“Eating meat is not green” – more traction than “animal lives have instrinsic worth”

The largest single anthropogenic contributor to carbon (among other pollutants) is acknowledged to be not cars, not planes, not poor insulation, but farmed animals – transport, excretion, processing, refrigeration, and food. There is consensus that reducing anthropogenic emissions can make a difference to climate change.

Carbon looms as our biggest global threat, particularly in the face of growing population and therefore according to current projections, a projected doubling (PowerPoint slides) in the population of farmed animals to 120bn animals per year in 2050. In these circumstances, people who want animals to be treated ethically have been presented with a more socially acceptable (hegemonic?) campaign to hitch ourselves to: environmentalism.

So there’s the Compassion in World Farming event with Nobel Prize winner economist and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, and a very illustrious panel, which made front page news. And we have the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign Eating Meat Is Not Green.

Becoming vegetarian and ideally vegan is one individual action within our control which can make a huge difference to our emissions and pollutants, on a population level. I am pleased to be vegan for this reason, but there’s much more to it than that.

I am a pragmatist who thinks that ends often justify means (and the reasons). But I find it depressing that the the animal rights agenda (I have no idea whether that is a politically incorrect term or not) could be subsumed into the environmentalist agenda. This fails to challenge the settled belief among many people that animal lives (pigs, sheep, cows, chickens) do not have intrinsic worth.

The two agenda are not necessarily compatible. For example, environmentalists are searching for the holy grail of the carbon neutral chicken – the amount of energy the farmer ‘invests’ is the amount of energy that the chicken ‘returns’. It goes without saying that this is neither organic nor free range, and so it is incompatible with the animal rights agenda. Environmentalists are actively considering intensivisation. Intensivisation is unspeakably excruciating for animals. Even Pig City fails to account for what we know about the consciousness of pigs.

There is also a health – nutrition – agenda which deserves to be taken very seriously indeed; to ignore this when promoting veganism is misanthropic. For people like Jay Rayner who are unmoved by the suffering of non-human animals, nutrition for poorer people equals factory farm. What he is right about is that sometimes meat is good for you. If you are just scraping by, for example. This is why the first thing people do as their incomes improve is improve their diets. This is why the ultimate task is to make sure that everybody in the world has food security – and not just security, but a nutritious and aesthetically pleasing diet – which doesn’t depend on animals. That is no small ask.

This is why Joyce D’Silva of Compassion in World Farming, vegan and author of Animals, Ethics and Trade: The Challenge of Animal Sentience, seemed to me to be isolated on CiWF’s own panel where people were talking about things like food security, carbon, land and nutrition. It is also why she deserved a place on that panel.

And this is why the agenda for ethical treatment of animals must not allow itself to be eclipsed by the environment agenda, but must speak up for itself as well. Both need to build their case round the need to protect (from the ravages of climate change), clothe (animals are also a source of materials) and feed (properly) a human population which is now estimated at 6.721bn and projected at 9.2bn in 2050. This is the task which is the most important of all.


4 thoughts on ““Eating meat is not green” – more traction than “animal lives have instrinsic worth”

  1. I very much agree that the two arguments must be fought independently, for the clarity of the argument, but also because the ends are not the same.

    If you consider meat consumption as being one among others contributors to climate change, then reduction of meat consumption (not stopping eating meat) is one logical step, together with better insulation (not stopping heating your house), less and greener travel (not stopping travelling), etc

    In other words the climate change argument is not, per se, an argument to become vegan. There is a danger for the animal right cause at mixing the two arguments; there is also a danger for the fight against climate change cause at subsuming the two arguments.

  2. Fleshisgrass, Raphael,

    I have a lot of sympathy with the views expressed in this post and comments. Can you tell me what you think about hill farming – sheep farming on land that couldn’t be used for crops because it’s too hilly and the earth is too poor? It’s often very beautiful land, too, in ways that are well-preserved by sheep constantly grazing it

  3. Eve, thanks for stopping by.

    Your question is a good one and I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to answer it. My concerns overlap with yours but I am more knowledgeable about animal welfare than the other things I mention here, and this might understandably incense a sheep farmer or landscape lover with its glossing of practicalities.

    So maybe I will pose some questions in response.

    Pasture – vegetation and soil – is said to be a good means of natural carbon sequestration – is this true of the thin mountain top-soil? How does grazing by upland sheep help to condition this – or how does it help in other environmentally positive ways?

    What happens in the life of an upland sheep? Are they just for grazing (like the descendants of pit ponies on Bodmin Moor) or are they farmed for meat, fleece and lamb, with attendant welfare worries e.g. http://www.fawc.org.uk/pdf/report-080630.pdf.

    Do they fend for themselves? New Zealand researchers fighting against British proponents of local food pointed out that British lamb produces four times as much carbon as that imported from NZ because British lamb has to be fed – I understand that upland sheep are brought down to the valleys for the winter and fed. Many are sold and slaughtered in autumn meaning that fewer require over-winter feeding. In summer the agricultural breeds need to be shorn.

    To what extent does grazing need to be managed in order to to protect the landscape? I know that the ecology on one of my favourite mountains, Long Mynd in Shropshire, has suffered from overgrazing – http://www.english-nature.org.uk/news/story.asp?ID=470.

    What happens to farmers, and rural economies, if grazing is restricted? Subsidisation and grants to promote biodiversity. One account http://www.defra.gov.uk/erdp/case_studies/wm/long_mynd.htm – but I’m not familiar with the graziers’ side of the story.

    What are the prospects for sheep (possibly types unencumbered by heavy fleece or fleshy bodies) which graze the uplands but exist outside agriculture?

    But Eve, my impression is that the environmentalists and the animal welfare experts are less worried about these upland sheep. They are not a priority welfare case when it comes to the ‘5 freedoms’ – freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury and disease; from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behaviour. And from what I can gather they are not heavily implicated in climate change or pollution either.

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