Watered Down Logic and A Lot of Hot Air

» March 1st, 2014

The environmental case against raising animals for food becomes increasingly stronger as more and more research emerges. A closer look at the finer points on the comparative water usage between livestock and plants highlights this correlation quite clearly.

According to researchers recently cited in a Mother Jones article, beef has a water footprint of 15,415 cubic meters/ton. The water footprint for “sugar crops” is 197 cubic meters/ton; for vegetables it’s 240 cubic meters/ton. This dramatic disparity alone raises serious questions as to why anyone seeking to analyze the current California drought would highlight the water footprint of nuts—admittedly, a relatively high 9,063 cubic meters/ton—when cattle consume so much of California’s scarce water supply, most of it in the form of alfalfa. Doing so strikes me as a case of distraction journalism.

A related issue when it comes to comparing the ecological impact of the food is methane–which has 72 times the global warming potential as carbon. Last year was a big year for methane research. Scientists discovered that U.S. methane output is 50 percent more than the EPA was estimating and 70 percent more than the figure cited by th European Environmental Agency’s Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Especially revealing was the fact that livestock related emissions were twice the current estimates, accounting for up to 33 percent of global methane emissions. Cows burp and defecate, methane escapes, it harms the environment. This claim holds true for factory farmed and pastured animals.

Given these kinds of figures, in addition to the urgency with which environmentalists rightfully urge humans to adjust their behavior to prevent planetary implosion, it strikes me as a little ridiculous that we’re actually having serious arguments over whether or not veganism is a good move for the environment. Of course it is.

Let’s close that case and start talking about why the eco-foodies who wring their hands so earnestly about ecological destruction are not taking the obvious and in many ways the most accessible step of exclusively eating plants.


18 Responses to Watered Down Logic and A Lot of Hot Air

  1. Anne Clarke says:

    The answer to anyone who has tried to work in the intersecting area of food politics and environment is obvious: the principal environmental movements have been captured by the animal foods industry and in particular by the cattle growers. For instance, McKibben’s 350 organization receives substantial funding from Tom Steyer through his aptly named Tomcat Foundation. Steyer raises pastured beef. The founder of Climate Reality, Al Gore’s lifelong affiliation with beef ranchers is well known. Diligent research into sources of funding of the mainstream climate movement should uncover other interesting and unsavory examples of complicity between industrial agriculture and the pied pipers of climate change mitigation.
    The dominant contribution of livestock and especially beef to GHGs as well as to the looming water shortage and to rampant deforestation has been well documented for years now but remains a taboo topic within the major climate change organizations. With supporters like those cited, the movement to stem climate change hardly needs the deniers.
    People concerned with a livable future for both us and the animals we exploit need to start exposing the connections.

    • Ellen K says:

      Agreed, and so how best to expose the connections and get the message as widely as possible to the green, environmental and “eco-foodie” (love that) crowd?

      Can vegan speakers who normally seek veg fest venues get on the platform at the nation’s various green/eco fests?

      I’m working on two groups here in Boston, and welcome ideas for how to get this issue highlighted front-and-center on the environmental messaging agenda.

      • Anne Clarke says:

        I think we need first to document the collusion. This is not an entirely easy task, however obvious the connections may seem to you and me.
        I have spent the last couple of years attending climate change, divestment etc fora to raise the issue of animal agriculture and have been met with a spectrum of responses ranging from blank incomprehension, ridicule, hostility, pro forma agreement (another form of cluelessness).
        I too am based in the Boston area and would love to correspond off list about first getting our facts straight and then tactics for introducing this issue into the discussion locally and more broadly.
        If interested in exchanging ideas please contact me off list: hera.invicta@gmail.com. I look forward learning your perspectives.

  2. Caroline RH says:

    I totally agree with you, and all the interest we have discussed about Ethical treatment of animals – we have not talked about the pain inflicted on innocent creatures by factory farming, slaughtering of millions of cows, most in a painful and inhumane way, chickens and pigs kept in tiny cages full of feces and urine, and don’t get me started on veal and geese stuffed with corn to make foie gras. So there are three reasons for vegetarianism, veganism or fruitarian eating.


    What other reasons does anyone need???

  3. Rebecca Allen says:

    Very well said. And, from what I understand, reducing animal agriculture is the fastest way reduce the warming.

  4. Anim says:

    On the disease issue-another area I dont see talked about much is how meat eating contributes to pandemics. Look at this article (presumably not written by a vegan and yet pretty damning evidence: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/swine-flu/5237563/Swine-flu-is-a-heavy-price-to-pay-for-a-pork-chop.html )

    Even AIDS is said to have originated from meat eating–bush meat hunters. It is incredible! Even more evidence that meat eating is bad and the people who try to defend it are FOOLS or INSANE.

