Activists promote flawed reasoning on food and sustainability

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Environmental activists were said to incorporate flawed reasoning in their efforts today to promote an “expert” panel’s report that may be reflected in forthcoming new U.S. dietary guidelines.  The panel’s work has focused for the first time on food and environmental sustainability.

Today’s efforts were connected to the U.S. Meatless Mondays campaign and involved a presentation by activists to government officials in a public forum.  Activist groups and individuals also filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services pressing them to use what activists called “scientific” evidence for “less meat” and for “more sustainable and humane food production methods”.

Yet activists’ efforts involved promoting less factory farming by pointing to expert recommendations that rely on analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that prescribes more factory farming.  

Friends of the Earth took a lead role in these efforts, which presses people to consume “less meat” by adopting measures such as Meatless Mondays.  Yet it has been noted that when people are pressed to consume “less meat”, they often switch from consuming meat to consuming dairy products and eggsSo by activists’ own terms, it has been noted that sustainable and humane food production has generally not been achieved.

Activists’ statements today omitted to incorporate information about food items’ quality, price, or taste, which are key parameters along which people usually make food choices.  Today’s statements proposing “less meat” also omitted to note that plant-based food producers sometimes market their products as ‘meat‘.  Dictionaries define ‘meat as an essential food that includes alternatives to livestock products. 

In promoting ‘less meat’, activists also overlooked the psychological principle that when people perceive that they are supposed to sacrifice something one day, they normally crave it even more the next dayFrom that perspective, it has been noted that in the many years during which people have been asked to sacrifice meat, global consumption of livestock products has exploded six-fold, twice as fast as human population growth.

In contrast, it has been known for only the past few years that the world must significantly reduce greenhouse gases by 2017 or at latest 2020 or else climate change may no longer be controllable.  So it has been proposed that activists should prescribe better alternatives to livestock products, and not just as a sacrifice on Mondays;  climate-friendly alternatives to livestock products can be framed positively to be consumed every day of the week and year – for example, asHappier Meals

Another way to frame these issues was proposed in a recent interview with food industry pioneer Ethan Brown on CBS This Morning.

The expert recommendations promoted today rely surprisingly on the FAO’s 2006 report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow”.  Yet that report actually prescribed no less livestock products, but rather more factory farming.  While activists have proposed that “Livestock’s Long Shadow” supports campaigning for less meat, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” actually states (on page 236):  “The principle means of limiting livestock’s impact on the environment must be… intensification”, which is agricultural terminology for increasing factory farming. 

The FAO recently expanded its promotion of factory farming.  The Rome-based organization replaced “Livestock’s Long Shadow” with a 2013 report that notably reduced the FAO’s estimate of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock from 18 percent to 14.5 percent.

Livestock industry representatives are able to note that expert recommendations promoted today omit to account for the FAO’s 2013 report, complaining that these recommendations are beyond the “scope and expertise” of the recommendations’ authors. 

The FAO’s 2013 report also for the first time prescribed ways to reduce livestock’s emissions by a further 30 percent.  Yet a 30 percent reduction in livestock’s emissions has been questioned in part because one of the FAO livestock specialists who co-authored that 30 percent estimate had written three years earlier that livestock’s emissions could be reduced by only 6 percent.

Activists today did not question inconsistencies in analysis by the FAO.  However, the FAO is only one of nineteen UN specialized agencies.

In contrast, Bill Gates has written an article prescribing the replacement of most livestock products with better alternatives, citing environmental specialists employed by two other UN specialized agencies – the World Bank and IFC – who have explained how livestock account for at least 51 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.  One of those specialists’ critique of the FAO’s partnership with global livestock industry associations was published by the New York Times.

A comparison of World Bank Group environmental specialists’ 51 percent emissions estimate versus FAO livestock specialists’ 14.5 percent emissions estimate reveals that those estimates represent not only emissions, but also diametrically opposed approaches to environmental sustainability. 

In the first approach, environmental assessment is performed by environmental specialists who have relevant qualifications and who are unbiased by commercial or other motives.  In this approach, it is essential for climate change to be reversed before it is too lateTo do so, environmental specialists have described how most livestock products must be replaced with better alternatives by the year 2020.

In the second approach, it suffices for environmental assessment to be performed by livestock specialists in partnership with global livestock industry associations.

Also in the second approach, it passes muster for livestock specialists to prescribe ways to expand livestock production, which by livestock specialists’ own accounting would increase total greenhouse gas emissions attributable to animals raised for foodAlso, worldwide agreements and initiatives for aggregate greenhouse gas emissions to be significantly reduced in every economic sector can be disregarded.

Today’s efforts by activists did not take note that individual consumers can almost completely control their consumption of a healthful diet, but they cannot exert the same control over the environmental sustainability of their diets. 

It has been noted that individuals cannot control the environmental sustainability of their diets because greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are large-scale and don’t respect borders.  As a result, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change can be managed only on a worldwide, large-scale basis.

Because the international community has not identified any other way to control climate change by 2020 as needed, climatic risk has been identified as the most compelling reason to replace livestock products on a worldwide, large-scale basis with better alternatives promptly Better alternatives are delicious, high-quality, and economical foods consisting of – or made from – grains, legumes, and nuts, such as peas, soybeans, and almonds.

It is widely recognized that replacing livestock products with better alternatives can have a large beneficial effect on climate changeTo do so, there is a business case that does not rely on efforts by activists.


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