Unpicking Fassler’s myths – One: fossil fuels

Guardian reporter Joe Fassler wrote recently that five myths are used by the US beef industry to persuade the public that meat eating has a negligible impact on the planet – but these myths are themselves built on mythology. This week, Chris Smaje, author of Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, unpicks the truth.

Fassler myth one: fossil fuels are the only real problem to fix

GLOBAL data suggest that the fossil energy sector is responsible for about 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, with the entire food and farming system (i.e. not just livestock) in second place, responsible for about 25-30%. So, provided we keep the need to cut fossil fuels front and centre of our reduction efforts, there’s certainly a case for considering the food and farming system as a ‘real problem to fix’ too.

But there’s a complicating factor. The present food and farming system is, as it were, a wholly owned subsidiary of Fossil Fuels Inc, to the extent that it’s impossible to say where the fossil bit ends and the farming bit begins. Synthetic fertiliser, agri-chemicals, agri-plastics, farm traction, transport, shipping and modern retail systems are all part of the system’s fossil smokestack.

Suppose we cut that smokestack out completely, with immediate effect. Take a look around your neighbourhood and ask yourself where your food would come from. Chances are, it wouldn’t come at all. That’s the measure of the problem we’re up against.

Start trying to plot your way out of that predicament and – wherever you live – what’s for sure is that you’ll make the most of any land that’s available to you locally to produce food. In that situation, you won’t keep any livestock or consume any animal products unless they enhance rather than diminish your food-producing options. It’s worth bearing in mind that all our livestock species – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks and so on – did enhance rather than diminish people’s food-producing options in low-energy societies of the past. But in the high-energy societies of today’s wealthy nations a radical cut to fossil fuel use would necessarily mean a radical cut to the consumption of animal products, due to the type of farming and land use involved. A radical cut to animal products on its own, by contrast, would be unlikely to cut the fossil smokestack much, if at all – certainly not by enough to avoid chaotic climate change.

Fassler cites a much-publicised study that makes almost the opposite thought experiment to the one I’ve just proposed. Suppose we could cut out all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the present fossil-fuelled energy system, but without otherwise changing that system and the global trends it enables – high-energy urbanism, population growth, economic growth, arable overproduction and a growing global demand for meat. In that scenario, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock production probably would be the most pressing climate problem.

So whether livestock are a real problem to fix that bear comparison with fossil fuels depends a lot on how you imagine the future. If you think we’re headed toward a greentech, low-carbon, high-energy world that will perpetuate present models of global urbanism, consumerism and economic growth, then, yes, livestock may be a growing climate problem. If, on the other hand, you think we’re headed toward a lower energy world that demands re-engagement with the opportunities and constraints of the local ecological base, then livestock look more like a solution than a problem.

In both scenarios, people in the wealthy countries will be consuming fewer animal products than today. But only in one of them are livestock a ‘real problem to fix’.

Read the series introduction

Read Smaje’s response to Myth two: methane

Read Smaje’s response to Myth three: beef

Read Smaje’s response to Myth four: cattle

Read Smaje’s response to Myth five: future tech

Read Fassler’s article

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