Guest Opinion by Kip Hansen – 26 May 2022
The Breakthrough Institute, was founded and is currently directed by Ted Nordhaus. Michael Shellenberger was a co-founder in 2003. (or 2007, opinions vary). It is described as: “The Institute is aligned with ecomodernist philosophy. Such thought advocates for increased use of natural resources through an embrace of modernization, technological development, and increasing U.S. capital accumulation, usually through a combination of nuclear power and urbanization.” (Wiki).
It has recently offered an essay by Alex Smith, Breakthrough’s Food and Agriculture Analyst, titled “The Coming ’Meat Vortex’”. While Smith writes well and clearly, and has a good grasp of the problems and impediments to forming sensible public policy, he gets almost everything else wrong because he starts off on wrong -footed assumptions:
“Agriculture is responsible for approximately 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 25 percent of emissions globally. Meat is responsible for a plurality of agricultural emissions, as well as serious water and air pollution, increased morbidity from overconsumption, deforestation due to high land use, and biodiversity loss. Not all meat is equal in its environmental harms: beef production is the largest user of land and produces emissions four times that of pork and 14 times that of chicken per unit of final product in the United States. But the sector as a whole has a long track record of deplorable labor conditions, anti-social-ecological behavior, and grotesque animal treatment.”
It is difficult to know where to start a discussion if Smith is going to build on these only trivially true when not just plain wrong and seriously biased anti-meat propaganda talking-points.
Declaration of Competing Interests: I have no financial competing interests and have not been paid (ever) for my opinion. This author, Kip Hansen and his family, eat according to a religiously-established dietary code which includes eating meat sparingly and consuming a diet mostly grain- and vegetable/fruit-based. I am neither an opponent or a proponent of meat production or consumption. My grandparents were Wisconsin dairy farmers.
It has been some time since I covered The Meat Wars (and here and here). The scientific controversy which many, including myself, call The Meat Wars, which continues today with much of it wrapped up in the incredible pseudo-scientific muddle that comprises the Climate Wars. (ref: most the articles at this site – WUWT). This piece from The Breakthrough Institute does not at first seem to be a salvo fired from either side in the controversy. However, it starts out with assumptions that send it off along the wrong path to a series wrong conclusions.
Let’s look at those assumptions:
1) “Agriculture is responsible for approximately 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions and as much as 25 percent of emissions globally.”
OK, this is vaguely correct – but not precise in any way. These types of talking-points always include such things along the lines of the emissions from producing the steel that makes the tractors – ad infinitum. Notice that the statement is not confined to livestock – but agriculture as a whole. Feeding the 8 billion humans on the planet is not only serious business but an existential necessity. We must do it or die. It is only interesting that this wide-ranging absolutely necessary activity produces whatever percentage of CO2 emissions – the emissions themselves being only arguably important.
2a): “Meat is responsible for a plurality of agricultural emissions”
Life is “responsible for a plurality of … emissions” – which is trivially true and at very best, a “So What?” It has not been established beyond the arena of opinion that unspecified “agricultural emissions” are bad things that need to be reduced or corrected in some way. And of course, it is not “meat” but the agricultural practices called meat production that are responsible, if responsibility must be assigned.
“But what about methane?” you might say. “Ruminants have always emitted methane; it is not something new. Huge herds of wild buffalo, cattle, goats, sheep, deer, cameloids and wildebeest have grazed the grasslands of the world for millions of years. The American prairies once supported greater numbers of bison than they now do cattle, despite the intensive corn and soy production that feeds them.” [ source ]
2b): “Meat is responsible for …. serious water and air pollution”
This is simply an unsupported assertion – another anti-meat talking point. Generally, meat production does not produce “air pollution” unless we are talking of the methane issue – which is not a pollutant – it is a natural product of many life forms and a natural product of the biological decay process.
Poor livestock production practices can lead to water pollution – as can any type of poorly planned and executed human industrial-scale activity or even individual activities including picnicking. If there is a livestock operation producing water pollution then State and Federal anti-pollution laws and regulations should be applied to eliminate the problem.
