Polar Bears ‘R Us, Unless We Change

“Polar Bears ‘R Us, Unless We Change” by guest blogger Chiara V. Cabiglio of Everyone’s Harvest

We need to make bigger and faster changes than most of us think. In the summer of 2007, scientists focusing on Greenland were surprised to find almost 40 percent of its ice sheet melting, while scientists focusing on polar bears predicted most of them would disappear by 2050. Five years later, in the summer of 2012, scientists were shocked to find 97 percent of Greenland’s ice melting. So polar bears are now more surely doomed. 

Yet polar bears are a barometer of larger outcomes. In 2004, catastrophic flooding of Los Angeles, London and other major cities was projected to coincide with a full melt of Greenland’s ice sheet – toward the year 2100.  Now that this appears much more imminent, we may no longer have time to try the old (and failed) strategy to avert climate catastrophe with 18 trillion dollars of renewable energy infrastructure installed over the next 20 years. A new strategy was hinted at in my last post, which cited an estimate that almost 20 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas is attributable to livestock. 

But soon after my last post, the Earth Island Journal published an article on how the hidden cost of hamburgers isgreater than commonly reported. According to this analysis, the lifecycle and supply chain of livestock products is actually responsible for at least 51 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas. The authors of this analysis aren’t radicals. Rather, they’re environmental specialists employed by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation (two UN specialized agencies), Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang. 

You’ve probably read quite a bit about climate change over time. But none of what you’ve gotten from your time spent so far on reading about climate change will compare to the benefit you’ll derive from reading Goodland and Anhang’s “Livestock and Climate Change.” If you have a bit more time, then also read their Critical Comments and Responses article. After absorbing their analysis, you’ll know why your food choices are more likely to reverse climate change than all your other “green” choices combined. 

I used to think that happy grass-fed cows and other livestock raised on small family farms were the environmentally sustainable method of meat and dairy production. Indeed, that’s what a majority of activists in the organic and sustainable food movement believe. Yet it turns out that livestock on small family farms are in fact less eco-friendly and sustainable and have a larger carbon footprint than do livestock raised in industrial factory farms. Dr. Goodland’s Earth Island article cites conservative sources that report that grass-fed cows emit up to 400 percent as much methane as factory-farmed ones, and take up much more land – meaning much less forest, and therefore much more carbon absorption forgone. 

Consider the amount of energy and fossil fuels it takes to raise the approximately 65 billion land animals propagated in 2011 – and the amount of land, which could instead grow trees. The International Livestock Research Institute, which normally promotes livestock, estimates that 45 percent of all land on earth is now used for livestock and feed production. It is no wonder, then, that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 315 parts per million in 1958 to 392 parts per million in August 2012. 

So here is the key recommendation from Goodland and Anhang’s analysis: “Replacing at least a quarter of today’s livestock products with better alternatives would both reduce emissions and allow forest to regenerateon a vast amount of land, which could then absorb excess atmospheric carbon to reduce it to a safe level. This may be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change in the next five years as needed.” 

While Goodland and Anhang’s analysis was written primarily for food industry leaders, they also had the general public in mind.  Indeed, the fix must be created in the crucible where food industry leaders meet the general public, and that’s the marketplace. And it’s not about becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, or partaking in “Meatless Mondays,” although there is no doubt that these efforts will help. Instead, it’s about performing the same search as we do when we look for any other winning consumer product. We look for a superior blend of quality and price, otherwise known as value. In the case of food, performing this search consciously will often lead one to try an alternative to a livestock product – especially when one considers the bonus value of being part of the solution to climate change, which is likely the world’s most serious problem. 

Love ice cream? Wait until you try SO Delicious’ Dairy Free Almond Milk chocolate ice cream. You won’t believe how rich, creamy and utterly divine it tastes; no need for cow’s milk here!  

Love chicken? Beyond Meat produces fake chicken that tastes and looks so much like real chicken that in between each bite, vegetarians and vegans must remind themselves that they are not eating real chicken. And if you aren’t too thrilled about the ingredients, then you can find pre-made veggie burgers made from whole foods, or simply make your own veggie burger, vegan dish or vegetarian meal at home with lots of vegetables, grains and legumes! This is a way to eat and live consciously – and to ensure a future for, well, future generations. 

In this case, as with any new product, you can be an early adopter or a late one. But unlike other products, in this case you’re not likely to have the option of never adopting. Consider that climate change here today is already decimating cattle populations – even in their most legendary homes – or that blue-chip financial analysts and a pork producers’ spokesman have themselves forecast the destruction of the livestock industry, due to growing demand for ethanol. In other words, if you approach veggie foods as desirable replacements for obsolete products, then similar to the way it took just a few years until it became normal to choose a digital TV over a tube TV, your normal new choice in foods should become clear within a few years. 

Biz Stone, the creative director for Twitter, explains it this way: We must Go Beyond  business as usual and use our human ingenuity to create and instill new ways of thinking and eating for the masses. Change will come much less from the car you drive or the light bulb you use than from what you put in your mouth. 

Polar bears, my favorite animal ever since I’ve been a little girl, are getting much closer to the end of their existence. Thousands of other species also are on the brink of extinction. Thousands of climate change refugees are becoming more commonplace and are flooding into other countries. Storms are getting stronger and more frequent. Summers are getting hotter. Desertification is occurring much more rapidly in more places. The lives of many creatures on this planet are in jeopardy because of our warming climate, and time is running out. The ability for future generations to live and their quality of life also is at stake. What kind of world are they going to inherit from us? The clock is ticking. 

“It’s not a lot of fun for somebody who’s spent over 30 years studying polar bears,” says biologist Andrew E. Derocher of the University of Alberta. “The first paper I coauthored about this came out in 1993 and at that time I was still under the impression that even though climate change was a concern it was really going to be for the next generation of biologists — or perhaps even the one after that — to deal with the issue. And I’ve been really shocked at the rate of change, and I’ve probably been even more shocked at the lack of concern of political bodies to deal with this… It’s been quite disheartening to watch this lack of interest, and I think it’s really unfortunate that people don’t understand that we have a limited time to deal with this issue if we want to save the polar bears.” 

If we want to save the polar bears and other species from extinction due to global climate change, habitat loss and environmental degradation, and if we want to save ourselves, then humanity must wake up and change the way it eats, the way our food is produced and what food is produced. Period.


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