Archive for the ‘Images’ Category

Guest Blog by Marta Zaraska[1]

If there is one thing that is the most responsible for keeping us hooked on meat, it’s our culture. Not our genes, not our taste buds, not even the powerful meat industry with its annual sales in US higher than the GDP of Hungary or Ukraine — although, admittedly, all these factors are important, too.

DSC_0023_2There are plenty of beliefs that, taken together, perpetuate the meat-eating culture. Take the belief that “we are what we eat.” The Hua tribe of Papua, New Guinea, think that children will grow fast if they eat fast-growing plants, while the men of the Dyak tribe of Northwest Borneo avoid venison for fear that eating it would make them timid like deer. In ancient Egypt, kings would once a year slaughter the bull-god Apis and eat its flesh to get the animal’s fierceness. In Benin, West Africa, practitioners of voodoo to this day drink the blood of sacrificial animals to get their strength. And studies show people in the West may hold similar believes, too, albeit subconsciously. In a classic 1989 experiment conducted among 310 undergraduate students at University of Pennsylvania, fictional tribes-people who eat boars were rated as having more hair and being faster runners than those who eat turtles.

No wonder then that we think that eating bloody meat will make us stronger, while eating leafy green vegetables could turn us kind of floppy and weak. You can see the echoes of such convictions in everyday language. We “beef up” our muscles in the gym, but go “couch potato” when we feel lazy. To “become a vegetable” is to become disabled. To be a “beefcake” is to be attractive and strong.

800px-Chimpanzee-HeadMeat has symbolized wealth and masculinity for thousands of years. It all goes back to 2.5 million years ago, when our ancestors started eating meat on the savannas of Africa. Meat is a particular food. It often comes in a big package (think elephant-sized, or even zebra-sized) and spoils fast. That makes it the perfect food for sharing. But when you have something so calorie-dense and nutrient-dense as meat – and hence, craved – to divide among others, some important questions arise: Who will get the largest piece? Who will get nothing at all? Thus politics begin. Our cousins, the chimps, use meat to buy political privileges, too. Not only do they give meat to select apes to form alliances, the alpha-males are also more likely to share meat more generously at the start of their reign than later on.

Vegan_Chocolate_Chip_CookieWhat helped cement the connection between meat, power and wealth later on in human history, was the so-called scarcity principle. Basically if something is rare and expensive we tend to desire it more. That’s part of the allure of things like Aston Martin cars or Patek Philippe watches. In one experiment researchers asked 200 women to rate the value of chocolate chip cookies placed in two jars: one jar contained ten of the cookies, while another just two of them. Even though the cookies didn’t differ whatsoever, those from the almost empty jar were rated higher than the ones from the full jar.

Meat has been a rare and expensive good for most of human history. The diet of a farm worker in 18th century England would consist mostly of root vegetables, bread, cheese, butter, sugar, tea, and a little milk. Meat seldom made it onto the plates of the poor. Meanwhile, the European aristocracy gorged themselves on as much as two to three pounds of meat and fish per person per day, devouring everything from pigs and chicken to peacocks, storks, otters and porpoises. And that abundance of meat was what the lower classes aspired to.

Cashews_1314What’s more, treating meat as a reward, a special food eaten during celebrations, only boosts its power as something to crave. In one experiment researchers told children that they could only have certain snack foods if they behaved well – and right away they started craving these snacks more than did kids in a control condition, who were just simply offered the food. And there are plenty of other experiments with similar conclusions. Watching other people smile as they eat certain foods makes us enjoy these foods more, too. Leann Birch, psychologist at the University of Georgia, has shown in her research that if you give children snacks they don’t necessarily like much, such as cashews, but you do it while being super friendly, the kids will start truly enjoying the taste of cashews (here’s a tip to parents – if you want your kids to love broccoli, show pleasure on your face when you eat it yourself, even if you have to fake it). For centuries meat has been eaten on occasions when people are particularly friendly to each other: think Thanksgiving, Sunday dinner roasts. Even the word Carnevale in latin literally means “farewell meat” – good-bye before the fasting of Lent. No wonder, then, that for so many of us meat equals pleasure.

