Just a brief change of pace. This has been up for a little while as a page, but a friend encouraged me to blog it out there. Enjoy. Normal programming will resume shortly.

While the journey was fairly long and detailed, when it comes down to it I now support nuclear power on the basis of some very simple principles.

If you want to cut greenhouse gas emissions fast, you need to stop emitting them. That means turning off the carbon taps, biggest taps first. That means ditching coal first, and also oil and gas. And that means supporting nuclear power.

This all came about because I was an environmentalist who was frustrated with the continuing pretence that little solutions solve big problems. Fighting climate change without including nuclear was about as effective as a gnat pissing on a bonfire, if you will excuse the expression.

The same logic led me to vegetarianism. Permit me to explain (sticking to simple principles for the sake of a short post).

After energy (or equal to it depending on where you live), land use is the the other big hitter in the climate picture. Our use and abuse of land emits massive amounts of greenhouse gas and a very great deal of our overall land use is in the name of feeding ourselves.

Add to that basic picture, we are going from 7 billion people to around 10 billion before global population tops out, and we are already putting major stress on the natural systems that support our efforts to grow food.

Spot the problem.

So there are some simple principles of the problem. If we are remotely interested in a planet with a stable climate, without famine, and with some reasonable complement of species other than ourselves and our food animals, we must address land use.

Which brings me to simple principle number one on the solution side of matters:

If we are going to struggle to produce enough food, it is time to stop growing food twice.

A simply staggering proportion of the world’s food crop production is for the purpose of feeding farmed animals. It means we are using more land, water and other scarce resources than we must, by a really long shot. This is not ok with me, and completely contrary to my values that suggest we should create systems that help everyone feed themselves adequately first before some of us dine out on grain fed chicken and beef.

Simple principle number two. It would be vastly preferable if our food did not belch significant quantities of potent greenhouse gas while growing. Say what you like about a chick pea, but it doesn’t do that. Say what you like about a steak. It does.

Simple principle number three, if you have a choice between a food supply that stays put while it is growing, versus one that walks around compacting soil, eating plants, and crapping next to rivers, choose the former. It’s not that it has no impact. Just a lot less, and a lot easier to control.

It was thinking like this (accompanied by following some far more detailed discussions) that has led me to vegetariansim. I couldn’t be happier.

Unlike most of our piddly attempts at green consumerism, in our diets there is an environmental decision to be made many times a day, with a recurrent and considerable budget attached to it, every single week. It actually matters in the scheme of what we can achieve as individuals.

I lost a little bit of weight and feel much better.

It is now well established that my diet is the healthiest way of feeding myself. Less risk of (particularly) bowel cancer, diabetes and obesity. Worth avoiding, no?

It saves me a bit of money.

And the apparent things you need to look out for (protein, iron, calcium) well… that’s pretty much a bunch of bollocks.

Protein most especially. That concern is just silly. I get loads. I’m into exercise. I run and box. I don’t lack protein in my diet, not remotely. Neither does this guy for God’s sake and he’s a freaking vegan.

Ultraman Triathlete Rich Roll. One of loads of elite athletes that comprehensively disprove the notion that meat consumption is essential to protein intake, and that protein intake is the massive deal it is made out to be

Iron, well I eat more green vegetables now. I often read things like “you need to eat a lot of vegetables to replace meat in your diet”. Yes, that’s called a HEALTHY DIET.

Calcium… if you are going vegan, that’s tricky without reinforced soy milk, rice milk or whatever. The plant food content of calcium is really small compared to dairy, but have some soy smoothies or whatever and you are sorted.

Everything else, well, basically if you do what seemed to come naturally to me you will find yourself eating an brilliant and astonishing variety of really yummy, really healthy foods and meals. Oh no!!!

This is a short and simple post. Like nuclear, I looked hard at the issue. While it’s replete with lots of lovely exceptions, the big picture cannot be missed if you are at all interested to see it. From the point of view of climate change, health, justice, equity, biodiversity and water security, a vegetarian diet is miles in front, vegan yet more so.

Decarbonise SA is not about to become a vegetarian blog. I am a little busy with my chosen fight. But if you follow my Twitter feed you will get the occasional link and comment on this area that I regard as every bit as important. Please take a look at your diet and an honest an open look at the evidence around what is good for your health, good for the poorest people, and good for the planet.

15 comments

  1. Those who continue to advocate or at least allow for meat eating in the 21st century do have a difficult row to hoe and quite a lot of points to overcome or sidestep.

