My beef with beef

Should environmentalists just say no to eating meat?

That was the headline over my latest story for the YaleEnvironment360 website. The story looked at the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a collaboration between environmental groups  and industry to improve the way beef is produced. The roundtable was put together by Jason Clay, a top executive at  the WWF, and includes such companies as McDonald’s, Cargill and Walmart. The roundtable will try to measure the environmental footprint of beef production methods, and spread best practices. If people are going to keep eating beef — and they are — the roundtable’s work should be valuable. While I’d feel better about the effort if it were not predominantly financed by industry, Clay and his colleagues are well-intentioned, in my view.

Having said that…I can’t help but wonder why environmental groups aren’t more vocal about asking their supporters to eat less beef–and especially to avoid beef from factory farms (or, if you prefer, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs).

As I wrote in the YaleE360 story, beef

…has twice the greenhouse gas emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken, and more than 13 times as much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu, according to the Environmental Working Group. Eating less meat is the most important thing an individual can do to curb climate change, some scientists say. If Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by a mere 20 percent, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius, according to Gidon Eshel, a research professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago.

And yet:

… green groups that readily fight coal plants or suburban sprawl have for the most part shown little desire to do battle with meat. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins. The Mayo Clinic has more to say about meat than The Nature Conservancy, although TNC’s chief executive, Mark Tercek, is a vegetarian. Another vegetarian, Danielle Nierenberg, who directs the Nourishing the Planet program at the Worldwatch Institute, explains: “Most environmental groups don’t want to tell people what to eat or what not to eat. It’s a personal issue that’s tied to your culture, to your history, to what your mom fed you when you were five years old.”

Danielle is correct–no one likes to be nagged about eating, or not eating, their dinner–but I think there’s more to it than that. The big environmental NGOs are generally reluctant to tackle the issue of overconsumption. Americans, as a group, drive big cars, live in big houses, buy too much stuff and throw too much of it away. None of this makes us, as a group, much happier, research indicates. But environmental groups don’t talk about this as much as they should, perhaps because they don’t want to alienate their well-to-do donors. [click to continue…]