2c): “Meat is responsible for…. increased morbidity from overconsumption”
This is not true – there are anti-meat and health advocates that insist that it is so, but this in not an evidence-based conclusion. Rather, lack of affordable high-quality protein such as meat leads to ill-nourished and undernourished populations and increased mortality. This claim is one of the most heavily contested aspects involved in the meat controversy. Hugely poor dietary choices can have negative impacts on morbidity (death) but there is no evidence whatever that “meat overconsumption” leads to death – and certainly not in any sort of conceivably normal American diet.
The controversy is illustrated by events surrounding “…the 14-member international team led by Bradley Johnston an associate professor of community health at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, concluded that those who like meat should not stop on health grounds. ‘Based on the research, we cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease.’” [ source – see the six papers in the NutriRECS series in Annuals of Internal Medicine. ]
Bradley Johnston and his team have been viciously attacked ever since….in The Meat Wars.
The usual suspects at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health ranted, pounded their microscopes, flailed their stethoscopes and have blasted away in the journals at every opportunity – they also do the same for any science that shows population-wide salt reduction is ill advised or science that shows that the demand that everyone have low blood pressure is a bad idea.
2d): “Meat is responsible for….deforestation due to high land use”
It certainly has been or is true in some places and in some times. In the United States, land area dedicated to agriculture been shrinking: down by 50 million acres since 2000. Land use in Europe has remained more or less unchanged and the same for the UK.
And for the world at large?
Canada, the U.S., the U.K, Europe and Russia have remained level or declined since the 1950s [red box]. Oceania (which includes Australia and New Zealand), Africa, the Middle East, India and China have remained flat since the turn of the century (2000) [blue box]. Only Latin America and the Caribbean and Brazil have shown any substantial increase at all.
2e): “Meat is responsible for….biodiversity loss.”
As far as I can tell, this is entirely made up – among that special class of scientific facts that are so often repeated but never have any real science behind them. There may be biodiversity losses in some areas of the world – inevitable as human populations grow and take up more space, both for living and supporting themselves. And, over the long range of history, when human societies have expanded their territories into new areas — bringing with them agriculture and livestock raising – this has damaged and changed habitats, thus lessened biodiversity. Think of huge areas of the Middle East and Greece whose hillsides were denuded by sheep and goats let run wild. But in the modern world, as we can see in the graph of grazing lands far above, this is not a universal or widespread problem, and has far more to do with general land use change than with meat production.
Where do these mostly-false ideas come from? I will give readers one guess.
You got it right on the first try! Yes, it is the United Nations! Smith’s rant on the horrors of meat production come right out a 2006 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) booklet: “LIVESTOCK’S LONG SHADOW — environmental issues and options” (.pdf). See if you recognize Smith’s introduction in this quote:
“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.”
The accusations against the livestock (meat) industry are boilerplate United Nations misanthropic policies wrapped in climate change and environmentalist claptrap. Smith just repeats them without the application of critical thinking skills. I don’t say this lightly. Read the FAO report – there is no real science in it, only opinions based on the illogical idea that a bad practice found in one place at one time justifies vilifying and, if possible, eliminating an entire existentially-necessary industry.
And then there’s this:
“…the [livestock/meat production] sector as a whole has a long track record of deplorable labor conditions, anti-social-ecological behavior, and grotesque animal treatment.”
Not to mention that it is also an industry that has been supplying high-quality protein to a U.S. population that has grown from a few hundred thousand to over 300 million over the last 300 years contributing to an increase in average lifespan in the U.S. from 25-30 years (1600) to over 80 years today.
Beyond this….Smith has demonstrated his over-the-top antipathy to livestock production and producers. He can not pretend to be an honest broker of information for policy makers.
Smith tells us: “For much of the past century, per capita meat consumption (using the US Department of Agriculture’s proxy measure) has steadily risen.” [The proxy is “availability” in place of actual consumption.]