    Personally I’m in the modern ethical eating camp (I’ve always been there, it’s just recently come into vogue and had labels attached) as expounded by Simon Fairlie and picked up by George Monbiot and others.

    The first thing that I think that every conscious consumer can agree on is that current industrial scale meat production is unsustainable and unethical, I don’t think anyone is suggesting current first-world meat production and consumption patterns should be continued, or replicated in the developing world. My consumption patterns are closer to what I think is a sustainable model (not that I claim perfection), we would eat only about a kilo of meat a week (family of four), always seeking the lower impact alternative. Our eggs are produced by our chooks. Next year our lamb meat will be produced by our own sheep, and I intend to start growing meat chickens within two years. I make a pretty nice ragù alla Skippy. “Meatless mondays” wouldn’t go very far in our house, we are meatless probably five nights a week.

    A few points about ‘facts’ in this debate. Firstly, a lot of figures each way are very rubbery, they are complete made-up bullshit in many cases. Claims that beef take ten gazillion litres of water to produce one sausage are based on basically no data, do not survive the sniff test, and are completely out of context in the first place, such as the fact that we are often talking rainfall-fed grass. Many claims of outrageous consumption levels are based on US data too, which is far more intensive for far longer, and based on Brazilian soya meal.

    Australian extensive grazing systems mostly occur on land that is not fit for cereal production, never has been and never will be. Outback stations (the basis of our meat exports) are not ever going to produce grains for human consumption. Many dairy areas (Gippsland, which I’m closely familiar with) are almost as unsuitable for cereal production (though more horticulture could occur there, true). Not all grain fed to animals is fit for human consumption.

    Australia is a significant food exporter, and food consumption/production balances in the world have much less to do with supply issues than they have to do with distribution and equity. The world grows plenty enough food, it just ends up in the wrong gobs (including feed-lot cattle to produce too much low quality meat for hamburgers and other empty calories). I would be happy to continue to rely on well-established market forces to direct what Australian farmers grow, just like I want market forces to allow nuclear power.

    So the main land use matter that we’re talking about is continuation of grazing by introduced hard-hooved animals versus reclamation by nature. I accept that there is some continuing degradation of rangelands. Mostly however this land is in an equilibrium that if you took the stock away it wouldn’t recover to a pristine state, not without ongoing active intervention. Rabbits, goats, buffalo, camels are still a major threat, one that is controlled to some extent by the persistent presence of farmers. Only active management will ever bring back our native environments, and that requires a population of people in situ. Effluent in streams causing nitrification comes equally from mis-application of fertilisers (on crops) as it does from animal faeces. Our land, were it to be croppable (it isn’t) would require fertilisers. For growing pasture grasses it doesn’t, being fertilised by droppings.

    Animal cruelty is abhorrent. However I have known a lot of farmers in my time (being a son of the land myself) and really, the most animal cruelty I have ever heard about has related to dogs and horses in outer urban areas. No one apart from the sick and the incompetent tries to be cruel. Except for battery hens and intensive piggeries, which I have no part in supporting, and I don’t buy their products. Beyond that I feel that most cruelty claims reflect an increasing dissociation from real life and real experiences by an urbanised, pampered population.

    I also believe that if you can’t personally kill an animal then you have no right to eat it – a test I have set myself and passed. (If you actually enjoy killing animals well you’re a sick fuck and should ashamed of yourself.)

    Regarding health, I have understood for a long time that a high meat consumption diet is bad for you, and is not what we are evolved for. Vegetarians are just as healthy if not healthier than meat eaters. The extent to which that is based on more careful consideration of your diet is hard to work out. Most Hindus seem to get by OK, though they don’t have wonderful health statistics, no better than many cultures that eat a lot more meat. But veganism, I think if you have to think that carefully about what you eat, that’s a bit pathological or sad, no one barring elite athletes or those with specific diseases should have to rely on supplements, you are out of touch with nature and your body. I know lots of lapsed vegans that just couldn’t do it, their body told them no, and they always had sniffly colds and the like (though I never understand the obsession with bacon).

    Cancer risk is mostly based on studies that had high consumption of red meat, which is not something I support. Cultures that still eat meat but at a lower level (Japanese, Mediterranean), these risks become insignificant. I still choose to poison myself in lots of other ways, drinking and the like. Not all risk is worth eliminating. Meat is still something that is packed with nutrients – not that many of us are short of them.

    Culturally, I’m glad you eat well without meat. As do I most of the time. But the richness of our culture and history and that of many around the world is enhanced by animal husbandry and the taste of meat. By limiting your intake of a class of food, you cannot claim a superior experience.