    I think the reason we see this flurry of meat eating apologist arguments (in addition to meat dairy industry propaganda) is because the most selfish “liberal” types are the most upset about having to change their lifestyle. It is easy to say you are against war and slavery–it requires no sacrifice or change in behavior, but giving up meat and dairy amounts to “walking the walk” in a significant way. Why do that when you can write books for the “selfish-righteous” to make them feel better about their immoral behavior?

  5. Jack McMillan says:

    Well stated James. There are millions of “environmentalists” who just will not go there, to what is so obvious to meet their so-called concern for the Earth, climate change, etc. Arm chair activists, all. It is like the doctor so hooked on his own diet of animal flesh and secretions that he will not tell his patients the most direct path to health. It is amazing how one’s own personal “lifestyle” acts as such a defense mechanism against clear, critical, and sensible thinking. We need to really call out and challenge all who purport to be liberal and caring and oh so thoughtful and concerned about things, and demand that they walk that talk. You cannot be an “environmentalist” without being, and advocating, vegan/ism. And you cannot be a social justice advocate if you are refusing to face one’s own participation in the greatest injustice of all- the enslavement of billions of fellow beings. There is a mass conceit that we are, those of us who “care”, all dwelling on a high moral ground. It is a conceit that allows most to sleep well at night, and remain conveniently oblivious to being absolutely part of the problem, not the solution.

  6. Karen Orr says:

    I received a survey about meat consumption and the environment from the Center for Biological Diversity in late January.

    The Center wrote:

    “We’re breaking new ground in our Population and Sustainability program. In addition to tackling the tough issue of runaway human population growth — one of the most pervasive but least talked-about threats to our planet and wildlife — we’re taking on several new sustainability campaigns this year, starting with meat consumption and production in the United States.

    This is where we need your help. We’ve put together a brief survey for you to give us your thoughts on meat consumption and the environment. In five minutes or less, you can provide us with crucial information to help build our campaign for a sustainable future for America’s diet. Click here to start our SurveyMonkey survey now.


    With more than 317 million people in the United States, one of the biggest questions we’ll face in the coming decade is how to feed our growing population without sacrificing what’s left of our natural areas, wildlife and habitat. The Center for Biological Diversity is taking this issue head-on to continue our work to protect imperiled wildlife and the wild places they call home.

    By taking our quick survey now and telling us about your own diet and how you think about food, particularly meat consumption, you’ll help us shape our new Earth-friendly diet campaign. Your responses are confidential, and we’ll never share your information with outside sources. Please take the survey today, then share it with your friends on Facebook.”

    I look forward to reading about the Center’s diet campaign.

    • Marc Bedner says:

      The Center for Biological Diversity’s PopX campaign is a good model for environmentalists who are serious about reversing climate change. They address the primary cause of climate change, human overpopulation, and are now beginning to address the second greatest cause of climate change, the livestock industry. Unfortunately, most environmental groups refuse to address either of these issues. And even much of the Centers work ignores what comes out of their PopX campaign.

  7. Laura says:

    They like to play “hipster caveman living off the land,” in leather outfits, driving their Priuses, constantly using their smart phones, computers, taking their prescription drugs, sleeping on ridiculously complex mattresses, using tons of gym equipment to work out, tanning beds, plastic surgery, hair implants …the list of civilization’s self-pampering is endless. But they’re like wild animals out in nature too, mind you…top’o that “food chain,” darn it, and they “didn’t claw their way up there over the eons to eat grass!!”

    • Anim says:

      “hipster caveman,”


    • Mountain says:

      Wow. Nice two minutes hate, there. Orwell would be proud.

      • Anim says:

        Not hate–truth.
        It is worthy of contempt though.
        Hipster caveman mentality flies in the face of justice and logic and social responsibility.
        But humans are irrational so–there’s always the “I’m a good slavemaster” claim being thrown around.
        When I went veg in the 80s I wasnt even exposed to factory farm information. I made my decision based entirely on what small farms did.
        That was horrific and unethical enough.

        • Laura says:

          Hi Anim, and thank you for saying all that; I’m following your blog now :) …I may not have time to comment there, but I’ve read what you have to say, and you’re definitely a bit of alright… I agree with you wholeheartedly.

      • Laura says:

        Thanks, I like Orwell.

  8. Fireweed says:

    I routinely added articles like this one by James to the Elephant in the Room is a COW Facebook page. Anyone interested in contributing relevant material, or checking their for archived articles on the topic of animal ag’s environmental impacts for their own consciousness raising efforts is encouraged to check out the ‘about’ section for the group and request to join! https://www.facebook.com/groups/515390858491078/

  9. Rebecca Allen says:

    I thought I would share this article on Bloomberg Sustainability about how the drought is affecting ranchers.


    They say it is unsustainable to buy the hay to feed them.
    The price of beef is rising and the ranchers are not buying young cows. (yay) I do hope that more and more stop eating beef.

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