1024px-Outback_Steakhouse_Hummer_H1_side (1)The mighty meat industry knows well how to play on symbolism of meat to sell us more of it. Look at the advertisements they put on TV. In an ad for Hummer H3, a vegetarian guy has to buy himself that gas-guzzler of a car to prove he is still powerful and wealthy, even though he doesn’t eat meat. In Burger King’s ‘’Manthem’’ ad, a group of guys sing that they need to “eat like men” (meat, obviously), while DelTaco’s ad suggests that beef will feed the beast inside you — the primitive, violent masculinity. Other examples abound.

With such potent symbolism behind it, no wonder we stay hooked on meat. We humans like power and wealth, and that’s precisely what meat stands for. But, hopefully, if we are aware of the symbols and cultural stereotypes the meat eating plays on – and that the meat industry uses to lure us — we can learn to better control our food cravings.

[1] Marta Zaraska is a science journalist published in Scientific American, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and other publications. She is author of Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat (Basic Books, February 2016).41dE4NGvM4L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_


Go Vegan Billboard - Cow

The meat and dairy industries bombard Americans daily with aggressive, often-misleading messaging to convince people to consume more animal foods – a tactic discussed at length in Meatonomics. Now, in a refreshing counterpunch, advocacy group Animal Protection & Rescue League (APRL) has launched two “GO VEGAN” billboards next to a busy freeway in Los Angeles. It’s not cheap to design, create and run them – $13,500 for the first month, to be exact, but the economics make sense.

Go Vegan Billboard - Pigs

Together, the billboards are getting two million impressions per week – or eight million impressions over their four-week run. That’s about $0.002 per impression, or less than 1/35th the cost of vegan literature (which runs $60 per 1,000 fliers). While a flier in hand might provide a more detailed message than a “GO VEGAN” slogan glimpsed in passing, advertising lore says a message must reach a viewer nine times before it pays off. Thus, by subjecting commuters to repetitive views, these billboards could help nudge many toward veganism.

True, they’re not cheap. But anyone who likes the message and wants to help promote it can pitch in. If you’d like to donate, feel free to visit APRL’s local website and click on the donate button.

Uncle Sam Says: Eat More Meat!

Posted: December 9, 2014 in Images, Posts
Tags: , , , , , ,

640px-Uncle_Sam_(pointing_finger)In his 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a future where people exist solely to support the economy and are conditioned from birth to buy things. Government bureaucrats manipulate the sheep-like citizens with drugs and slogans to make them consume as much as possible. In Huxley’s vision, 26th-century consumers learn that “ending is better than mending” and “the more stitches, the less riches” – that is, buying new things is better than fixing old ones. But as I discuss in my book Meatonomics, this eerie futuristic fantasy – with government using marketing slogans and other undue influence to drive consumption – has arrived centuries early for US consumers. In the Brave New World of the 21st century – where big box stores and mega markets dominate the landscape – the US government uses innocuous-sounding “checkoff” programs to encourage people to buy more animal foods.

In fact, checkoffs make us consume much more meat, eggs and dairy than we would otherwise. Yet most Americans have never heard of these government programs, and for that reason it’s important to consider the dramatic impact checkoffs have on our consumption patterns and our lives. In this article, I explore seven surprising facts behind our government’s marketing of animal foods via these little-known programs.

  1. Checkoffs Use Super-Catchy Slogans

beefiwfdMeat and dairy ads have bombarded American consumers relentlessly for decades.  You’ve seen the milk mustaches and the snappy slogans:

Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.
Pork. The Other White Meat.
Milk. It Does a Body Good.

They’re as American as apple pie and as commonplace as ads for Ford or Chevy. Like an ink stamp, these ads imprint themselves on our subconscious and become part of our belief system. What’s for dinner? Without even knowing why, many think, Beef.

  1. A Checkoff is a Tax

Checkoffs used to be voluntary, and producers opted in by checking a box. Nowadays, the programs are mandatory – just like any other tax. The way they work is simple: Congress slaps a small assessment on certain items, and the collected funds are used to pay for research and marketing programs that boost the goods’ sales. So when animal food producers collect $1 per head of cattle, $0.40 per $100 of pork, or $0.15 per 100 pounds of dairy, the funds go to national, state and regional marketing groups. There aren’t many Boston Tea Party–like protests when it comes to making the payments – because most consumers don’t know about checkoffs and most producers think their trade groups put the money to good use.

