Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Livestock and the Environment

When discussing the relationship between the environment and livestock, those who support livestock and those who oppose it always talk past each other.  

Opposition to livestock point to the fact that livestock results in large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.  Of course it does!  Almost every activity that produces goods and services results in greenhouse gases.  Most of us eat meat, eggs, and dairy each day, so how could such large amounts of production not lead to pollution?

Advocates of agriculture point to the efficiency of agriculture, and that to produce one unit of anything (e.g., milk, meat, eggs) requires much less inputs (e.g. water, land, grain) than it did in the past.

Environmentalists complain about the many pounds of meat produced, and livestock industries brag about the few inputs used per pound of meat.  These are two very different things.  The livestock industry should be commended for its frugal use of resources, and consumers need to start considering whether an alternative bundle of consumption that entails less animal foods leads to less pollution.  It is not the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that result from meat production that matters, but rather the level of those emissions compared to our next best alternative consumption bundle.

To demonstrate, suppose that I go vegan.  Presumably, my food bill will be lower, and I will spend those food savings on "something else."  While greenhouse gas emissions will fall by going vegan, they will rise from the increase in production of that "something else".  So what emits more greenhouse gases, animal foods or the "something else"?  Without knowing that the "something else" is, we cannot say.