The less meat better meat paradox
What does "better meat" mean for climate emissions?
Hello new subscribers, and sorry for the delay everyone! I’ve got some exciting professional news and a new feature out in Sierra magazine, but first, in this newsletter, I just had to share a few thoughts on this new (to me) phrase — “less meat, better meat.” And you may be wondering, who said that? (Ok, I really just wanted an excuse to use this gif. Anyway.)
While reporting for a story on cities and food-related emissions, I started reading through a whole bunch of school district and city food purchasing guidelines. And in a few of them, I kept finding this particular phrase — “less meat, better meat.”
It turns out, a number of city and school district procurement departments are exploring how to use their purchasing power to reduce food-related emissions. And the good news is many of these city purchasers know how to take effective climate action — not by buying local (yes, really) but by purchasing fewer meat and dairy products. Oakland Unified in California and Multnomah County in Oregon are two places that have decided to buy fewer beef and dairy products in recent years, for example.
Now, why do meat and dairy have such an outsized carbon footprint? If you’re new here, a recap — cows require a lot of land to raise and, because they’re ruminants, they belch a lot more methane than other animals. What’s a ruminant? From a blog post I wrote for SciMoms:
Ruminants are animals with four stomach compartments, one of which is called the “rumen.” Cows digest their food by fermenting it in the rumen through enteric fermentation. It’s an amazing process that gives cows the ability to eat all sorts of food that humans won’t eat, including food waste and leftover crops.
The downside is enteric fermentation also causes cows to emit high amounts of methane into the atmosphere, mostly in the form of belches. Globally, enteric fermentation from meat is responsible for around 40 percent of all the methane produced each year. In the US, the percentage is 25 percent.
So, these city purchasers got the memo that eating less beef is crucial for mitigating climate emissions, great! But many of them also want the meat that they do still buy to be “better meat.”
But here’s kind of an important question: what does better meat mean? Better for whom? The animals? The local economy? Greenhouse gas emissions? The water? The soil? You might think any small “sustainable” farm can say yes to all of those questions, and that an industrial farm cannot, but that’s almost certainly not the case. In the case of climate emissions, it’s definitely not the case.
Climate emissions, air and water pollution, animal welfare, animal rights, local economics, soil health — these are all very different. Some farms are good at one thing but may not have the capacity to reduce emissions or manage their manure properly, for example. Others might be terrible to their employees or abuse their animals or be completely sexist to their fellow ranchers online. Small doesn’t necessarily mean better (nor is it automatically worse either).
If we’re talking about emissions, however, small farms do tend to need a lot more land to produce the same amount of meat — here’s just one well-known study of a regenerative operation. The consequence of the land use problem is that if everyone in the US were to buy their meat from small farms, the emissions cost and the impact from expanding farmland would be devastating to the planet.
To put it another way, climate researchers who have made the calculations to arrive at the recommendation to eat just 1.5 burgers per week are basing those calculations on certain assumptions about how the meat will be produced. It’s not quite this simple, but the numbers kind of hinge on a food system in which most of the beef produced comes from industrial-scale agriculture. So, if we in the US were to shift even more farms or all farms to regenerative agriculture, the agricultural land footprint — which is also a carbon footprint – would be enormous. You wouldn’t just need to eat “less meat” as in 1.5 burgers or less, you’d need to eat like next to nothing.
Now, I hear you, my small scale farming friends, it’s more complicated than that. I know. I hear you. My only point is that shifting to “less meat, better meat” means you can’t just eat a little less, and you can’t just eat 1.5 burgers a week, you would have to eat A LOT LOT LOT LESS MEAT.
As I wrote in Sierra:
But for every farm and livestock operation to run this way, we'd have to do something extremely unpopular—something that Kiss the Ground never mentions. We'd have to eat less beef. A lot less. Even less than environmental groups like the World Resources Institute and Project Drawdown already recommend.
Is there some possible future where you could shift some farming to regenerative systems and also get rid of ethanol and that allows you to eat “better meat” and still make climate goals? I don’t know. I’m not a climate expert. Please read everything that the folks at World Resources Institute put out. But what I do know is I am not seeing the math from sustainable farming advocates. For small farms to scale up as a climate solution, the math has to make sense.
Now, some news! I’m hanging up my freelance hat (I keep using this phrase even though there is no hat) and joining the team at Sentient Media as their next managing editor. More at the announcement here, but this excerpt sums it up well for me:
“I first started thinking more deeply about animals in our food system after reporting on agriculture and its climate impacts. But what I learned is there are so many other impacts too, from water and air pollution to how workers are treated, soil degradation, deforestation, and wildlife destruction—and eventually I realized I could no longer disregard how animals fit into this bigger picture of our food system and our environment. I came to this realization as someone who cooked and ate animals. For me, the logical thing to do was to change that,” Jenny says.
Human health is another perennial topic that is relevant to the food system. “In food journalism, we’ve been talking for so long about corn, how much we produce and how it goes into processed foods, and how processed foods are causing harm. But most of the corn we grow goes into ethanol and feed for animal agriculture, which in turn causes even more harm: to the climate, the animals, and in many cases to human health, too.”
I truly couldn’t be more excited for this next chapter. Hat, chapter, journey — listen I’ve never been great at metaphors. I am just thrilled.
Kudos on the new gig!! Looking forward to seeing more!
Congratulations on your new role, Jenny! I will look forward to following your work at Sentient.