  1. It’s Consumers, Not Producers, Who Pay the Tax

Nominally speaking, it’s producers who pay checkoff taxes – a fact they proclaim loudly and regularly. But that’s not who really pays for checkoffs.  Economists point to a tax’s “incidence” to describe who ultimately bears the burden of paying it. In the case of checkoffs, the cost is generally passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. In other words, we pay extra to get both the product and the snappy marketing message.

  1. They’re Incredibly Effective

dreamstime_xl_17990934Across the board, checkoffs work remarkably well to make Americans buy more meat and dairy than we would otherwise. According to the US Department of Agriculture, for each dollar of checkoff funds spent promoting animal foods, “the return on investment can range as high as $18.” The pork checkoff program drives $14 in sales per dollar spent. The lamb checkoff lacks a memorable motto but still provides an unusually huge boost, driving additional sales of $38 for each dollar spent on promotion. But the biggest winner might be dairy, which boasted that over a year and a half, checkoff efforts contributed to more than 7 billion additional pounds of milk sold. That’s an extra forty-seven servings of dairy per person in the United States – above and beyond the hundreds of servings people would have consumed anyway during the period. Clearly, milk is up to more than just doing a body good.

  1. They Spend a Fortune

All told, these programs provide funding of $557 million yearly for animal food producers to promote their goods. This massive, government-mandated marketing budget gives the animal food industry something few other sectors have: a huge marketing war chest to boost sales of all goods from all producers in the program. In almost every other industry, individual corporations must fork out their own funds to increase sales rather than rely on government programs to prop up their numbers. With checkoff programs, on the other hand, Americans buy more of nearly every conceivable animal food than they would otherwise. Like an insatiable diner, the animal food industry relishes the higher sales that result. Dairy promoters brag that since their checkoff program started in 1983, annual per capita consumption of milk “has climbed 12 percent to 620 pounds.”

  1. They Speak the Message of the Federal Government

800px-Oblique_facade_1,_US_Supreme_CourtSome producers say checkoffs have been unfairly linked to government and are actually just the tools of good old-fashioned capitalism. They argue these arrangements involve only private firms who pool advertising monies without government participation, and their mission and methods are no different from those of any private advertiser. However, the US Supreme Court decisively rejected this position in a 2005 case involving the beef checkoff. In Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association, the Supreme Court held the beef checkoff’s message was actually government speech (a form of speech the government can make others support). This holding from the highest court in the land leaves little doubt that checkoff programs, and the messages they generate, are the product of the federal government. So when one of these organizations speaks – regardless of the product it’s hawking – it may say it’s the National Pork Board, but the background sounds are the imposing bass tones of the US government.

  1. They Drive Unhealthy Levels of Consumption

400px-Physical_Exam_-_StethoscopePerhaps the most disturbing feature of checkoffs is that most Americans already consume more animal foods than the USDA recommends. Nonetheless, like a desperate salesperson trying to meet an unrealistic quota, the agency keeps using checkoffs to goad people to buy even more. One result is these programs impose billions of dollars in hidden costs on American consumers and taxpayers. Another is that they further sicken an already-ill nation. Ultimately, perhaps the question we should ask ourselves about checkoff programs is: Got Milked?

By Robert C. Jones[1]

441px-Jeremy_Bentham_by_Henry_William_Pickersgill_detailWhen he famously asked “Can they [animals] suffer?” two and half centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham proposed the notion that the capacity to feel pain is enough to entitle animals to moral consideration. Today, research continues to emerge showing that animals previously thought to have no capacity to feel pain can, in fact, suffer. In this blog post, adapted from a longer article I wrote titled “The Lobster Considered” (inspired by David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, “Consider the Lobster”),[2] I explore recent research into the capacity for pain in insects, spiders and crustaceans, and the implications for extending moral consideration to these animals.

