The Many Complexities of This, Our World of Food

Photo by Kheel Center. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Kheel Center. Some rights reserved.

People love to argue about food. I know it and you know it. Our diets are also windows into ourselves and our beliefs, and as such we get a little defensive about what to eat and how to eat from time to time. That’s all just on a personal level – when arguments spider out into a global context, things can get particularly dicey. Do humans need to eat more or less meat, and is there even a consistent answer to this question? Is raising livestock on smaller communal farms more or less environmentally harmful than  livestock raised in a larger, industrial farm complex? Is it reasonable to hold the third world up to similar standards for GHG emissions when it comes to food production?

The complications are a little dizzying. A new study released last week by Mario Herrero, the chief research scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, aims to demystify, or at the very least clarify, some of the factors involved in these discussions and why there often isn’t a cut and dry answer to the question “what is the best and most sustainable diet for all humans?” As the study explains, there are often too many contradictions and complications to determine a “one system” approach that would work for all. Taking some of the questions posed above as an example: While cows raised in smaller farms in the developing world may release substantially more methane per pound of protein their meat provides (due to their being raised as grazing animals, where the grains they are eating are metabolized in a way that produces more methane) than a cow raised in an efficient factory farm (in fact, the grazing cow will release 100 times as much methane than the industrial cow), but then one must also take into account that the whole industrial apparatus surrounding the more “carbon efficient” cow is raised in, the chemicals and pesticides and transportation costs, etc. It becomes a more complicated argument.

On an even more basic level, many reports recently make the claim that humans as a whole need to start eating less meat and animal products. While this may be true for a majority of humans, its not as feasible or even as advisable for poorer countries where meat and dairy make up the bulk of protein consumption, and where removing meat from a diet could cause a wave of malnourishment. The bottom line (if there is one to be found) seems to be this: surprisingly, the U.S. meat industry is perhaps not responsible for nearly as much environmental impact as smaller farms in the developing world, because of sheer numbers. However, the U.S. could stand to cut back on its meat consumption and production considerably, as its those people in poorer countries that are using their animal products in the most nutritionally effective way. “If we account for how much we consume in general terms — and the fact that we are responsible for most of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions — then we should modify our diets and eat fewer animals products, if we can,” says Herrero. “We have a higher responsibility, because we are the ones that can make that choice.”

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