by Renée Hoffinger
Editors’ note: The article below is a rebuttal to an article published in the May/June 2023 Iguana: https://gainesvilleiguana.org/2023/articles/the-case-for-local-meat-processing-lets-opt-out-of-industrial-ag/.
No matter how you slice and dice it, animal agriculture is a major contributor to global climate change. So I was surprised to see an article in our progressive, climate-aware Iguana supporting Alachua County’s proposed meat processing facility. The proposed slaughterhouse is purported to provide economic relief to local ranchers who currently truck their livestock to large corporate processing plants. The price tag (omitted from the article) of $5.2M includes $2.5m of federal American Rescue Plan funds, $1.75m state funds (recently vetoed by the governor), with the remainder coming from the county. While I applaud efforts for ‘more humane, environmentally sound, and economically viable food production’, in the face of current science and the state of our planet, this current proposal is none of that – but rather misguided and socially irresponsible. Such a huge sum of money could be spent in more climate-friendly ways to benefit a larger segment of our county’s population.
All over the world extreme weather is raging: forests are on fire, hurricanes have become more frequent and destructive, glaciers are melting, sea level rise and droughts are creating climate refugees, and insurance companies are bailing. Every single day 200 species on our planet go extinct and 25,000 human beings die of hunger. We are tragically and undeniably in climate collapse. And yet, the band plays on…
So what does animal agriculture have to do with all this? Bottom line is that your beef burger has a much, much larger ‘carbon foodprint’ than that veggie burger. Whether from a distant commercial feedlot or locally pastured, fed herbicide-saturated corn and soy feed or grass fed, raising livestock serves up a mammoth-sized contribution to planet-warming greenhouse gasses (GHG), decreases biodiversity, requires outsized inputs of water and land, and pollutes our water, soil, and air. Bovine burps, flatulence, and poop supply 50% of methane and 60% of nitrous oxide emissions – which respectively have 25 and 298 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Beef and dairy alone account for 65% of all livestock emissions. Most of the nitrogen pollution in wastewater is due to animal manure and the vast amounts of fertilizer used to grow feed for livestock which, in turn, leads to acid rain and toxic algal blooms causing aquatic dead zones. Plus native ecosystems are destroyed to support livestock grazing and increased cultivation of animal feedstocks.
In terms of nutritional value per inputs of land, water, energy, etc., livestock are notably inefficient. We have been hearing a lot about the shrinking Colorado River and how it threatens the viability of life in that region. Turns out it’s the animal agriculture: “The majority of the water in the Colorado River basin — more than one trillion gallons — is used to grow feed for livestock, connecting the region’s water crisis to how much dairy and meat we eat….” It takes approximately 1,847 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef —compared to an average 115 gallons/lb for fruit and 39 gallons/lb for vegetables. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the world’s calories. Furthermore, as a dietitian, I am keenly aware of the health effects of meat consumption as the major contributor to most of our chronic diseases and causes of premature death. Most Americans consume 2 – 3 times their required protein. Excess protein from animal sources is associated with renal dysfunction, liver failure, osteoporosis, and Type 2 diabetes, plus animal fat can lead to heart disease, cancer, and weight gain. A recent article in JAMA posits the climate change associated with meat-based diets as a public health concern: “Globally, humanity is confronting the chronic disease burden of poor nutrition while also experiencing the loss of life and property because of climate change. Now is the time to focus on the health benefits of dietary changes.”
The UN’s 2023 International Panel on Climate Change report sounded the alarm that the world is on the brink of catastrophic warming unless swift action is taken. The report’s authors initially solidly recommended a dietary shift stating that “plant-based diets can reduce GHG emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission-intensive Western diet,” but pressure from Brazil and Argentina softened that wording. Researchers endeavoring to quantify the full “climate opportunity cost” of current global livestock production, modeled the combined, long-term effects of emission reductions and biomass recovery that would be unlocked by a phaseout of animal agriculture. Their conclusion: “…a phaseout of livestock production would, through the end of the century, have the same cumulative effect… as a 25 gigaton per year reduction in anthropogenic CO2 emissions, providing half of the net emission reductions necessary to limit warming to 2°C. The magnitude and rapidity of these potential effects should place the reduction or elimination of animal agriculture at the forefront of strategies for averting disastrous climate change.”
In terms of the ‘more humane’ part of the proposal, the commission claims that reduced transit time is less of a horror for the sentient beings being sent to slaughter. There is nothing humane about getting butchered all creatures yearn to live. Hence, some of the most vocal opponents of this proposal have been the numerous local animal rights advocates. The Greater Gainesville area is home to at least a dozen farm animal sanctuaries. Critter Creek hosts a monthly Farmers’ Moo-ket where thousands get to meet the named andpersonable cows, pigs, and buffalos. Ironically, PETA has said they would support the proposal, but with one caveat: that it be built with glass walls and/or include livestreaming to Alachua County residents.
So I ask: Why, at this precarious juncture in the history of the only planet we’ve got would Alachua County – the same one that espouses sustainability and recently held a Climate Fair – want to enable animal agriculture? What is the most prudent use of $5.25 million by an innovative county commission determined to help local farmers and create a secure local food system in a socially responsible, planet-friendly manner?
One of the arguments in favor of the slaughterhouse is that if a family is unable to make a living from ranching they will sell their land to developers who will subsequently pave it over and build a zillion new homes. Sounds like scare tactics – don’t we have a comp plan? Doing the math: $5.2m divided among the ~100 ranching families comes to ~$52K/ranch. Those funds could be used to support local ranchers in transitioning away from raising animals to more climate friendly, lucrative livelihoods, allow native biomass to recover, and promote community health. Indeed, programs, such as Transfarmation and the Rancher Advocacy Program already exist to provide expertise, funding, and marketing connections to facilitate such transitions. This may include growing crops such as hemp, oats, or bamboo, mushroom farming, solar, etc. Concurrently the County could promote public health through nutrition education, including hands-on, ‘planetarian’ cooking classes, food demos, and grocery tours. Want a more secure local food system? Let’s water some of our well-known local food deserts.
Just say know! Here are a few resources to elaborate on the above info and educate yourself on the issue at hand. Please urge your commissioners to not move forward with the proposed slaughterhouse. Let Alachua County can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem!
Excellent video – explains why even local, grass fed beef promotes climate change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1Hq8eVOMHs
NYT re: Colorado River: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/05/22/climate/colorado-river-water.html?campaign_
Union of Concerned Scientists: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/grade-choice#
Nutritional issues: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2804889
Modeling effects of phasing out animal ag: https://journals.plos.org/climate/article?id=10.1371/journal.pclm.0000010
Problems with excess protein: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4045293
Farmer-led movements for transitioning: https://thetransfarmationproject.org/ and https://ffacoalition.org/articles/livestock-transition/
World Resources Institute on Sustainable diets:https://www.wri.org/insights/sustainable-diets-what-you-need-know-12-charts