Smells Funny

May 16, 2010

So a couple of friends and I are pulling into a bar in Brown County, Indiana south of Indianapolis on Thursday night this week. It’s looking pretty typical and not necessarily like the best place to catch a bite to eat. It’s one of those strip-mall bars that shares space with a hardware store and Laundromat right off the main highway. The parking lot is full to the gills with pick-up trucks, and I don’t mean the little dinky kind. F-150s and extended cab Silverados nestle up some serious dualies designed for pulling livestock trailers all the way to Kansas City, if need be.

We go inside and there are not one but two pool tables dominating the main space in the room. The patrons fit the trucks out in the parking lot, except that several of them are sporting their own pool cues—not that unusual, I guess. One of my companions who suggested the place is having second thoughts by now, but we decide to go ahead and give it a try.

When the waitperson shows up with menus, it turns out we are local-food central for Brown County Indiana. All the meats come from “Fischer’s” (no, this is not Fishers, IN, just outside Indy, but I’ll admit that I really have no idea where this stuff was coming from). Nevertheless the meats are proudly advertised as fresh from the farm, the hamburger patties are hand made and the pork tenderloins are hand-cut and batter dipped on the premises. Even the fries are home-made. They are also proud to be stocking some microbrews, though only one is local. Bell’s turns out to be a popular choice.

Either appearances can be deceiving or local food is penetrating even farther into the American consciousness than I had expected.

Something else that turns out to be deceiving was discussed at the American Dairy Science Association Discover conference on “Sustainability Issues in the Dairy Industry” that I was attending in Brown County. Back in 2006, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States had released a report on livestock production’s contribution to global greenhouse gasses. The executive summary of the report stated that livestock may contribute as much as 18% of greenhouse gas. This figure had spawned speculations on the relative climate change impact of transportation and diet, including a recent comment by Michael Pollan to the effect that a vegan in a Hummer contributes less to climate change than does someone with a burger in a Prius.

Frank Mitloehner from the University of California at Davis (who I spoke with at the meeting) smelled a rat. It turns out that the authors of the report had taken great pains to calculate both direct and indirect contributions to greenhouse gas from livestock production. That means they included all the impact from cutting down rainforest to make new pastures, and from fuel burned to produce the grain fed to cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. However they did not include indirect contributions from other sectors such as transportation, (like the energy needed to make a car or the impact from oil and gas exploration, production and delivery). In short, the 18% figure is based on an apples and oranges comparison, and the authors of the report have admitted that this is the case. We have no idea about the total contribution from livestock production because we have no good estimate of the indirect contribution to total emissions from the transportation sector. Pollan, too, has admitted that his original comment was wrong.

Mitloehner was not saying that livestock production gets a pass. Where land is being cleared for pasture or feedlots as in the tropics, the combined effect of losing the carbon sink and adding the methane from ruminant digestive tracts is a serious problem. But Mitloehner believes that the situation is importantly different in places where someone might actually be choosing between buying a Hummer or a Prius, however. U.S. herds can be (and increasingly are) fed a mix of grains that minimizes the production of methane in their manure.  The carbon dioxide emitted by respiration is a wash, because it just cycles carbon between plant matter and the digestive tract of animals (including us). The bottom line: Americans can’t compensate for their fossil fuel guzzling transportation system by skipping a few burgers, and they would be dissembling to try and pass vegetarianism off as a proper response to climate change.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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