BBGMonarchButterflyWingsThe literature on insect and arachnid pain is astonishingly impoverished. For over 30 years, the established view (made so by one Sir Prof. Vincent Brian Wigglesworth)[3] has been that insects by and large do not feel pain. Yet, Wigglesworth goes on to argue that certain insect behaviors (e.g., escape behavior when presented with noxious stimuli) indicate that some insects must experience some form of pain. Later researchers[4] conclude that the evidence “does not appear to support the occurrence in insects of a pain state.”[5] However, others[6] have discovered nociception (the processing of nerve stimuli associated with pain) in at least some insects, namely Drosophila (a genus of small flies).[7] And yet another group of researchers finds nociception in response to thermal noxious stimuli as well as what the researchers refer to as a “pain” gene in Drosophila.[8]

Cricket_(insect)_in_IndiaIn a 1999 study carried out by V E. Dyakonova at the Russian Academy of Sciences, opioid receptors and evidence of pain were discovered in crickets.[9] The experimental setup involved Dyakonova noting the amount of time it took before crickets jumped from a hot plate whose temperature was gradually elevated. Dyakonova then administered morphine to the crickets in three separate and increasing doses. His findings indicate that the morphine elongated the period of the avoidance of the hot surface by the crickets (the length of which increased in correlation with higher doses of morphine).[10] Other evidence of insect pain includes evidence of nociception (or, at least, a nociceptive response) in moth larvae,[11] and in work on spider pain, another team of researchers find that “[t]he sensing mechanism by which spiders detect injected harmful chemicals such as venoms … may be fundamentally similar to the one in humans that is coupled with the perception of pain.”[12]

The evidence for lobster pain is persuasive. At the physiological level, crustaceans possess nociceptors, ganglia (nerve cell clusters associated with sensing pain), and nociceptor-to-ganglia pathways.[13] Although crustacean pain attribution is not yet widely accepted, findings are beginning to support crustacean sentience.


In a recent study, two researchers from Queen’s University, Barry Magee and Robert Elwood, found convincing evidence of crustacean sentience.[14] The study reveals that the European shore crab (Carcinus maenas) responds to electric shocks and then attempts to avoid them. To avoid being spotted and eaten by seagulls, European shore crabs take shelter during the day under dark rocks. In the study, Magee and Elwood placed ninety crabs in a brightly lit area with the option of scuttling to either of two dark shelters. Once the creatures had taken refuge, half were given an electric shock in the first shelter they chose. It took only two iterations of this routine to produce a significant switch in the crabs’ behavior such that those shocked in the previous trial were much more likely to switch shelters than those who hadn’t been shocked in the previous trial. The crabs would rather sacrifice the value and security of a dark shelter by venturing into the dangerous light environment than face being shocked again. Even after eight iterations without shock, the crustaceans continued to avoid the shelter where they had been shocked. Magee and Elwood conclude that this is more than a simple reflex reaction to pain, and that all decapod crustaceans – including lobsters – would exhibit the same response.[15] And in an earlier 2009 study, researchers found that the more intensely hermit crabs are electrically shocked, the more willing the crustaceans are to abandon their shells for new shells.[16]

800px-PrawnIn 2008, a team of researchers demonstrated that when the antennae of prawns are exposed to noxious chemical stimuli, the crustaceans respond with increased grooming of the antennae, yet when an anesthetic is applied, the grooming behavior subsides. The lead researcher concluded that such findings are “consistent with the idea that these crustaceans can experience pain.”[17] And in a 1988 study, a team of researchers from Buenos Aires demonstrated that injections of analgesic and opioid receptor antagonists into male crabs of the species Chasmagnathus granulatus reduced response to electric shock.[18]

What is the best explanation of the results of these studies? Clearly, it would appear that crustaceans – including lobsters – possess the capacity for pain and suffering. If this is so, then … lobsters are morally considerable.

800px-Blue-lobsterUnfortunately there currently exist no regulations regarding the welfare or treatment of crustaceans, allowing practices in some fisheries that involve the cutting off of claws from live crabs before being thrown back into the sea. Even if one remains skeptical of crustacean sentience, when it comes to issues of welfare it would be most prudent to employ the precautionary principle regarding our treatment of these animals, erring on the side of caution.[19]

There is a good chance that the reason why arthropods possess things like nociceptors and opioid receptors (and why crickets get hooked on morphine) is the same reason that we do: because they experience pain.[20] All of this is certainly enough to warrant invoking the precautionary principle, calling us to err on the side of lobster pain. And that’s all I need and have been arguing for in this essay, a biologically weak yet morally profound conclusion indeed.

