This section examines why consuming less meat and fewer animals products is more beneficial than purchasing animal products from local producers. Also, the ways in which consuming fewer animal products can support local agriculture are highlighted.
Low Input & Low Consumption
There is widespread support for the advantages of shifting from intensive agribusiness systems and monocultures to small and mid-sized extensive and mixed-farming systems.
Creating sustainable production methods is a critical part of reforming our food systems. This section outlines some of the costs and benefits of low-input sustainable agriculture systems (LISA) as they pertain to animal agriculture and makes the case that small-scale meat producers should also support reducing global meat consumption.
Extensive Animal Agriculture Pros & Cons
Proponents, like livestock rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman, argue that “In contrast to factory farming, well-managed, non-industrialized animal farming minimizes greenhouse gases and can even benefit the environment.”*
TIME magazine also praises of grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed, predicting it may be the “next food frontier.” See also the Center for Learning on Sustainable Agriculture.
Critics, however, contend that grass-fed cattle and extensive production methods do not solve most of the problems. While there are some benefits in areas like fossil fuel use, the disadvantages, especially with regards to land use and climate change, are neglected.
Grass-Fed Extensive Livestock = More GHGs/lb
The Food and Climate Research Network explores the issues of method and impact in their briefing paper: Intensive Versus Extensive Livestock Systems and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
In the case of ruminants and their GHG emissions, extensive systems are usually found to have a lower per-area footprint than intensive grain-fed systems but a higher footprint expressed in terms of kg/product [weight]. As regards emissions per-area, this is because there are generally fewer of them for a given area of land, so their overall emissions for a given land area are lower.
However, because their milk or meat yields are lower [because they eat high-fiber, low-calorie grass instead of high-calorie grain, they weigh less, plus they are not given growth hormones so they produce less milk], more numbers are needed to produce the same amount of edible output (three extensively reared cows, for example might produce the same amount of milk as two intensively reared cows), which translates into more methane emissions for a given quantity of milk or meat.
Given the importance of methane to the overall GHG contribution of ruminants, then overall GHG emissions per kg of milk or meat are higher. This is the case even allowing for the additional emissions generated during the course of producing and transporting the feeds which the intensively reared animals consume.
Hence, most LCA [life cycle assessment] studies find that organically reared cattle emit more emissions per kg of meat or milk produced than their conventional counterparts, largely because they tend to be reared more extensively.”
Below are key points outlining why reducing animal consumption at the macro level is necessary and mutually beneficial and why choosing plant-based products is ideal for the individuals most able to do so.
- Livestock are a top (arguably the top) human cause of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Grass-fed, extensively-raised livestock use less fossil fuel but produce more greenhouse gas emissions per pound, so switching rearing methods alone is insufficient.
- Over the past five years, 1,000 U.S. ranchers have switched to fully grass-fed (not just grass-finished) and that number is expected to increase 20% of the next decade.
- However, as of 2010 grass-fed livestock represented only 1% of the nation’s supply. So a 20% increase over the next ten years is highly inadequate in terms of switching mainstream production to extensive and potentially more sustainable rearing methods.
- In terms of environmental benefits, a plant-based diet that minimizes/eliminates the use of farmed animals is ideal. On an individual basis, a plant-based diet is ideal.
- Since meat will not disappear in a lifetime (without economic and/or environmental catastrophe as the cause), our realistic goal is to reduce global meat consumption 50% by 2040.
- Conscious-consumers have greater impact by choosing plant-based options.
“Because it takes more resources to produce meat and dairy than, say, fresh locally grown carrots, it’s sensible to cut back on consumption of animal-based foods.” Nicolette Hahn Niman, From “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” NYT 2009.
“Given the urgency for global action”–echoed by scientists and world leaders alike–“individual consumers must also participate.” McMichael et al. (2007).
Thus, McMichael “put forth several recommendations, including the reduction of meat and milk intake by high-income countries as “the urgent task of curtailing global greenhouse-gas emissions necessitates action on all major fronts”; they concluded that, for high-income countries, “greenhouse-gas emissions from meat-eating warrant the same scrutiny as do those from driving and flying.” From Worldwatch/HSUS 2008