 2005 and 2009.
33 Kingsolver 2007. See also, James E. McWilliams, Just Food: Where Locavores
Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown and
Company 2009).
34 See United States Census Bureau 2010; UN 2011.
35 Contrary to its earlier projections, the United Nations is no longer expecting
the human population to stabilize midcentury at nine billion people. According
to its most recent estimates, the human population is projected to continue
to climb past ten billion people by 2100. See UN 2011.
36 Cf. “Nitrogen is essential to all life forms and is also the most abundant element
in the Earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric N, however, exists in a stable
form (N2) inaccessible to most organisms until fixed in a reactive form (N-).
The supply of reactive nitrogen plays a pivotal role in controlling the productivity,
carbon storage, and species composition of ecosystems… Alteration of
the nitrogen cycle has numerous consequences, including increased radiative
forcing [i.e., climate change], photochemical smog and acid deposition, and
productivity increases leading to ecosystem simplification and biodiversity
loss” (Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010a, 1).
37 In 2000 the average American contributed twenty metric tons of carbon dioxide
38 Net Primary Production (NPP) is defined as “the net flux of carbon from the
atmosphere into green plants per unit time.… NPP is a fundamental ecological
variable, not only because it measures the energy input to the biosphere
and terrestrial carbon dioxide assimilation, but also because of its significance
in indicating the condition of the land surface area and status of a wide range
of ecological processes” (DAAC 2010).
39 The researchers admit the speculative nature of their models, but also note the
conservative nature of the presuppositions made. Cf. “Modeling the future is
fraught with uncertainties, and we would be remiss to present our estimates
as definitive. We have endeavored to err on the side of caution in developing
what we believe to be conservative forecasts of some of the potential future
environmental impacts of livestock production. For example, it would be impressive,
indeed, were all livestock production globally to achieve resource
efficiencies comparable to those reported for the least impactful contemporary
systems in industrialized countries, effectively reducing global impacts
per unity protein produced by 35% in 2050 relative to 2000—as we have
assumed here” (Pelletier and Tyedmers 2010a, 2).
40 For additional discussion of Pitesky et al., see also note 22 and 43.
41 This is in fact the suggestion of the article responding to Pelletier and Tyedmers
by Steinfeld and Gerber 2010.
42 This is confirmed by the American Dietetic Association (2009): “The results
of an evidenced based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with
a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to
have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure,
and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians.
Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower
overall cancer rates” (1266).
43 Note that this responds to Pitesky, Stackhouse, and Mitloehner’s claim that
the FAO’s report is incomplete because it “does not account for ‘default’ emissions.
Specifically, if domesticated livestock were reduced or even eliminated,
the question of what ‘substitute’ GHGs would be produced in their place has
never been estimated” (35). Pelletier and Tyedmers’ analysis demonstrates
that a plant-based diet is likely to be the only sustainable way of feeding the
current and projected human population.