[1] Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy, California State University at Chico. Jones received his PhD in philosophy from Stanford University in 2005 where his doctoral research examined the moral significance of nonhuman animal cognition. His professional research investigates the substantive cognitive properties that bear on the ethical treatment and moral considerability of both human and nonhuman animals. In addition, his research includes food ethics, environmental ethics, mind and cognition, species studies, and the question of what it is to be human. Jones has been a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University and a visiting researcher for the Ethics in Society Project at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and most recently a Summer Fellow at the Animals & Society Institute. He has given talks at Stanford, Yale, Wesleyan, UCLA, and the University of Auckland. Jones joined the faculty of California State University, Chico, in 2008 as Assistant Professor of Philosophy.

[2]  Jones, R.C., “The Lobster Considered” in Bolger, R. K., & Korb, S. (Eds.). (2014). Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

[3] V Wigglesworth, “Do Insects Feel Pain?” Antenna 1 (1980): 8-9.

[4] C. H. Eisemann, W. K. Jorgensen, D. J. Merritt, M. J. Rice, B. W. Cribb, P. D. Webb and M. P. Zalucki, “Do Insects Feel Pain?-A Biological View,” Cellular and Molecular Life Science 40,2 (1984): 164-7.

[5] Despite Eisemann et al.’s conclusion that the evidence ‘does not appear to support the occurrence in insects of a pain state;’ tellingly, he advises the “experimental biologist … to follow, whenever feasible, Wigglesworth’s recommendation that insects have their nervous systems inactivated prior to traumatizing manipulation. This procedure not only facilitates handling, but also guards against the remaining possibility of pain infliction and, equally important, helps to preserve in the experimenter an appropriately respectful attitude towards living organisms whose physiology, though different, and perhaps simpler than our own, is as yet far from completely understood.”

[6] W. D. Tracey, R. 1. Wilson, G. Laurent and S. Benzer, “painless, a Drosophila Gene Essential for Nociception;’ Cell 113, 2 (2003): 261-73.

[7] D. M. Tobin and C. 1. Bargmann, “Invertebrate Nociception: Behaviors, Neurons and Molecules;’ Journal of Neurobiology 61,1 (2004): 161-74.

[8] G. G. Neely, A. C. Keene, P. Duchek, E. C. Chang, Q. P. Wang, Y. A. Aksoy, M. Rosenzweig, M. Costigan, C. J. Woolf, P. A. Garrity and J. M. Penninger, “TrpA1&lt Regulates Thermal Nociception in Drosophila;’ PLoS ONE 6,8 (2011): e24343.

[9] V E. Dyakonova, F. Schurmann and D. A. Sakharov, “Effects of Serotonergic and Opioidergic Drugs on Escape Behaviors and Social Status of Male Crickets;’ Naturwissenschaften 86, 9 (1999): 435-37.

[10] Interestingly, the crickets demonstrated a habituation to morphine such that those administered with morphine for just four days did not differ from control crickets in tests on pain sensitivity, and analgesia was achieved only at a higher dose of the morphine for these unfortunate junky crickets.

[11] E. Walters, P. Illich, J. Weeks and M. Lewin, “Defensive Responses of Larval Manduca Sexta and their Sensitization by Noxious Stimuli in the Laboratory and Field;’ The Journal of Experimental Biology 204, 3 (2001): 457-69.

[12] T. Eisner and S. Camazine, “Spider Leg Autotomy Induced by Prey Venom Injection: An Adaptive Response to ‘Pain’?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 80, 11 (1983): 3382-5.

[13] L. G. Ross and B. Ross, Anaesthetic and Sedative Techniques for Aquatic Animals, 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

[14] Barry Magee and Robert W. Elwood. “Shock avoidance by discrimination learning in the shore crab (Carcinus maenas) is consistent with a key criterion for pain;’ The Journal of Experimental Biology 216,3 (2013): 353-8.

