Can we really compare meat to fossil fuels?

Many sustainability proponents these days encourage us to become vegetarians. At least once a day there is some article along these lines in my Twitter feed. Unfortunately, there are many arguments circulating in this debate that are quite misleading. The worst error people make, in my opinion, is to equate emissions from cattle with emissions from fossil fuels.

This is simply misleading because these emissions have very different relationships to the carbon cycle. By burning fossil fuels we are adding carbon to the carbon cycle whereas emissions from cattle have a role within the carbon cycle, it naturally belongs there.

Let me explain. We all learnt about the carbon cycle in school and thus we should know that carbon circulates between the atmosphere, to plants, to animals and us humans and is yet again released into the air. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi etc. also play a role in this. It is how it should work in nature. Animals have a part to play in this cycle by both storing and releasing carbon in different forms.

Now whereas cattle is part of this normal carbon cycle fossil fuels are not. Fossil fuel is stored away carbon that is suddenly released into the atmosphere through human intervention. Because the natural carbon cycle cannot absorb all this added carbon, a larger portion of it remains in the atmosphere. The natural equivalent is a volcanic eruption. But these days we have constant man-made emissions of such stored away carbon. This way, we add carbon to the atmosphere that was not there before and would not have been released without us. This is indisputable and should really be our focus since we know this for certain.

Now some argue that because we hold cattle as part of our food chain we have affected the carbon cycle by raising more cows than what existed before human intervention, i.e. before animal husbandry. That there are more animals on earth today, and particularly ruminants, is a hypothesis that is difficult to prove. We don’t know exactly how many animals existed before our animal husbandry or how many of these were ruminants, so it is only estimates. Even if there are more ruminants living on earth today, it is not necessarily a problem because cattle also absorbs carbon. Just as us humans, their bodies are partly built of carbon that is released through breathing and when we die etc.

The problem with more ruminants on earth, according to the veggie proponents, is that ruminants release more methane than other animals. Thus we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane, they argue. However, the more we learn about methane, it is not really an isolated case of cows as such but methane producing bacteria that we find in all kinds of environments. Moreover, most of these emissions do belong to the natural carbon cycle that was there before us. It is possible that human behavior provide more beneficial environments for these methane bacteria, by raising more ruminants (who release methane) and rice agriculture. But then again, there might have been wild animals and natural swamps before and if so there has not been a significant change. We basically don’t know. There are estimates in both directions.

Acting on very incomplete information on how methane acts is in my opinion risky. Before we start to mess with the methane-producing bacteria in the cow’s stomach (which they are now starting to do), let’s learn more on how it actually operates. And when we do address methane, let’s include all man-made sources such as rice, landfills and wetlands too.

Thus we see that equating fossil fuel emissions to emissions from cattle is misleading. In the case of fossil fuels we know that we have added carbon to the carbon cycle and in these amounts it cannot be absorbed in the cycle (although the oceans have compensated a lot). In the case of cows, we don’t really know whether we have shifted the carbon cycle towards more methane because of animal husbandry. Moreover,  the case is not just about cows but methane producing bacteria that could be affected by many of our activities. We still need to learn much more. So until we do, let’s address the things we know for certain and that are urgent: our red meat habit is pretty stable whereas our flying habits have exploded the last decades.

There’s so much more to say on the subject of climate change and food but I find this to be one of the main points.

On the picture: cow at Lovö Prästgård in the Stockholm area.

Can conscious consumerism change the world?

Last week, I heard from two sources that conscious consumerism, i.e. using your purchases to support good business practices is not enough. In this podcast, Stiv Wilson argues that we need to get political instead. Which is exactly what their organization Story of Stuff is all about. This article by blogger Alden Wicker states it a little more harshly:

“Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers—to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester—will not change the world”.

These kinds of arguments are used in two contexts: those that want us to get involved politically instead, as in the above two cases, or those that want to give up, ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’, ‘we can’t change the system’ and so on.

Unsurprisingly, I do believe my purchases matter. I believe in political power too. I also believe I can make a difference with my research and teaching. Basically, let’s use the means that are available to us and with which we are comfortable. Some people are comfortable marching for environmental causes, others are more comfortable changing their purchasing behavior. However, like the politician that argues for public service and then doesn’t pay the tv-licence, it is desirable to try to be consistent.

How could then purchasing behavior make a difference? Will H&M or Varner notice that I am doing a no-shopping year? No, they will not. Most likely we cannot affect H&M and Varner politically either. They are private companies, not states, and they can shop around for the tax and environmental rules that suit them, if they like.

So the impact of purchasing behavior depends on who you are trying to affect and how important your purchases are to them.

