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Fighting climate change with your fork

Published: April 9, 2010
Section: Opinions


GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, know this: If you care about saving the planet, you’re better off driving a Hummer than eating a cheeseburger.

That’s the conclusion of “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” a 2006 report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (U.N.). The FAO estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than all forms of transportation combined. The Worldwatch Institute’s recent report, “Livestock and Climate Change,” released late last year, suggests the figure is closer to 50 percent, dwarfing the U.N.’s more conservative estimate. Whatever the specific percentage, the science is clear: Our appetite for hamburgers, milkshakes and omelettes is a major contributor to global climate change. The simplest way to combat climate change is to stop eating meat–or, at minimum, to replace some of the meat, dairy and eggs in our diets with plant-based foods.

The environmental devastation caused by animal agriculture isn’t going away anytime soon. On March 1, the front page of The Washington Post detailed the primary environmental impact of livestock production: enormous amounts of toxic manure, which pollutes the air with methane, all enabled by a dearth of regulation. Early last month, a group of Missouri family farmers won an $11 million court case. The reason? They all live near a giant pig factory farm, and the cesspits and maggots create a stench so disgusting the farmers can barely leave their homes.

Big Agribusiness, of course, has no interest in doing anything of substance to make their trade less environmentally destructive.

There’s one reason factory farming is institutionally cruel to animals, workers, and the environment: the bottom line. Consumers are not without fault; we’ve all gotten used to our cheap burgers and BLTs. But meat wasn’t always cheap, because it wasn’t always considered a staple of the American diet. Eating meat at every meal is a relatively recent phenomenon, one propagated and encouraged by Big Agribusiness.

Our animal addiction has caused companies to scour their ledgers for more and more ways to breed animals larger and faster, cram them closer together, and sell them more cheaply. This emphasis on more and more has given our environment less and less time to catch up, leading us where we are today–on the brink of irreversible climate change, thanks, in large part, to an insatiable appetite for animal flesh.

All is not lost, however. Despite the meat, dairy and egg industries’ best efforts to tell their side of the story through trade journals and misleading advertising campaigns, more and more Americans are starting to see through their propagandizing.

We now know the science: The choices we make about what we feed ourselves matter infinitely more than what kind of light bulbs we use, whether we recycle, or even what cars we drive.

And, thankfully, as consumers, we have the power to stand up for the environment every time we sit down to eat.