[15] It’s worth noting that in response, a spokesman for the European Food Safety Authority pronounced that despite the results of this research, decapods would not be classified as a sentient species and that the subject of pain in crustaceans remained “controversial” and a matter of data interpretation.

[16] R. W. Elwood and M. Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?” Animal Behaviour 77, 5 (2009): 1243-6.

[17] S. Barr, P. R. Laming, J. T. Dick and R. W. Elwood, “Nociception or Pain in a Decapod Crustacean?” Animal Behavior 75, 3 (2008): 745-51.

[18] M. Lozada, A. Romano and H. Maldonado, “Effect of Morphine and Naloxone on a Defensive Response of the Crab Chasmagnathus Granulatus;’ Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 30,3 (1988): 635-40.

[19] Disturbing factoid: Believe it or not, performing open-heart surgery on neonates without anesthesia was common practice in the US and Europe until the late 1980s. (That’s not a misprint!) Surgeons used no anesthesia when operating on infants (since it was “common knowledge” that infants could not feel pain). Instead (and this is the brutal part), doctors would administer paralytic drugs before surgery and no painkiller after surgery. That is, infants would be fully conscious during open-heart surgery but unable to express that they were in pain because they were paralyzed! The reasons that the medical community gave for denying pain in infants included the claims that (a) since babies do not remember pain, pain doesn’t matter, and (b) a baby’s nervous system is insufficiently developed to experience pain.

[20] This is not to say that all similarly functioning characteristics must have evolved through adaptation. It could be the case that nociceptors and opioid receptors originally evolved for some function other than pain perception, but were then co-opted for that function in vertebrates much later, a process biologists call “exaptation.” For example, feathers, which initially evolved for heat regulation, were later co-opted for use in flight. However, there is little evidence that vertebrate pain mechanisms are the result of exaptation and not adaptation.


Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. In the mad race to the dinner plate, the scarce resources needed to produce meat, eggs, fish and dairy simply can’t keep pace with the demand for these foods. Some commentators propose “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, on pastures, or in fish farms. But it’s unclear whether these proposals are really viable or are just so much hot, greenhouse gas wafting into the sky.

This is the second installment in a three-part series which seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably? In the first segment, we learned that determining the carbon effects of local consumption can be about as complex as planning a seven-course meal. Simply put, locally raised animal foods can easily be less carbon-friendly than those from a distant continent, and local consumption thus does not make animal foods sustainable. In the third segment, we learn that fish farming may not be silver bullet of food production to feed the world sustainably.  In this piece, we look at another key issue: whether farmed animals’ carbon footprint can be improved by raising them organically.

Manic for Organic

Is organic food really as good for the environment as we’d like to think? Despite Prince Charles’s claim that organic farming provides “major benefits for wildlife and the wider environment,” a 2006 British government report found no evidence that the environmental impact of organic farming is better than that of conventional methods.[1] In fact, because of large differences in land needs and growth characteristics between organic and inorganic animals, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the environmental benefits of one production method over the other. As Table 1 below shows, considerably more land is required to produce organic animal foods than inorganic—in some cases more than double. This higher land use is associated with higher emissions of harmful substances like ammonia, phosphate equivalents, and carbon dioxide equivalents. Further, denied growth-promoting antibiotics, organic animals grow more slowly—which leads to higher energy use for organic poultry and eggs. Thus, as Table 2 shows, when the overall effects of organic and inorganic animal production are compared, the results are notably mixed.

Table 1
Land Use Needs of Organic and Inorganic Animal Food Production (in acres)[2]

Table 1

Table 2
Organic or Inorganic Production—Which Is Better for the Environment?[3]
table 2

O = Organic is better (based on lower use or emission)
I = Inorganic is better (based on lower use or emission)
N = No significant difference

We can see that poultry and eggs are mostly more eco-friendly when raised inorganically, while it’s generally more eco-friendly to raise pigs organically. As for cattle, factors like methane emissions and water use make the comparison more complicated.

