Monday, November 12, 2012

Red Meat

I was thinking about writing a short post about all the academic history I’ve been finding at the bottom of some pretty popular books recently.  Alfred Crosby’s ideas about the Colombian exchange in Charles Mann’s 1491, for example.  Or Vaclav Smil’s story of the Haber-Bosch process for fixing atmospheric nitrogen, from his Enriching the Earth, in Simon Fairlie’s 2010 book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that these are both canonical environmental history texts (they were both on my field list, thanks to my EH advisor, Ted Melillo).  Perhaps because their interest is on the edge of science, readers of popular books on environmental issues are more open to the fairly dense technical arguments.  Maybe it’s easier to move ideas from academic books to popular.  But I’m not so sure.  Science writers often have a lot of skill taking excruciatingly complicated stuff and making it comprehensible to the rest of us.  Michio Kaku, Brian Greene, Matt Ridley, and Colin Tudge are just a few of the names that jump to mind.  Richard Dawkins was Oxford’s “Professor for Public Understanding of Science” until 2008.  We could probably learn a thing or two from these authors.

And Simon Fairlie’s book is part of this tradition.  Fairlie is a British farmer and writer, and a former editor of the British environmental journal The Ecologist.  His book about meat’s place in the food chain draws heavily on Vaclav Smil’s work on nitrogen fixation, and digs a little more deeply into the downside of the green revolution Smil describes.  But the thing that really jumped out at me as I read Meat was Fairlie’s response to the famous food-mile study that stunned us all a few years ago. 

You may recall the article “Food Miles and the RelativeClimate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” written by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon for Environmental Science & Technology in 2008.  It made headlines outside of the science community because they concluded that “eating local” was not a very good way to reduce greenhouse gases.  Eliminating red meat from your diet one day a week, they said, would reduce your carbon footprint more than going 100% local.  This came as a shock to many people who had embraced local farms and markets as a way of living more sustainably.  I was TA-ing an Environmental History course when the article became a news item, so I had my students read it and discuss.

There are a number of possible responses to a claim like this, and the students were able to see many of them.  They pointed out the social benefits of farmers’ markets and local food, the fact that most Americans get their meat from feedlot-style animal husbandry*, and they concluded that they might get even better results if they did both rather than choose to be local or to be part-time vegetarians.  Fairlie touches on each of these points, and then he drops his bomb.  What the study doesn’t deal with – what we overwhelmingly urban Americans routinely fail to see when we look at the local question – is on the back end.  The issue isn’t raising food and getting it to market.  The issue is, getting the waste back to the farm. 

Throughout history, there has been a rough symmetry between the input and output sides of agriculture and life.  Food came out of the earth; crop residues, manure, and even human waste went back in.  Then came the era of flush toilets, food miles, and landfills.  Industrial fertilizers now fill in for the nutrients that came from all that missing waste, but they cost a lot, they run off into our water, and they don’t keep the ground from compacting and eroding the way organic material does.  And assuming for a moment that either soaring global demand or peak oil is going to push the price of energy way up in the future, it’s easy to see that the days of cheap nitrogen may be numbered.  So Fairlie’s point is an important one: if we don’t account for getting waste back to the farm, we’re ignoring a big factor in the true cost equation.

Economists have a word for this.  The things we ignore in our models and analyses are called “externalities.”  At first, they’re left out because they’re either difficult to price (like airport noise in the 1950s) or because they’re ubiquitous and “free” (like rivers and the ocean used as sewers in the 19th century).  Later, they’re ignored because they raise difficult questions about private ownership and public responsibility that free-market ideology would rather bypass.  And sometimes it takes someone like Fairlie, who lives on a farm, to remind the city-folk that just because you flushed your toilet or dragged your trash to the curb, the story isn’t over.  I personally suspect that all our problems arise from ignoring externalities.  Sounds like another book project . . .

But maybe you have to be 2/3 of the way through Fairlie’s book and already buying into his vision, for this to be a powerful “Aha!” moment.  I may not have done justice to it here.  Read the book as an example of how cutting-edge Environmental History can be turned into a best-seller, and you’ll also discover Fairlie’s answer to Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of theCommons.”  


* I asked the authors about grass-fed beef and other sources of “red” meat, and Weber responded to my email, saying that “other red meats than corn fed beef do have the same high emissions” because of the methane-producing effect of digesting grass and the typically longer lifetimes of sheep and goats.  So in the view of these scientists it’s not just a feedlot issue.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

As someone who drove my truck to work today in order to pick up a load of "mushroom compost" (read composted horse manure) to drag into town and dump on my front yard garden, this was a beautiful post to read! Thanks for pushing us to think about "externalities." We love to ignore the difficulties in accomplishing our goals. Our university campus has been really slow at adopting recycling, but our carbon footprint as a school is super low because we are a vegetarian campus. No meat served. We're trying to push more local buying of veggies, etc, but the whole vegetarian thing is really helpful when you're lowering your carbon footprint. Love this, Dan. You made my day.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Lisa. I think you're right about the way being a vegetarian campus reduces your carbon footprint relative to buying feedlot meat from the industrial agriculture giants. But Fairlie makes a compelling argument that conventional vegetarianism shifts a lot of that carbon footprint to fossil fuels via the transportation and fertilizer industries (which, ironically, are held external in many analyses); and that organic, local vegetarian or vegan systems have much lower yields -- so there's a question about how much of the population we could feed that way without expanding into lower-quality farmland or even into wilderness. Which is not to say we shouldn't keep pushing...