Meat and the Environment

Ezra takes a report about the, relative, environmentally friendly nature of pork and branches into a general case against meat:

A pound of steak requires much more grain than a pound of chicken, or fish. Indeed, it’s apparently far worse than a pound of pork. Michael links to a New Scientist article that shows the ratios. Sadly, it’s behind a paywall. But he reports that “producing a kilogram of a cow requires about 6 kilos of grain. A kilo of a chicken requires about 2 kilos of grain, as does a kilo of dairy products. Producing a kilo of a pig only takes a little over 1 kilo of grain, making pork by far the best food bargain in terms of resource usage.”

That finding for pork seems a bit unintuitive to me, but since I can’t read the article, I can’t dig into the specifics. Still, the overall point stands: It’s better for the environment to try and cut meat out of your diet, but you can do a lot to reduce energy usage on the margins by simply switching from high-carbon meats like beef to lower carbon alternatives.

While I certainly won’t dispute that meat production is resource intensive (and right now that means carbon intensive), I don’t think that generally encouraging people to move away from things pretty widely liked such as Porterhouse and Sirloin is a particularly good way to cultivate grass roots support for progressive change. Were the environmental movement to become identified with telling people not to eat meat, let’s say by Republican demagougery for example, I suspect that might push away a good many non-progressives who might otherwise be sympathetic to environmental causes.

And let’s be honest, steak (and meat in general) is really, really good. And if you like to cook, it’s fun to prepare it. Few things can make me feel better after a stressful day than pulling a package of meat out of the freezer, experimenting with the preperation of it, tossing it on a charcoal grill, and enjoying the fruits of my labor as it were. Is it envrionmentally unfriendly? You bet. Is the best remedy for that problem me giving up meat, or at least steak? I don’t think so, rather, I see two much better long term scenarios that can rectify the environmental impact of my love of meat. First, and probably most obviously, is the development of real, viable, alternative energy sources. If we use non-carbon fuels to produce grain, the environmental impact of meat would decrease substantially. Secondly, we could overhaul our fiscal structure in such a way as to accurately reflect the price of carbon in our daily lives. For instance, we could start by eliminating, or at least limiting, subsidies for driving and cheap, carbon heavy, meat production. We could implement cap and trade policies, or simple carbon tax policies, that would further reflect the actual market cost of carbon in the things we buy, and naturally encourage people to live more environmentally friendly lives through economic factors. It could also have tangential economic and living impacts by, for example, encouraging small beef farmers to grow beef organically and market it locally, taking advantage of lower costs of production and a lower cost in the store to increase market share amongst beef consumers. In fact, this is akin to Ezra’s own argument in response to the “eco-friendly” Democratic convention:

The more Democrats present their environmentalism as a call for personal austerity or individual rectitude, the less likely they are to succeed. But that’s not what a cap and trade proposal does. It’s a market-based attempt to accurately price carbon in products, so that the economic incentives naturally point in a direction that doesn’t end up scorching the planet. It’s not about banning meat or keeping people from driving. It’s just about eliminating the silent subsidy that makes meat, gas, and other elements of a carbon-intensive lifestyle look much cheaper than they really are. But the key here is that cap and trade won’t ask people to “do” anything differently. They’ll just have to do what they always do: Decide what they need and then figure out the most cost-effective way to get there. In other words, shop. What they’re not being asked to do is personally figure out carbon counts and chart a low-energy lifestyle.

Fundamentally, I think, Ezra got it right the first time. Which is not to say he was wrong the second time, just that Democrats should embrace the argument that there’s no need to fundamentally and drastically “do” anything, just that we ought to embrace policies that more accurately reflect the price, economically and environmentally, of carbon and energy consumption in general.