it_photo_93667Take methane. Besides figuring prominently in many a fart joke, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas (although in its natural state, it’s actually odorless). A single pound of it has the same heat-trapping properties as 21 pounds of carbon dioxide.[4] Organic cattle must be grazed for part of their lives, which means that unlike feedlot cattle, they eat grass. However, cattle rely more on intestinal bacteria when digesting grass than grain, and this makes them more flatulent—and methane-productive—when eating grass. The result is that grass-fed, organic cattle generate four times the methane that grain-fed, inorganic cattle do.[5]

Then there are the water issues. On a planet where water is not only the origin of all life but is also the key to its survival, animal agriculture siphons off a hugely disproportionate share of this increasingly scarce resource. It can be hard to picture the quantities of water involved, so consider a few examples. The 4,000 gallons required to produce one hamburger is more than the average native of the Congo uses in a year.[6]

battleship_003And the 3 million gallons used to raise a single, half-ton beef steer would comfortably float a battleship.[7]

Pound for pound, it takes up to one hundred times more water to produce animal protein than grain protein.[8] Organic cattle require 10 percent less water than inorganic but still need 2.7 million gallons each during their lives, enough to fill 130 residential swimming pools. In light of the orders-of-magnitude difference in water needed to raise plant and animal protein, does a 10 percent savings for organic cattle really matter? Looked at another way, if Fred litters ten times a day while Mary litters only nine times, is Mary’s behavior really good for the environment? The value of such comparisons is dubious.

These factors lead to one conclusion: we must treat as highly suspect the claim that organic animal agriculture is sustainable. Organic methods are an environmentally-mixed bag—sometimes slightly better, sometimes a little worse, and often the same as inorganic. But since animal protein takes many times the energy, water, and land to produce as plant protein, any modest gains from raising animals organically are largely irrelevant.[9] Shocked that organic production isn’t the silver bullet of sustainability? Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll look at another favorite of those who advocate “green” animal agriculture: pasture farming. For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).

[1] C. Foster et al., “Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A Report to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs,” Eldis (2006).

[2] Data expressed in hectares converted to acres. A. G. Williams, E. Audsley, and D. L. Sandars, “Determining the Environmental Burdens and Resource Use in the Production of Agricultural and Horticultural Commodities” (2006), Main Report, UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Research Project IS0205.

[3]Williams, Audsley, and Sandars, “Environmental Burdens in Production of Agricultural Commodities”; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society, (Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press, 1996).

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Methane: Science” (2010).

[5] L. A. Harper et al., “Direct Measurements of Methane Emissions from Grazing and Feedlot Cattle,” Journal of Animal Science 77, no. 6 (1999): 1392–1401.

[6] ChartsBin, “Total Water Use per Capita by Country,” accessed December 23, 2012,

[7] Assuming the animal weighs 1,200 pounds; metric units converted to imperial. T. Oki et al., “Virtual Water Trade to Japan and in the World” (presentation, International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, Netherlands, 2003).

[8] Pimentel and Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society.

[9] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Clinical Journal of Nutrition 78, no. (3) (2003): 6605–-35.

picture-143At 200 pounds each per year, Americans eat more meat per capita than any other people in the world. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, they’re catching up with us – and when they do, we’ll need two-thirds more land than exists on the planet to meet the higher demand.  The world’s huge production of meat, eggs, fish and dairy is causing a head-on collision between demand for these items and the reality of scarce resources like land, water, and fossil fuels. This isn’t a future threat; it’s happening in real time, right now. It takes up to one hundred times more water, eleven times more fossil fuels, and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein.[1] Further, animal food production is now the planet’s single biggest cause of climate change.[2] The machinery of industrial farming is bursting at the seams, spilling animal emissions and production by-products across all environmental media—air, water, and land. In this three-part series, I explore several popular ideas proposed to address the challenge of producing animal foods sustainably: local consumption, organic production, and fish farming. An in-depth look at these proposals seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably?

Part One: Loco for Local

Sustainability, some insist, requires that we consume food raised locally. Food’s carbon footprint is measured using a technique called “life cycle assessment” (LCA), which examines the carbon impact of every step or component in a food item’s production and consumption. LCA measures water use, harvesting methods, packaging materials, storage and preparation techniques, and other factors. But spoiling the local food movement’s heavy emphasis on what it calls “food miles” is the fact that transportation averages only 11 percent of total carbon footprint and is thus a mere fraction of most edible items’ LCA.[3] By contrast, the act of cooking food typically accounts for 25 percent of its carbon footprint, while production accounts for another 17 percent of the carbon footprint.[4] In other words, a modest efficiency or inefficiency in either production or cooking can easily outweigh transportation’s entire effect.