My local organic food store in Bergen has only so many customers and I purchase most of my food there. They would notice if I move. The people I purchase food from at the farmers market might notice (Bergen’s farmers market on the picture above) . Based on this fact, I feel quite comfortable telling people to stop buying from the fashion giants (they will not notice) and start buying from small sustainable brands (who will notice). For small businesses, your purchase does make a difference.

At this point, the ‘elitist’ argument usually appears. The small sustainable brands are more expensive. Not everyone can afford to buy all their food at the organic food store. This is absolutely true but it is not an argument against conscious purchasing behavior generally. We who can afford the sustainable brands have a bigger environmental footprint than people with less purchasing power. It is more important that those with the biggest environmental impact and who can afford do change their behavior. Moreover, buying food directly from the farmer is not necessarily more expensive. Second hand stores are terribly cheap.  Most likely, we could all save money by buying less and learning to mend.

But how do we affect the big companies that are larger than states and that we cannot affect by vote or with our individual purchases? I think maybe social movements can play a role here. These companies are at least concerned with trends among customers. How large groups of consumers behave affect their business. Now I might have prided myself in being the only one I know that is on a shopping fast. Getting active on Instagram, however, I soon discovered that there are many more like me. You could even say I am late to the trend. We are not as unique as we might like to believe. If I decide to only buy grass-fed local meat, there are many more like me, acting on similar impulses. Most likely we are already part of some social movement or trend, whether we know it or not. And, as group, how we behave does concern these companies.

So, in my opinion, our consumption does impact the world and if you choose to purchase consciously it will too. This, however, is not an excuse for politicians and companies to not do their job and instead put all responsibility on the consumer’s shoulders (as happens all to often). We have some big challenges, so we all need to do our best.

When pollution comes back to haunt us

You might remember the cadmium in imported rice scandal or lead in imported rice scandal. These are examples of heavy metal contamination of imported foods. ‘We import foods from countries with too low environmental standards’, you might think. And that’s true.

But how did the heavy metals end up in the foods? How did a fifth of China’s farmland become contaminated? Countries like China and India have for quite some time been producing for our consumption. It has been attractive because of price, but it has also been done under lower environmental standards. One example is the dyeing of clothes. Another example is the production of pharmaceuticals. We know that these industries pollute the water and soils (and there are of course further industries in this category). We also know that residuals of the toxic waste may remain in what we import.

So, ironically,  when these countries produce for our consumption, the resulting pollution comes back to haunt us in the foods we import.

Even more ironically, while contamination of soils in India and China is spreading, we are in Scandinavia placing buildings on uncontaminated good soils that used to be farmland. The national strategy is to rely on imports, both of foods and other kinds of manufacturing. When this is the strategy, we have an interest in the countries that we are now dependent on. It is in our interest that their farmland and water supply remains uncontaminated so that they can continue to produce for us. There is only so much farmland in the world. If our strategy is to rely on imports, then we need to be concerned with the pollution in the countries we import from. Because it is not only the local population’s food supply that is contaminated, it’s ours too.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria found in children

New research findings this week report that one in five of kindergarten kids carry antibiotic resistant bacteria. This was in Sweden, one of the countries with the lowest antiobiotic use in the world (Norway is one of the few better performing countries). Until now, Swedes could feel safe knowing that relatively low national use in humans and animals is enough to keep antiobiotic resistance at bay.

But we live in a globalised world. Our import of food from countries with extensive use of antibiotics keep increasing. We also travel extensively and pick up resistant bacteria when doing so, particularly if we take antiobiotics in countries where resistant bacteria is common.

There are some aspects here we as individuals cannot control. National and International politics have to work on lowering antibiotics use for example in China and the US.

But there are also things we can do. Antibiotic resistance is one of the most important arguments for buying Swedish or, even better, Norwegian food. While some think antibiotic resistance only concerns meat and is avoided by going vegetarian, unfortunately it is not as easy. All vegetables has to be pollinated and bees used for this purpose are also treated with antibiotics, just like animals. Resistant bacteria are found here too.  So to limit the use of antibiotics and hence resistance, we should buy food from low antibiotics countries. The question is not so much which foods we buy as the amount of antibiotics the producing country allows. 

By importing more and more food from countries with high antibiotic use, as we’ve done the last decades, we contribute to the antibiotic resistance problem.

While it is easy to make conscious choices in the supermarket, a lot of the imported foods are consumed when eating out. We can always ask though, which country the food comes from and let it inform our choice.

Norway this year strengthened the requirement to consider social and environmental aspects in public procurement.  I hope schools, hospitals and public work places will take this opportunity to consider antibiotic use when buying foods for schools and hospitals. Because these are the places that will most likely suffer from antibiotic resistance when it increases.