Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Livestock’s long shadow and the NY Times’ short attention span

Posted by metaphorical on 27 December 2006

“Livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of the global warming effect, more than transportation’s contribution.”

“At present, there are about 1.5 billion cattle and domestic buffalo and about 1.7 billion sheep and goats. With pigs and poultry, they form a critical part of our enormous biological footprint upon this planet.

 Just how enormous was not really apparent until the publication of a new report, called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.”

So far so good. The NY Times, inspired by a U.N. report, is actually noticing, probably for the newspaper’s first time ever, the devastating environmental consequences of meat and dairy consumption.

The editorial describes some of the report’s highlights, including its finding that “global livestock grazing and feed production use ’30 percent of the land surface of the planet.’ Livestock—which consume more food than they yield—also compete directly with humans for water. And the drive to expand grazing land destroys more biologically sensitive terrain, rain forests especially, than anything else.”

When I turned vegan, 16 years ago, it wasn’t because I’m opposed to killing animals for food (I’m not). It was for just these environmental reasons.

Later, I came to see the awful health consequences, not so much of meat, but dairy consumption, and the inhumane ways that animals are raised, and killed. (I should point out that I’m not a vegan, I now eat some fish, and occasionally eggs.) I became a vegan because I read a book, and while it discussed all these reasons, the harms of factory farming had the most impact on me.

Back to the NY Times editorial. The first problem is the title: “Meat and the planet.” The report itself has no such limitations. The UN statistics, are for all livestock, including dairy cattle.

The second problem is the self-absolving statement that the enormous ecological consequence of all this livestock “not really apparent” until the U.N. report. The aforementioned book, Diet for a New America, discussed it at length nearly two decades ago, as did Jeremy Rifkin’s seminal 1992 tome, Beyond Beef, as do a number of more recent books.

The editorial’s third, and worst, problem resides in its conclusion:

There are no easy trade-offs when it comes to global warming, and the human passion for meat is certainly not about to end anytime soon.

It’s astonishing that a newspaper that argues for increasing taxes to discourage petrol consumption and to create a price floor for alternative energies won’t, on the other hand, even for a moment consider economic measures that shift the externalities of meat and dairy consumption onto the consumers who are so passionately consuming these foods. The human passion for meat is certainly not about to end, but it might diminish if the price of a hamburger reflected its contribution to the rise of global warming, the clearcutting of forests, the widening geographic range of important diseases, the degrading of the world’s topsoil, and the polluting of rivers.

Some of these ideas are discussed further here.

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4 Responses to “Livestock’s long shadow and the NY Times’ short attention span”

  1. Leslie said

    I agree 100%. It makes me so angry that people in power choose not to inform the population about this. So much about transport and recycling, and not a word about reducing meat consumption. I call it demagogy. But still to this day the message hasn’t gone through! *despair*

  2. Looks like the Times sucks almost as much as Al Gore. When is he going to inform the public about these facts? Probably never. He grew up on a farm and he is not a vegetarian. Seems like the wrong people are in charge here.

  3. Anastasia said

    We don’t need to become vegetarians to reduce the amount of meat we consume – in fact, I believe that doing so would be detrimental, as we would be withholding our support from the crucial small, sustainable farms and ranches who stand in opposition to the agribusinesses ruining our environment. Let’s support these small, responsible producers because while the demand for meat in the country will never disappear they are our best shot at providing an alternative that we – and our children, and their children – can all live with.

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