Hann_lambThe LCA data lead to some startling conclusions about food miles and the merits of local consumption. For example, one study found that it’s more carbon friendly for the British to buy lamb from New Zealand than to buy locally.[5] Lamb production is much more energy efficient in New Zealand than in the UK, in part because British production relies on fossil fuels while New Zealand production uses 64 percent renewable fuels. Thus, British lamb production requires 45,859 megajoules (MJ) of energy per ton of meat, while New Zealand production takes only 8,588 MJ per ton. Even after adding in the 2,030 MJ of energy needed to ship the New Zealand meat to the UK, New Zealand is still the clear winner at only 10,618 MJ for both transport and production—less than one-quarter of the British production requirement. This difference in energy consumption means New Zealand also wins in CO2 output related to lamb production—just 688 kg/ton compared to the UK’s 2,849 kg/ton.[6]

2months-lactation-breeding-1-1In another example of Kiwi production efficiency, the same study found it’s more carbon friendly for Brits to buy their powdered milk from New Zealand instead of locally. New Zealand dairy cows are generally pastured and eat grass, while British cows are mostly confined and eat forage feed like hay and nutritional supplements known as concentrates. The fuel inputs needed to produce the British cows’ forage feed and concentrates lead to major efficiency differences in milk production between the two countries. Thus, it takes 48,368 MJ of energy to produce a ton of powdered milk in the UK, but only 22,912 MJ in New Zealand. Even adding the 2,030 MJ necessary to transport the Kiwi powdered milk to the UK, the total energy used for both production and transport of the New Zealand product is 24,942 MJ—about half that in the UK. Again, New Zealand’s lower energy use means less CO2 output: just 1,423 kg to produce and deliver a ton of powdered milk to the UK, versus the British emission of 2,921 kg of CO2 to produce the same ton of product.[7]

As these examples show, placing too much emphasis on food’s local origin can easily cause one to overlook LCA components that have a greater effect on the environment. Such results led the New Zealand study’s authors to criticize the practice of equating food miles with carbon footprint—a practice they say “ignores the full energy and carbon emissions from production.”[8] The moral here isn’t that we should completely ignore food miles in measuring food’s ecological impact; we just need to exercise more discretion in how much importance we give those miles. As Texas State University professor James McWilliams observes in his book Just Food:

Sure, it feels righteously green to buy a shiny apple at the local farmers’ market. But the savvy consumer must ask the inconvenient questions. If the environment is dry, how much water had to be used to grow that apple? If it’s winter and the climate is cold, was the apple grown in an energy-hogging hothouse? Is the local fish I’m ordering being hunted to extinction? . . . Distance, in other words, is just a minor factor to consider. In overemphasizing food miles, we have missed important opportunities to think more critically about the fuller complexities of food production.[9]

group-of-fruits-and-vegetablesLocal consumption, then, is not the cure-all to solve the sustainability problems of meat and dairy production. If you eat animal foods, to some extent you might help support small farmers by buying locally. But as we’ve seen, the carbon calculations are complicated, and local buying is often not the most eco-friendly way to consume. (The only truly eco-friendly foods, of course, are plants.) In the next installment, we’ll look at organic production as a potential means to address the problem. Stay tuned!  For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).

[1] David Robinson Simon, Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much—and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2013).

[2] Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the Key Actors in Climate Change Are . . . Cows, Pigs and Chickens?” World Watch (November/December 2009): 10–19.

[3] Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science and Technology 42, no. 10 (2008): 3508–13.

[4] Rich Pirog et al., “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa Perspective on How Far Food Travels, Fuel Usage, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (2001).

[5] Caroline Saunders and Andrew Barber, “Carbon Footprints, Life Cycle Analysis, Food Miles: Global Trade Trends and Market Issues,” Political Science 60, no. 1 (2008): 73–88.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 87.

[9] James McWilliams, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Eat Responsibly (New York: Back Bay Books, 2009), 214.