dairy cow

Taking the Bull by the Horns: Food Choices, Farming Practices and Climate Change

By Ana Simeon, Peace Valley campaigner

Recently people have been asking me about the movie “Cowspiracy”, and the Sierra Club BC’s position on agriculture and climate change.

There is no doubt that industrial agriculture as practiced in North America, Europe and increasingly around the world is a significant contributor to climate change and loss of biodiversity. For every calorie of food produced, 10 calories of fossil fuel energy are put into the system to grow that food, according to researcher Michael Polan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma. From farm to fork, our industrial food systems are hooked on fossil fuels – to produce fertilizers and pesticides, to run farm machinery, and to transport the resulting foodstuffs across thousands of miles.

But not all calories are equal in terms of climate impact. The high consumption of meat and dairy in the North American diet means that we support large populations of cattle which in turn produce greenhouse gases, namely methane, a by-product of their digestion process.

In its 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the UN food and agriculture agency (FAO) states unequivocally that the livestock sector is a “major stressor” on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases, a leading factor in the loss of biodiversity, and a major source of water pollution.

Not only that, but three-fourths of all agricultural land in the world is used to produce animal products. The calorie yield on our plates? All this land manages to deliver just 17 percent of our calories. As climate change continues to reduce crop yields, we will have no choice but to use agricultural lands more efficiently – not to mention more fairly. Consider this: according to Frances Moore Lappe, if only half of the crops fed to livestock were converted to crops for humans could feed two billion people or be converted to carbon-storing forests.

There is little doubt that stuffing ourselves to the gills with brie and burgers is not that good for us, either. Whether or not you choose to go vegetarian or vegan, simply reducing your meat consumption can reduce your risk for high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and certain cancers. Medical research on the public health impacts of climate change highlights the links between our industrialized food systems and climate change. Decreasing daily meat consumption from the North American average of 12 oz per day to 3 oz per day (about the size of a deck of cards), with red meat making up less than one-half of your total meat consumption, would go a long way toward lowering the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers.

Should you go vegetarian, even vegan?

This is a decision only you can make for yourself, depending on your personal ethics, the state of your health, your cultural and spiritual practices, and cherished family traditions. For myself, I know that I feel most healthy, vital and at peace when I follow Michael Polan’s maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. For me, paying attention to the gift of food – growing it, knowing those who grow it for me, practicing the arts of cooking and preserving, and sharing food with friends, neighbours and strangers – is the royal road to health and happiness.