People’s Climate March Organizers
Squander Opportunity to Educate the Public
Greenhouse Gas Contribution of Livestock Agriculture1
by Mike Hudak
30 October 2014
While no less a respected body than the FAO
of the United Nations has pegged the contribution of livestock agriculture at 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
, the People’s Climate March (PCM) organizers chose to behave as if our food choices play no role in the Earth’s changing climate. As stated in the PCM’s “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ):
We have 14 New York City food trucks lined up with some of your favorite eats; vegan, pizza, ice cream (they have vegan), tacos, African, Asian Fusion, frozen yogurt, Philly Cheesesteaks, sandwiches, Italian, Latin, and lobster rolls.
As it turned out, the array of vendor trucks even included one serving shrimp, a highly climate-impacting commodity. Although shrimp was traditionally harvested from the open sea, much of global production today comes from Southeast Asian shrimp farms having a carbon footprint ten times that of “beef from cows raised on cleared Amazon rainforest
.” Ninety percent of U.S.-consumed shrimp is now imported, with much of it coming from those shrimp farms.
Let’s be clear: the primary importance of PCM organizers limiting their chosen vendors to the selling of plant-based food would not in itself have been to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the vendors’ customers, but to provide a teachable moment for PCM participants and spectators alike.
Most likely the selection of food vendors was not the result of a conscious decision to dissociate animal agriculture and climate change in the minds of marchers. Rather, it is reflective of a culture among many mainstream environmental groups, including those groups at the helm of the march, of holding a dismissive attitude about the importance of reducing consumption of animal products as a vital strategy for mitigating climate change. Consequently these groups are reluctant to suggest that personal food choices
have a role to play in mitigating climate change, particularly when those changes indict the livelihoods of the farmers and ranchers many environmental groups are trying to court.
From its beginning, 350.org has remained silent about animal agriculture as a force for good or ill. In a 2011 article
, historian James McWilliams pointed out to the organization that “Eating a vegan diet is seven times more effective at reducing [GHG] emissions than eating a so-called sustainable, local, meat-based diet.” McWilliams then noted having received an email from 350.org that stated “we don’t really take official stances on issues like veganism.”
McWilliams offered a few possible explanations for 350.org’s refusal to embrace a plant-based diet in its fight against climate change. He cited the comparative “aesthetics of pipelines and pastures”—the former being “brute technological intrusions” while the latter appeals to our myth of a nature more pure in the absence of human beings.
McWilliams also cited the matter of “personal agency” as a possible factor in 350.org’s position—while what one puts into one’s body is a personal, intimate decision, a coal-fired power plant represents a “sinister corporate-government alliance.” And so, McWilliams suggests that 350.org eschews discussing personal eating habits for anti-coal advocacy because “it appeals to our instinctual, if misguided, sense of personal agency.” In other words, individuals are more likely to act against an external, ominous threat than to change personal behavior intertwined with a lifetime of positive associations.
Then McWilliams raised the matter of fundraising, noting that the image of McKibben getting arrested at a protest over construction of a natural gas pipeline is much more effective in attracting donors than him “staying at home munching kale, and advising others to do the same.”
co-founder, chairman and “leader”2 Bill McKibben from advocating on behalf of certain types of animal agriculture over competing methods, even in the face of scientific evidence that such substitutions yield little-to-no environmental benefit.
Commenting on a presentation in Melbourne that McKibben gave during a 2013 Australian speaking tour, environmental and animal rights campaigner Paul Mahony notes McKibben’s promotion of Allan Savory’s approach to ranching
known as Holistic Management.
(The scientific community has been critical of Holistic Management (and its predecessors “Holistic Resource Management” and “Savory Grazing System”) since the 1980s. Charges have included its being based on several false premises about grassland ecology, along with the absence of peer-reviewed studies showing that this management approach is superior to conventional grazing systems in outcomes of land health and animal productivity.5
Also noteworthy is the
article by Briske et al.
that challenges specific claims (including one regarding rangeland sequestration of atmospheric carbon) made by Allan Savory6
in the TED talk
that Mahony witnessed Bill McKibben promoting on his Australian lecture tour in 2013.7
As regards that Australian speaking tour, Mahony’s article
further examines McKibben’s advocacy for positions that coincide with those of Allan Savory (and largely with those of Tom Steyer, as best one can ascertain from web resources8
). These positions include advocacy for buying locally raised beef, for favoring beef raised on pasture over that from feedlots, for using domesticated ungulates to mimic the ecological role of “old-school” ungulates, for claiming that soil microbes absorb atmospheric methane in excess of that