Can Consumers Win Liberation from the Mythical Long Shadow?

The intellectual godfather of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer, co-authored an article in The Washington Post claiming, “To fix the climate, take meat off the menu.” What’s the problem? U.N. negotiators assembled in Brazil for an environmental conference dare to indulge in that country’s favorite aspirational meats. (C’mon, it’s not like the conference is being held at a churrascaria.) That shouldn’t be a surprising view coming from the man who wrote a book entitled Animal Liberation.

And it’s no surprise either that Livestock’s Long Shadow, the debunked U.N. report claiming meat was worse for the planet than motor transportation, makes an appearance in Singer’s argument. Never mind that a U.N. official responded to criticism of the initial report by acknowledging, “I must say honestly that he has a point – we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport.” Translation: The animal rights community’s favorite environmental talking point is based on an apples-to-oranges comparison.

That’s only the beginning. As the rest of the world gets richer, people want to enjoy life and eat tasty things. Most people think meat is tasty and a sign of the good life, and this creates a problem in Singer’s eyes: “As the number of affluent people in countries such as China and India increases, so does the demand for meat.” Agricultural production methods don’t remain static as people and countries grow richer, unless you’d rather “go on feelings” and stay “organic” or “locavore.” (Interestingly, Singer concedes the rudiments of this point, betraying his real motivation.)

Thus while the per-pound contributions of greenhouse emissions by South American or Chinese meats may be above American levels today, as modern farming practices are adopted we can expect those emissions to fall. And much to the chagrin of environmentalist group Worldwatch (cited by Singer) which purported to find an even higher contribution than the U.N., modern agricultural practices can bring down animal agriculture’s emission share significantly. In the U.S., the EPA found that animal agriculture emissions constitute less than four percent of total U.S. national emissions, to take one example.

It’s easy to dismiss the ramblings of a philosopher who thinks that infanticide can be justified, but the implications of his arguments are serious. After all, the federal government banned the incandescent light-bulb to “save the planet,” and an animal rights disciple serves as the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House, a position sometimes called “regulatory czar.” Mark Bittman has already told his readers to be “heroes” and sacrifice meat. We hope this animal-rights mythmaking stays on the blogs and opinion pages and is not dictated onto anybody’s dinner plate.

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