You could sense the collective embarrassment when a gentleman stood up at the Rural Talks: Climate Change in Huron County conference in Blyth last fall and told the audience, which included a good number of farmers, that if they wanted to help stop climate change, they should stop eating meat.
The thing is, how do you argue against someone who is quoting scientists without seeming like one of those people who denies climate change exists, when thousands of climate scientists say it does? Yet I sometimes wonder how comprehensive the data is that scientists use to come to this conclusion. I’m not alone.
According to the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI), most of the climate change literature about farming is out of date. Last fall’s report of the International Panel on Climate Change doesn’t mention “the Canadian agriculture sector has made significant progress in making soils in crop and animal production a net carbon sink, as well as reducing emission intensity from animal agriculture,” according to the CAPI study co-authored by Al Mussel, Ted Bilyea and Margaret Zafiriou.
The CAPI study says that greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian agriculture peaked in 2005, even though food production has continued to increase.
“Canadian beef production has become much less emissions intensive as a result of new genetics, increased feed efficiencies and better pasture management,” says the CAPI study. “Canada is now one of the lowest emitters for animal protein, particularly beef, in the world.”
And then there’s the fact that it’s humans, not animals that have altered the world so extraordinarily as to change the climate by digging up the sun’s energy from millions of years ago, stored as coal and oil, and burning it. There was no climate change back in 1500 when the population of bison on the North American plains was estimated at between 30 and 60 million, each one burping and passing methane.
If animals burping after they eat plants is causing global warming, then we should celebrate the poachers in Africa who are killing elephants. A single elephant produces enough methane in a single day to power a car for 20 miles.
Have the scientists properly credited the grasslands that animals eat from for being among the greatest sequesters of carbon? Millions of acres of grasslands on which cattle feed are helping the planet, not hurting it. Much of this land is not suitable for growing crops, and even if it were, cultivating the land would diminish its stored carbon.
If farming is to be blamed for adding to climate change it should probably be the hallowed plant-based agriculture, not animal agriculture, that takes the blame. Prairie grasslands, that once fed animals and accumulated carbon in deep, rich soil, were ploughed to plant the crops that inexpensively fed the world and allowed human populations to soar into the billions.
Animal agriculture can even be part of the solution if we use our ingenuity to capture the problematic methane animals produce and use it as a natural fuel we’ll still need even as we transition to a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
But animal agriculture is too convenient a scapegoat. For one thing, the beliefs of groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which sees using animals for anything but companionship as unethical, are gaining traction. Then there’s the “blame somebody else so I don’t have to change” way of thinking that makes it convenient to push the guilt off onto someone we don’t know. Most urbanites never see a farmer, and after all they’re kind of backward, so it’s easy to blame them instead of ourselves.◊