Happier Meals, Eating Greenfully, and Chomping Climate Change

(Excerpted/adapted from a speech by Robert Goodland on September 7, 2013 at The McDougall Conference in Santa Rosa, California; see full speech at http://www.chompingclimatechange.org/uploads/8/0/6/9/8069267/happiermeals.pdf)

There’s an accidental environmental aspect to the location of this conference;  that is, it’s being held near Silicon Valley, which is largely responsible for revolutionizing the world by replacing brick and mortar with digital and virtual processes. That can reduce natural resource and energy usage, thereby lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and helping to slow climate change. But last year in Silicon Valley, Bill Gates spoke of going beyond replacing bricks and mortar — and replacing livestock products with what we might call “virtual” meat, dairy, and egg products, made with no animals.

Replacing animal-based foods can even more impressively reduce natural resource and energy usage and GHGs than replacing bricks and mortar. Bill Gates has cited the 2009 article that I wrote with Jeff Anhang, in which we estimated that the lifecycle and supply chain of livestock products are responsible for at least 51% of human-induced GHGs. This means that the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change by 2017 as needed is to replace at least 25% of today’s livestock products with better alternatives.

Our assessment began when we analyzed some significant gaps that we found in Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report from the FAO, a UN specialized agency. That report estimated that 18% of human-induced GHGs are attributable to livestock products. Activists often use that FAO report in advocacy for vegetarian foods; but Livestock’s Long Shadow actually prescribes more factory farming. Yet the authors of Livestock’s Long Shadow are livestock specialists, not environmental specialists.

It’s good practice is to have any activity with major environmental impacts be assessed by environmental specialists. Jeff Anhang and I are longtime environmental specialists employed by two UN specialized agencies, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation. Why it matters who performs environmental assessment becomes clear when reviewing the report Livestock’s Long Shadow. That report failed to identify any climatic tipping points — even though they’re actually the #1 risk of continuing to expand livestock production.

Jeff Anhang and I propose that replacing a substantial amount of today’s livestock products with better alternatives will both massively reduce GHG emissions and free up a vast amount of land to permit large-scale reforestation and GHG sequestration at the same time. The effect of this would be so enormous that it could actually be the only pragmatic way to reverse climate change. That’s because livestock and feed production is estimated to occupy 45% percent of all land on earth. Much of that land was once forested, and could be forested again.

We have several ideas for a new campaign. We figure it shouldn’t be framed exactly around a vegetarian diet, as that will appear to most people as abrupt and radical as if McDonald’s were to promote a “meatarian” diet. Instead, McDonald’s prospers by marketing Happy Meals.  So it may be better to frame as ideal something like “Happier Meals,” which would promote climate-friendly and healthful foods as the better ones to choose every day of the week or year. We’ve also come up with other potential campaign names, such as Chomping Climate Change and Eating Greenfully.

A lack of interest by consumers in vegan foods sometimes provokes activists to add elements to their activism, so their activism will encompass as much reasoning as possible for people to choose vegan foods.  Indeed, activists sometime promote 100 or more reasons for people to go vegan, framing what’s needed as a sort of culture change.  Yet culture change is normally generational at best.  It seems anachronistic to promote generational change in the age of climate change, when there’s a strong case for people to change their food habits in only a few short years.

In other words, the best messaging on food and climate change may actually be quite simple, as it can simply involve framing livestock products as being obsolete in the age of climate change.  After all, if we think of alternatives to livestock products as analogous to digital communications, then we can consider how tube TVs, for example, were completely replaced within 5 years by rather simply framing them as being obsolete in the age of digital technology.

Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency have warned that major action by 2017 may be the last real chance to reverse climate change before it’s too late.  In fact, there’s surely no more compelling motivation for action than that replacing livestock products with better alternatives may be the only pragmatic way to stop catastrophic climate change from imperiling much of life on earth.

For your friends who don’t read so much, you can point them to our catchy video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znWPebWBTWY


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