Baroni, L., et al. 2007. “Evaluating the Environmental Impact of Various Dietary
Patterns Combined with Different Forms of Production Systems” European
Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61: 279–86.
Bellarby, Jessica, et al. 2008. Cool Farming: Climate Impacts of Agriculture
and Mitigation Potential. Amsterdam: Greenpeace International. Accessed
9 November 2010,
CDIAC: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. 2010. Accessed 9 November
CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2008. “Prevalence of overweight,
obesity and extreme obesity among adults: United States, trends
1960–62 through 2005–2006.” Accessed 9 November 2010, http://www.cdc
CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010. “Preventing Obesity and
Chronic Diseases Through Good Nutrition and Physical Activity.” Accessed
9 November 2010,
DAAC: Distributed Active Archive Center for Biogeochemical Dynamics, Oakridge
National Laboratory. 2010. “Net Primary Productivity Methods.” Accessed
November 17,
Durning, Alan B. and Holly B. Brough. 1991. Taking Stock: Animal Farming and
the Environment. Worldwatch Institute.
Ehrlich, Paul and Anne Ehrlich. 1987. Extinction: The Causes and Consequences
of the Disappearance of Species. New York: Ballantine.
Fairlie, Simon. 2010. Meat: A Benign Extravagance. White River Junction, VT:
Chelsea Green Publishing.
Fiala, Nathan. 2009. “The Greenhouse Hamburger” Scientific American February:
———. 2008. “Meeting the Demand: An Estimation of Potential Future Greenhouse
Gas Emissions from Meat Production.” Ecological Economics 67: 412–19.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. 2009. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and
Fox, Michael Allen. 1999. “The Contribution of Vegetarianism to Ecosystem
Health.” Ecosystem Health 5: 70–74.
GAO: United States Government Accountability Office. 2009. “Alaska Native
Villages.” Accessed 9 November 2010,
Gardner, Gary and Brian Halweil. 2000. Overfed and Underfed: The Global Epidemic
of Malnutrition. Ed. Jane A. Peterson. Washington, DC: Worldwatch
Halweil, Brian. 2008. “Meat Production Continues to Rise” Worldwatch Institute
20 August. Accessed 9 November 2010.
Henning, Brian G. 2005. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in
a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
———. 2009. “Trusting in the ‘Efficacy of Beauty’: A Kalocentric Approach to
Moral Philosophy,” Ethics & the Environment 14.1 (2009): 101–28.
Houghton, John. 2009. Global Warming: The Complete Briefing. 3rd ed. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Kingsolver, Barbara. 2007. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. New York: Harper
Lappé, Frances Moore. [1971] 1991. Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine
Lappé, Frances Moore and Anna Lappé. 2002. Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a
Small Planet. New York: Putnam.
McMichael, Anthony J., et al. 2007. “Energy and Health 5: Food, livestock production,
energy, climate change, and health.” The Lancet 370: 1253–63.
National Geographic. 2010. “Hidden Water We Use.” April. Accessed 9 November
Pelletier, Nathan and Peter Tyedmers. 2010a. “Forecasting potential global environmental
costs of livestock production 2000–2050.” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Science Early Edition 4 October. 10.1073: 1–4.
———. 2010b. “Supporting Information.” Proceedings of the National Academy
of Science Early Edition 4 October. 10.1073: 1–4.
Petrini, Carlo. 2007. Slow Food Nation. New York: Rizzoli Ex Libris.
Pimentel, David and Marcia Pimentel. 2003. “Sustainability of Meat-based and
Plant-0based Diets and the Environment.” The American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition 78: 660s–63s.
Pitesky, Maurice E. Kimberly R. Stackhouse, and Frank M. Mitloehner. 2009.
“Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change.” In Advances
in Agronomy Vol. 103, edited by Donald Sparks, 1–40. Burlington: Academic
Pollan, Michael. 2007. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four
Meals. New York: Penguin.
———. 2009. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin.
“Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” 2009. Journal
of the American Dietetic Association 109.7: 12661–78.
Rolston, Holmes III. 1988. Environmental Ethics: Duties To and Values In the
Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Sapontzis, Steve F., ed. 2004. Food for Thought: The Debate Over Eating Meat.
New York: Prometheus Books.
Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Schlosser, Eric and Charles Wilson. 2006. Chew On This: Everything You Don’t
Want to Know About Fast Food. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Sharrow, Steven H. 1999. “Silvopastoralism,” in Agroforestry in Sustainable Agricultural
Systems, edited by Louise E. Buck, James P. Lassoie, and Erick C.M.
Fernandes. 1111–26. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Singer, Peter. [1975] 2002. Animal Liberation. 3rd ed. New York: Avon Books.
Spellberg Berg et al. 2008. “The Epidemic of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections: A
Call to Action for the Medical Community from the Infectious Diseases Society
of America.” Clinical Infectious Disease 46: 155–64.
Stãnescu, Vasile. 2010. “ ‘Green’ Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat
and the Danger of the Local.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 8: 8–32.
Steinfeld, Henning, et al. 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues
and Options. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations. Accessed 9 November 2010,
Steinfeld, Henning and Pierre Gerber. 2010. “Livestock production and the global
environment: Consume less or produce better?” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Science Early Edition 26 October 107.43: 18237–38.
Suback, Susan. 1999. “Global Environmental Costs of Beef Production.” Ecological
Economics 30: 79–91.
Tickell, Crispin. 1992. “The Quality of Life: What Quality? Whose Life?” Environmental
Values 1: 65–76.
Venkatarman, Bina. 2008. “Rapid Growth Found in Oxygen-Starved Ocean
‘Dead Zones’” The New York Times 14 April. Accessed 9 November 2010,
Whitehead, Alfred North. [1929] 1978. Process and Reality, (corrected edition),
eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press.
Woodruff, David S. 2001. “Declines of Biomes and Biotas and the Future of Evolution,”
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America 8 May 98.10: 5471. http:/
UN: United Nations Press Release. 2011. “World Population to reach 10 billion
by 2100 if Fertility in all Countries Converges to Replacement Level” 3 May
2011 (Accessed 13 May 2011)
UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme. 2003. “Key Facts About Water.”
5 June 2003. (accessed November 9, 2010).
United States Census Bureau. 2010. “International Data Base.” Accessed 9 November

Notes on contributors

Greta Gaard serves on the Editorial Board of ISLE: Interdisciplinary
Studies in Literature and Environment, and the Executive Board of the
Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Her
publications include Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (1993), Ecological
Politics: Ecofeminists and the Greens (1998), Ecofeminist Literary
Criticism (1998), and The Nature of Home (2007). Author of over fifty
articles, Gaard is currently co-editing a volume on Feminist Ecocriticism
with Serpil Oppermann and Simon Estok. E-mail:

Benjamin Hale is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department and
the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
He is currently co-editor of the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment
and has published papers in journals such as The Monist, Metaphilosophy,
Public Affairs Quarterly, Environmental Values, Science, Technology, and
Human Values, among others. His book, The Wicked and the Wild: Why
You Don’t Have to Love Nature to be Green, will be appearing from the
University of Chicago Press in Fall 2012. E-mail:

Brian G. Henning is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Gonzaga University
in Spokane, WA. His work includes the award-winning book The
Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality and Nature in a Processive Cosmos
and the article, “Trusting in the ‘Efficacy of Beauty’: A Kalocentric Approach
to Moral Philosophy” in this journal. His scholarship and teaching
focus on the interconnections among ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics,
especially as they relate to the ethics of global climate change. E-mail:

Sheila Lintott is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University.
She works in feminist philosophy, philosophical aesthetics, and
environmental philosophy.

No comments: