By Jennifer Greene
Part I: UN Climate Conference (COP21)
I am dismayed to hear that today, in Paris, on the topic of animal agriculture, "everyone is talking about grass-feeding" of cows—rather than talking about initiatives to move away from using animals, including cows, for food.
Is Achim Steiner attending the climate conference in Paris? I do not know. Steiner is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Environment Programme. Here is what Steiner said in response to the 2010 UNEP Panel report that called, among other things, for "worldwide diet change, away from animal products":
Some tough choices are signaled in this report,
but it may prove even more challenging for everyone
if the current paths continue into the coming decades.
Friends, I don't have to tell you that climate change is an urgent moral issue. While climate conference delegates are hearing about which is better livestock feed, grain or pasture, it seems nobody is lifting up the Panel's message: namely, that land without livestock is what's actually "sustainable."
Exploitation of sentient beings is a moral issue, too. I don’t hear enough good people challenging the exploitation itself.
But it's understandable. Advocating for the continued use of animals holds appeal for those who enjoy eating meat/milk from animals.
Still, what would future generations have us do? Isn't that a question we must now face?
Part II: Savory
In case someone brings up Allan Savory, I want readers to know that I am familiar with his claim (as presented in his 2013 TED talk) that "we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere and safely store it in the grassland soils for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world's grasslands that I've shown you, we can take us back to pre-industrial levels," and I have tried to determine if it is based on strong evidence, or if it is overstated, as some critics have charged. Here are some questions for Savory that I compiled during my investigation. (If the following gets too technical, just skip ahead to Part III.)
1. Can you point us to a peer-reviewed study which backs up your claim?
(This question was inspired by George Monbiot's 2014 interview of Savory.)
2. If the system you're proposing—involving large numbers of grazers—can pull 100 ppm of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in 50 years, how did the atmosphere retain its load of 180 to 300 ppm of carbon dioxide for hundreds of thousands of years? Why didn't grazers keep pulling down carbon dioxide until they created a Snowball Earth? (Question originally posed by Teratornis.)
3. Adam Merberg, a mathematics graduate student at UC Berkeley, has studied your claim and written that it's "perfectly reasonable to ask for evidence on a smaller scale before we [employ your methods on a large scale], particularly as existing evidence indicates that this would make the problems worse." How do you respond?
4. Since 1977, Green Belt Movement communities in Kenya have planted over 51 million trees. In Tanzania, the Kwimba Reforestation Project, which ran from 1990 to 1999, planted 6.4 million trees, and survival rates varied from about 75 percent in drought years to 90 percent in good years. I'm wondering about the regions you highlighted in your TED talk as being most affected by desertification—the Amazon basin, numerous countries in Africa, and temperate regions in Asia. Weren't many of those areas once forest, before they were turned into pastures for cattle? Why not propose widespread reforestation of the same areas? (Question 4 inspired by this post by Richard Oppenlander.)
5. In your April 2013 white paper, "Restoring the Climate Through Capture and Storage of Soil Carbon Through Holistic Planned Grazing," I searched but found no specific mention of methane. When you predict that your plan will take us back to pre-industrial levels of greenhouse gases, are you taking livestock's methane contribution into account?
6. One of the areas you use as an example is the Greater Horn of Africa, which encompasses eight countries and six million square miles. You have said, "95% of the land in the GHA can only feed people from animals." Livestock already occupy 44% of the total land surface of the GHA. These countries are using their sparse natural resources to support millions of cattle, sheep, and goats, while their human populations suffer from lack of food. If much of the region is actually drought-ridden now, why not propose types of food production that involve the least water usage? (Question 6 inspired by this post by Richard Oppenlander.)
7. The Charter Grazing Trials were undertaken in Zimbabwe, with your involvement, to test the claim that “we could double the stocking rate on any land under conventional management, improve the land and make more profit” with your methods. Referring to the Charter Grazing Trials, you have said, “The only trial ever conducted proved what I have always advocated and continue to advocate when livestock are run on any land.” How you can be so sure that your methods will work on any land, when you say they've been tested only on those plots of land in Zimbabwe back in the 1960s? (Credit to Adam Merberg for inspiring this question.)
Part III: That third option—milk/meat not from animals
Savory is surely right about some things—the health of soil matters, and grassland restoration is beneficial for various reasons, including a certain amount of carbon sequestration. It may be true that the absence of megafauna can exacerbate, not reverse, desertification. But Savory asserts that the only (and he does stress only) way we can solve our climate problem is to use livestock, in increased numbers. Based on my own understanding of mitigation opportunities, I do not believe that to be true.
At RealClimate.org, I found a succinct critique of Savory's TED talk. Here is an excerpt (with emphasis added) from the conclusion of "Cows, Carbon and the Anthropocene" by Jason West and David Briske:
Mr. Savory argues that we adopt his grazing method as a simple solution to resolve a
key Anthropocene contributor – the ongoing perturbation of Earth’s carbon cycle.
The appeal of this claim to casual observers is enhanced in that it does not
require humans to face any tradeoffs. The implication is that we can continue to
use fossil fuels and emit carbon into the atmosphere because application of holistic
management on the Earth’s grasslands provides a ‘silver bullet’ that will sustainably
solve the climate change problem and provide abundant livestock products as well.
We would be thrilled if a simple solution such as this existed. However, it clearly
does not, and it is counter-productive to believe that it does.
Advocating for the continued use of animals, and focusing on changing the ways we are managing or feeding them, is understandably appealing to those who want to keep eating meat and dairy.
But what would future generations have us do? Heck, what would today's Pacific Islanders have us do? They are asking the world to be ambitious in our goals.
So how about enjoying milk/meat not from animals? You can let justice for humans motivate you, even if justice for animals does not. (Just please don't become a so-called "climate carnivore" by replacing "beef" in your diet with chickens or fish. That would dramatically increase the number of animals who are killed for your plate. Instead, switch away from meat from animals, and choose vegan meats instead. You will help the climate, your health, and the animals at the same time. It's a win-win-win.)
The bottom line? Climate activists need to lift up the third option at every opportunity. That is, if we hope to keep the warming to 2°C or, even better, to 1.5°.