Beef availability has declined 40% steadidly since the 1970s while pork and fish/shellfish have remained unchanged. Only the availability of chicken has risen. Nonetheless, Smith then asserts:
“Indeed, American consumers are blasting their way through chicken wings at a faster pace than poultry producers can supply—especially with COVID 19-related production lulls. It is such high demand for meat products that gives large meat firms—with their long history of questionable practices, political savvy, and ruthlessness—outsized power to begin with.”
Note that chicken production does not use vast amounts of water and utilizes no grazing land — just the land dedicated to raising the feed — and hasn’t ever required the clearing of forests.
“…journalist Robinson Meyer dubbed the “green vortex.” As Meyer explains in The Atlantic, the “green vortex” is a virtuous cycle: as green “technologies develop, they get cheaper. As they get cheaper, more companies adopt them. As more companies adopt them, their leaders grow more comfortable with climate policy generally—and more supportive of pro-technology policy in particular. As more corporate leaders support climate policy, coalitions change, governments can pass more aggressive measures, and the cycle expands and begins again.”
We need a “meat vortex.”
Smith writes that:
“….broad adoption of meat alternatives could have major implications for politics around agricultural land use in the United States. They argue, for example, that land no longer needed for meat production could be used towards progressive ends, such as the creation of worker-owned farms, returning land to Indigenous nations and peoples, rewilding, and other conservation uses. In turn, the way American consumers weigh animal ethics in their choices between meat and its alternatives could also change. …. Even beyond that, though, it could be the start of a meat vortex.”
Seldom has one sentence managed to incorporate so many woke socialist ideas: worker-owned farms, Native lands, rewilding and conservation along considering animal ethics in personal dietary choices.
Sorry Smith, but you have forgotten one important thing: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!”. It is not possible to manufacture Impossible Burgers or to grow Shmeat without inputs. The materials – vegetable matter or chemicals and proteins to “grow” schmeat. Humans consume around 350 million metric tons of meat each year. Replacing even a small portion of that with shmeat will require the same sort of inputs that living animals require to grow the muscle tissue and plant-based pseudo-meat will require plants which must be grown on good arable land. All of that input must come from somewhere.
Where are the calculations of the inputs needed to make a difference ? and their sources?
The Breakthrough Institute has long been assumed, at least by myself, to be opinionated but science and evidenced-based within their political and social agenda. This anti-meat rant by Smith, on the other hand, is blatantly biased and based on politicized propaganda, not science and not evidence. That is a shame.
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Note: A half dozen editing errors have been corrected at 1800 hrs Eastern Time. I probably should not try to do final editing while sailing….
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I have not primarily focused on the solutions offered by Smith. They are based on falsehoods and a determinedly biased view and thus not pertinent in any pragmatic way. Those with a strong political stomach should read the whole piece.
Affordable high-quality protein – read “meat” – is important ingredient of a healthy diet for humanity. It is marginally possible to organize a semi-healthy diet without meat, but not easy and not without caveats like vitamin/mineral supplementation. It is also possible that Americans, in particular, eat more meat than is strictly necessary for good health. It is certain that the profoundly poor in the Third World need more meat in their diets, not less. But where diet is a free choice, the luxury of readily available affordable meats is a blessing.
Personally, I eat very little meat. My wife has never served a pot roast or a rack of ribs. Occasionally we have a roast chicken – which lasts the two of us many meals.
In my experience as a science and health journalist for more than a decade, the United Nations is a very poor source of facts, policy or advice on almost all topics.
However, at the “on-the-ground” level, many UN agencies, employees and their associated national and local programs do great work alleviating hunger, poverty, ignorance and disease. I have worked with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) in the Dominican Republic and they are good people and they do good work.
This anti-meat-industry screed by Smith just goes to show you that even good organizations like Breakthrough can be infected by foolish and biased ideas.
Read more – read critically – read widely.
And, thank you for reading.
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