    All that really leaves unresolved in my mind is GHGs, produced by methanogens in the stomachs of ruminants. This is a hard one to overcome I will admit. Our worst sin there I think relates to dairy product consumption – but you couldn’t take Michelle’s cheese consumption away from her, not without being threatened violence. Have you ever tried soy cheese? ewwww. My own currently inadequate answer is that I try to reduce emissions everywhere else, and that I hope and definitely expect that technology will come to the rescue in the next decade. I haven’t taken a plane flight in three years – have you?

    1. A closer connection to sources, like you have, enables better decisions for sure. I had pretty close connection at the Farmer’s Market which was great, but in the end the balance of my thinking, reading and discussions still moved me away from meat.

      I agree some figures are total tosh.

      “My consumption patterns are closer to what I think is a sustainable model”. And when I visit (finally) I look forward to eating you out of house and home, literally. But that would be to let the tail wag the dog of this argument. More people in the world now live in cities than on the land, that will increasingly be the case, and the exact model of meat production you do not like is playing a big and growing role in servicing that.

      “food consumption/production balances in the world have much less to do with supply issues than they have to do with distribution and equity.” These are commodity products. Prices are driven by demand and by who will pay most. Systems that push supplies of good food to animals before people, making the price of the commodity higher for people will little means are, for me, a great example of the inequitable distribution you refer to.

      “I would be happy to continue to rely on well-established market forces to direct what Australian farmers grow, just like I want market forces to allow nuclear power.” I am certainly not advocating some sort of prohibition here. I’ve made my choice, being some small contribution to that market force. Others can do the same. I would like to see some more sensible discussion of the health realities of red meat though to counteract the incessant advertising.

      “I also believe that if you can’t personally kill an animal then you have no right to eat it” Could not agree more, a test I fail. Worth pointing out that the ethics of slaughter itself were never a driver for me, and I have had a full tour of an abattoir (which did not bother me) and a battery farm (which certainly did).

      ” I know lots of lapsed vegans that just couldn’t do it, their body told them no”. Veganism does not work for me. Eggs and dairy come from my Farmer’s market. I drink less milk than before though. Some vegans don’t eat honey…

      I’m surprised you would draw on the example of Japan. Their diet has seen a dramatic shift toward meat and dairy, and since 1970 new bowel cancer cases have sky rocketed, from around 10,000 per year to over 100,000. The World Cancer Research Fund makes a confident attribution in relation to red and processed meats as far as cancer goes. I’m not saying otherwise. But the recent research and work by Rosmary Stanton makes a clear finding of broad positive health impacts of plant based diets. Perhaps not so much that chicken is bad, but that the potential substitutes are much better? Hindus… what would the income be there? I also drink booze, which make the World Cancer Research Fund list. But I would miss it. I really don’t miss meat, though I expected to.

      “By limiting your intake of a class of food, you cannot claim a superior experience.” Goodness me! This topic does arouse interesting responses. After 30+ years of eating lot’s of meat, I’m pretty sure I can claim whatever I like for myself. The notion of “superior existence” never crossed my mind, but I am healthier, happier, have more money in my wallet and have cut the environmental impact of my diet. At a cost of doing without the taste of meat, something I am well and truly familiar with. It’s superior to my previous situation, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one to judge that.

      “Have you ever tried soy cheese? ewwww.” Personally, I try not to eat oxymorons.

      “My own currently inadequate answer is that I try to reduce emissions everywhere else, and that I hope and definitely expect that technology will come to the rescue in the next decade.” In many respect it will I think. But not in this one, or at least, the technology benefits that may help us grow more food would be better off being paired with stopping feeding it to our other food.

      “I haven’t taken a plane flight in three years – have you?” I generally find hypocrisy to be a weak form of argument, as it is always there somewhere if you want it. Of course I have. To Sydney to win a nuclear debate: was it worth it? To the US to build my nuclear networks and see what I could learn and bring home. Was it worth it? John Darnielle is vegan but flew out to play for us. Should he have done so?

      I think I could very much enjoy the eating system you are developing, and I have no doubt that it fits the bill of “sustainable” as much as anything else when one has that degree of oversight and control. It’s a wonderful situation you have carved out for yourself and your family through some really cool and gutsy decisions you all made that closed some other doors. It’s not for everyone. My position and argument is not to target yours.

