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The Chicken in the Room at the Paris Climate Talks

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Kristie Middleton

Ambassadors the world over are convening in Paris to identify global climate change solutions. While we’re making progress on a new accord, will the elephant — or in this instance, the chicken, turkey and pig — in the room be ignored?

The evidence is mounting that we need a massive global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. We may not all be diplomats who can create international policy, but there’s a tool all consumers have at our disposal that can make a huge difference: our forks and knives. A new report by think-tank Chatham House states, “The livestock sector is already responsible for 7.1 gigatons of CO2 equivalent a year of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – just under 15 percent of the global total, and equivalent to tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles.”

If we’re going to avoid climate change, it’s clear that we need a global solution to ending factory farming. Raising and slaughtering billions of animals for food each year is the single largest human use of land, contributing to soil degradation, dwindling water supplies and air pollution. Simply put, we can’t curb climate change without making some serious changes to our diets by eating less meat, purchasing from farmers who use more humane and sustainable methods, and/or replacing animal products with food from plant sources.

Animal agriculture has taken a harsh turn in the last five decades. We’ve industrialized the production of animals for food, putting them wing to wing in factory farms. We confine animals in small cages and crates; mutilate them by cutting off their tails or beaks without painkillers; slaughter animals too sick or injured to walk; cause immense chronic pain and disease among chickens, turkeys and dairy cows by exaggerating certain body parts or reproductive capabilities; and administer non-therapeutic antibiotics to accelerate growth.

And, of course, what goes in must come out. In the United States alone, cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals raised on factory farms generate hundreds of million tons of manure. The vast quantity of manure produced on factory farms greatly exceeds the amount of land available to absorb it, making manure an often hazardous waste product that pollutes groundwater and putrefies the air.

All of this amounts to substantial environmental costs, as does finding — or rather, making — the land needed to produce such huge quantities of animals and crops. According to the Smithsonian Institution, we bulldoze seven football fields’ worth of Brazilian rainforest every minute to make way for cattle grazing. This destroys natural habitats for countless wild species and shatters important and fragile ecosystems, threatening people and animals alike.

If we’re serious about addressing global climate change, we must look to our plates. Fortunately, millions of people are already doing just that.  A group of global meat-reduction advocates are convening in Paris for a panel discussion on the growing global Meatless Monday movement this week. In the U.S., some of the biggest school districts, prestigious universities and largest foodservice companies are reducing the amount of meat they’re serving and adding more plant-based options. And globally, cities like Ghent, Belgium, and São Paulo are celebrating meat-free days. The Knesset -- Israel's parliament -- is meat-free on Mondays. And even the Norwegian Army is fighting the war on climate change with a meat-free Monday.

The horizon in the U.S. is looking promising, too. According to one recent Mintel study, while about 7 percent of Americans identify as vegetarians or vegans in the U.S., more than a third report regularly choosing meat-free meals. We can avoid meat produced from the worst factory-farming systems and practice the three R's: “reducing” or “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards. We can go meat-free on Mondays, or do what the New York Times’ Mark Bittman recommends: eating vegan before 6 p.m. each day. In short, we can embrace more well-rounded, healthier and more sustainable diets that are better for us and for the planet. It’s time for leadership, and perhaps thinking outside of the lunchbox.

Image credit: Flickr/Barry Skeates

Kristie Middleton is the senior director of Food Policy for the Humane Society of the United States.

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