Climate Change and Moral Meat

Climate Change and Moral Meat November 10, 2018

Contemporary denial of climate change is not unlike the Galileo affair around 1610. The church and many religious leaders of that era resisted evidence of a heliocentric universe presented by Galileo, so much so that Galileo famously wrote, “My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.”

In 2018, the religiously led denial of climate change is equally stubborn. However, in our day such denial has real world consequences. In fact, scientists now conclude that we only have until about 2030 to make rapid and far-reaching changes in order to stem catastrophic climate change.

If we are going to make changes, it would seem wise to spend our energy advocating for the changes that will have the most significant impact. Where to focus? Well, producing meat has a larger environmental impact than nearly any other human activity. Livestock and poultry production takes up about 80% of our global agricultural land, is responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than the entire transportation industry), consumes 30% of global freshwater, is the main source of water pollution in the U.S. and has contributed significantly here locally to Buffalo River impairment.

The bulk of meat’s environmental impact comes from the vast quantities of corn and soy used to feed livestock and poultry. And the truth is, we know simple practices that can dramatically reduce pollution from these fields, including cover cropping and conservation tillage, optimizing fertilizer application to prevent excess runoff, and a moratorium on further clearance of native ecosystems.

The question remains, who has the authority and ability to encourage or make such changes? Mostly, the answer is market forces. A very small handful of companies control 50-75% of the major meat markets in the United States, so the policies set by these few companies shape almost all agricultural practice in the United States. These companies will make such changes in their supply chains only or primarily if they understand them to be in their economic self-interest.

In the current economic and political climate, it is most likely that corporations will influence one another for positive change. Most of our major corporations, including those in Northwest Arkansas, have so influenced governmental regulations and bought politicians with their lobbying funds that mixed economy checks-and-balances are not working. But if we can get companies like Whole Foods and McDonalds, both of whom have huge buying power and have made commitments to sustainability, to clean up their supply chains, it would influence suppliers like Tyson to follow through on their commitment to being the most sustainable protein producer.

Currently, neither Whole Foods nor McDonalds have environmental requirements for the meat they buy. If they did, they would literally have a greater net effect than any other entities on the planet to reduce pollution and encourage environmentally sustainable farming practices that protect waters, forests, and our climate. If we wish to raise our moral voice for the sake of our planet, calling on those who supply our meat to clean up their supply chain is without a doubt the best place to start.

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