      1. Yes hypocrisy is not a decent basis for a solid argument. I suppose all I am doing is highlighting that we are none of us perfect, we are all in the process of examining our lives, and none of us are going to be the Mahatma. Not that you were getting preachy, but we are all going to choose to emit somewhere. As long as these choices are out in the open.

        You over-interpreted what I meant about a superior experience. All I am saying is that a vegetarian only diet cannot logically be more expansive than a (potentially) omnivorous one. Just talking about the plate here. Other, non-food based benefits of course can be realised by individuals. Choices we make.

        1. Yes, that is indeed logically the case, and I had to satisfy myself with the Vegi Burger, Fries and Shake at Lori’s Diner in San Francisco. Not quite the full cultural experience I agree, but jeez it tasted good…

          We are none of us perfect. This seemed a big area, compared to buying recycled toilet paper, where I could drive my impacts down and free up some space for others.

        2. Wilful … anything is sustainable if hardly anybody does it. So called sustainable kangaroo is only sustainable because of the tiny quantity of meat produced. Livestock’s Long Shadow estimated that purely grass fed meat production is about 8.4% of global meat and meat is about 14% of global calories (FAOSTAT). In Australia, feedlot cattle consume about 3.7 million tonnes of grain annually while people get through about half that much, so while we have more range fed livestock than most countries, the majority of our meat is factory farmed or mixed systems.

          How much actual meat is produced in the rangelands? The only state I’ve ever
          seen data for is WA …

          http://www.gdc.wa.gov.au/uploads/files/Information_on_pastoral_businesses_in_the_Rangelands.pdf

          Where the rangelands have half of the 2 million cattle but only produced 12 percent of the meat, and I suspect the percentages in other states will be even lower. Plenty of Australian pasture is highly modified and would easily grow other food … there is about 22 million hectares of this.

          If all Australians decided to only eat meat produced on land unsuitable for anything else (by which they mean “only fit for wildlife”), then meat production would be slashed probably by a factor of at least 20 (just a guess based on the above), so per capita consumption would end up being about 5-7 kg per year instead of 120 and the animals would have to be shipped even longer distances.

          Why would anybody bother? Why not try instead to minimise the land we use and maximise that available to wildlife?

          1. Geoff, I think I’ve made it quite clear that I don’t support the current consumption rates or industrial system of meat production (but that does not axiomatically lead to vegetarianism). So figures can only be indirectly relevant. But as you admit, a factor of 20 is a guess based on no real data.

            Only 1/3 of cattle are lot fed.

            Plenty of pasture is highly modified and can grow other food. Plenty however would not grow other food, not without some radical, impossible intervention. Less than 7 percent of Australian land is suitable for crop production and/or grazing, while 55% is currently grazed. I don’t think the grazing only land has a productivity of 100th or less that your numbers might imply.

            Of course this is too much and there are significant ongoing issues, but as I said above, speaking as an ecologist, land would not simply revert to being available for wildlife if not grazed by cattle and sheep. Much of the damage is historic, an equilibrium has been reached in many places. These places are never going to be managed except by people in situ.

  2. Best guess (conservative) for my family (two adults, two small children) is that we would eat 1.5 – 2 kg of meat a week, being up to 1 kg chicken, up to 500g fish and about 500g all other types. Some weeks more, many weeks less. Chicken has a feed conversion ratio of 2:1, so for our family of four we’re consuming an ‘excess’ kilogram of grain (which would not necessarily be fit for human consumption) a week. At an average of two tonnes per hectare coarse grains yield (a reasonable estimate), one single hectare of Australia’s 25 million hectares of cropping land keeps our family in chicken (for an equivalent mass, but not equivalent nutrition) for 40 years.

    1. Interesting. More of a Geoff Russell line of argument than me so I’ll take what you’ve given. Your consumption, if we pretend the two kids are one average person, is about 28% the national average if we believe this chart. Perhaps altered by the fact that I seriously doubt most Aussies have fish as a quarter of their weekly meat intake. I wish more people ate as you do. http://chartsbin.com/view/bhy

  3. Ben – having initially gotten off meat about 38 years ago, I could go all holier-than-thou on you with a sarcastic “welcome to the club – what took you so long to figure it out?” But I am really not gonna do that, since I think you are so right about hypocrisy as “a weak form of argument, as it is always there somewhere if you want it.” And one thing that I learned long ago is that there’s nothing you can do about douchebags who have to eat meat – it gives them an animal unreasonableness. So let them eat their meat and fight their wars and reproduce – and I’ll go overconsume in the other ways that I chose to, like blasting around the hills in my ute for no good reason and drinking coffee or liquor because I like it.

    One tidbit in your article caught my eye, “…Add to that basic picture, we are going from 7 billion people to around 10 billion before global population tops out,..”
    I have heard that notion of the population somehow “topping out” at 10 billion, and I always wonder where exactly the logic is behind that projection? Has somebody figured out that when we reach that number we’ll automatically start killing each other a bit more systematically, or will we somehow just become a bit less randy, or what? Personally I think that peoples’ feeling somehow entitled to rear ever more mega-consumers is the West’s biggest arrogance. Of course, that said, the reasons I don’t have any children are personal and completely selfish, not altruistic.
    …and population is merely the multiplier for all the other enviro concerns anyway.

    Also… as a side note about soy products, women who like soy products should take careful note of estrogen balance issues. I note this because a soy milk loving freind of mine was recently diagnosed with ovarian cysts likely due to her soy habit. Here’s a good article about that: http://www.radiantrecovery.com/resourcecenter/soystory.htm

    1. Keith,

      No declines in randiness to the best of my knowledge.

      In population there is growth and there is rate of growth. Growth is continuing but rate of growth is slowing. Of course, the number of us is so large now, that the slowing rates of growth still produces some pretty staggering figures on numbers of people arriving.

      Rate of growth has been slowing and is expected to continue to slow until things “top out” about mid century. The drivers are pretty well established: basically it’s a side effect of economic development, and it can be turbo-charged with pro-active strategies to educate and empower women. Turns out, given the choice and some other options, most women actually do not choose to be people factories for their entire young lives. Who would have thought?

      So when people say, and they often do, that we have to “do something about population”, they are missing an important point. We have, are, and will continue to do exactly what we know works. It simply doesn’t, cannot, cease growth and then retract in any time frame other than decades. But it is happening.

      Check this map of world fertility. The correlation with income and general development is almost perfect. There are exceptions: China with it’s draconian policy. Iran which really focussed on educating women since the ’70s is ahead of the pace, and there are a few outliers that are on the high side, I suspect as a result of Catholicism. Note that anything less than 2.1 or so is below replacement rates.

      The challenge, as you point out, is that it is those of us in developed nations who consume most of the resources. So this population “solution” is very much double edged. Unless we decouple our developed lifestyles from the negative impacts (for example, through total energy decarbonisation and the cessation of mining and pollution from fossil fuels) things get worse, not better. To conclude, check the above map against this one of meat consumption per person per year: http://chartsbin.com/view/bhy

      This is not good news…

      1. I like the appropriate blood-red they use on the meat-consumption map!

        Your comment on population rate outliers, “…I suspect as a result of Catholicism. Note that anything less than 2.1 or so is below replacement rates.” …caught my eye, because interestingly enough, Catholics (or Xtians – all the same to me) seem to be the folks who really like to argue with me about their “right” to grow “replacements” for themselves, since this would theoretically accomplish ZPG. Too bad, though, since what we really need is NPG at this point – or earlier.
        But hey, who ever heard of people making stupid life choices on the basis of some inane set of beliefs? Catholics are surely not the worst of them…

        1. No doubt, they just cop it from me because I was raised and educated one of them ,and because they seem to excel in this particular department.

          That said, I have to endorse what Mark Lynas wrote in the God Species; there is surely no more personal issue than people’s decision to bear children, and I don’t want to butt in. Fortunately it would seem we don’t have to. Actually position people where they are choosing fairly freely and the desired result seems to be achieved at the national level. Massive bonus that that process involves moving people from poverty, and moving women to greater empowerment… hang on, aren’t those issues that should stand on their own merits that we in developed nations should support all the time no matter what? Oh well, whatever.

    2. Hi Kenneth, regarding population … the number of children per woman during her lifetime
      has been steadily dropping, that’s why demographers expect a levelling off at about 9 point something http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_fertility_rate

      Ben has covered the reasons for the decline pretty well.

      and on soy? Nup … don’t worry about soy. The site you link is right to pan Fallon or Weston-Price, just mumbo jumbo junk science. People aren’t mice and we aren’t rats, and by law in Australia, (and most other places) you can’t make nutritional inferences from mice and rat studies. There are really good reasons for this. So before blaming soy, you need to find at least one (and preferably 2) good prospective human epidemiological study which has found a clear link. Lots of things happen in test tubes and petri dishes and rodents which don’t happen in people. That said, nutritionists generally hedge their bets by recommending against excessive consumption of anything!

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