"Phase out almost all animal products” is wrong - debate

Submitted by AWL on 18 December, 2019 - 10:23 Author: Paul Vernadsky
plant based burger

See here for the original article which Paul Vernadsky is responding to. See Misha Zubrowski's reply to the article below, here.

The article ‘A workers’ answer to climate change’ (Solidarity 522, 23 October bit.ly/mz-cc-19) contains a flawed formulation, which would disorientate socialist climate politics if it were accepted. The sentence reads:

“Crucially, phasing out almost all animal products (with the added benefit of reducing the needless extreme suffering of billions of sentient beings)”.

The demand to “phase out almost all animal products” is incoherent:
• “Almost all animal products” goes beyond veganism and is utopian
• It is not based on climate science. It conflates what should be differentiated
• It has huge implications for international working-class living standards and agricultural producers, which are not spelt out
• It unwittingly bolsters “vegan capital”, a range of capitalist firms promoting profitable meat substitutes.
• It takes the focus away from tackling fossil fuel capital, by far the most significant source of climate change
• It puts the emphasis on personal, individual behaviour, not on system change
• If it is a demand on existing bourgeois states, then it is potentially reactionary.
• These matters deserve serious discussion. They should not be conflated with animal rights. Conclusions and slogans should follow from rational climate assessments, not trite moralism.

“Almost all animal products”

Phasing out “almost all animal products” is a slippery formulation. Marxists treat words on the page seriously. Trotsky: “call things by their right names; speak the truth to the masses”. Animal food products include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, honey and much more. Phasing out almost all animal food products is an oblique way of advocating veganism.

The animal rights organisation PETA lists animal-derived ingredients in commodities it wants people to boycott. This includes glycerine/glycerol from animal fat, used in cosmetics, toothpastes, soaps, ointments, medicines, lubricants, transmission and brake fluid and plastics. Similarly, gelatin is used in candies, marshmallows, cakes, ice cream, yogurts and wine. PETA also shuns products such as wool and leather. Prohibiting “almost all animal products” has implications far wider than food.

Proponents should be honest about what “almost all animal products” applies to. Is it a programme for the whole world or only certain people? How will this “phasing out” be implemented and by whom? These are questions of class power. The nature of capitalist agriculture makes this is more complex than other aspects of low carbon transition.

Climate science

There is a large literature on food and climate change. Over the last year, a number of significant (and overlapping) reports have been published: an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate and land (https://ipcc.ch/srccl), a Lancet Commission and Oxford University studies by Springmann (bit.ly/nutr-sust), Godfray (bit.ly/god18), Poore (bit.ly/poore18) and others. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has published analyses of livestock and climate change. None of these reports advocate the phasing out of almost all animal products.

Agriculture occupies about 40% of the Earth’s surface and uses 70% of all freshwater resources — p. e452, bit.ly/nutr-sust. The IPCC estimates total net greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry, and other land use emissions represent just under 12.0 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2-eq) per year. This represents around a quarter (24%) of emissions.

The FAO estimates that total greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are more than 7 GtCO2-eq per year or 15% of all human-induced emissions. The most significant greenhouse gases from livestock are methane and nitrous oxide. These estimates include emissions from the agricultural production of animal feed — pp. 15-16, bit.ly/fao18. The IPCC breakdown by species was:

Table 1: Global estimates of emissions by species

Species

MtCO2-eq

%

Beef cattle

2,495

35.3

Dairy cattle

2,128

30.1

Pigs

668

9.5

Buffalo

618

8.7

Chickens

612

8.7

Sheep and goats

474

6.7

Turkey, duck, geese

72

1.0

 

Cattle dominates these top-down figures. Cattle accounts for almost two-thirds of animal greenhouse gas emissions or 10% of total emissions. Most animal emissions come from red meat. Poultry accounts for less than 10% of animal emissions and less than 2% of total emissions. Lumping all animal products together misses important detail.

Diets and emissions

Many reports on food and climate change explore a variety of diets and estimate their carbon footprint. The Lancet’s universal healthy reference diet consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, unsaturated oils, some seafood and poultry, and little red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains and starchy vegetables (pp. 485, 470, bit.ly/food-anthro). Other diets include:

• Vegan: all animal-based protein sources replaced by a mix of plant-based proteins and fruits and vegetables (no eggs and dairy consumed)
• Vegetarian: meat-based protein sources replaced by a mix of plant-based proteins and fruits and vegetables (eggs and dairy consumed)
• Pescatarian: meat-based protein sources replaced by a mix of seafood and fruits and vegetables (eggs and dairy consumed).
The recent IPCC report also lists other variations:
• Flexitarian: 75% of meat and dairy replaced by cereals and pulses
• Fair and frugal: 2,800 daily calories with relatively low level of animal products
• Climate carnivore: 75% of meat and dairy replaced by other meat
• Mediterranean: vegetables, fruits, grains, sugars, oils, eggs, dairy, seafood, moderate amounts of poultry, pork, lamb and beef (ch. 5, pp. 5-77, https://ipcc.ch/srccl).
The IPCC estimates the annual emissions reductions possible if these diets became universal. A global vegan diet would (by definition) eliminate livestock emissions. However other diets also have significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without removing all animal products. The healthy diet has a range between 3 and 6.5 GtCO2-eq, while the “fair and frugal” is between 1 and 7 GtCO2-eq.

Table 2: Mitigation potential of changing diets by 2050

Diet

Gt CO2-eq

Vegan

8

Vegetarian

6

Flexitarian

5

Healthy diet

4.5

Fair and Frugal

4

Pescatarian

4

Climate carnivore

3.5

Mediterranean

3

 

Carbon footprints for foods

The IPCC climate and land report refers to a number of systematic reviews of the carbon footprint of particular foods, based on life cycle analyses. One of those — pp.9-12, bit.ly/clune17 — provides extensive values for 168 foods. The authors warn that variation in methodology choices, functional units, as well as temporal and regional differences make comparisons difficult. Allowing for these caveats, a food hierarchy based on emissions is clear:

Table 3: Summary of global warming potential values by food category

Food category

Median kg CO2-eq/kg

Vegetables (all field grown vegetable)

0.37

Fruits (all field grown fruit)

0.42

Cereals

0.50

Legumes and Pulses

0.51

Passive greenhouse fruit and vegetable

1.10

Tree nuts combined

1.20

Milk world average

1.29

Heated greenhouse fruit and vegetable

2.13

Rice

2.55

Eggs

3.46

Fish: all species combined

3.49

Chicken

3.65

Pork: world average

5.77

Cheese

8.55

Butter

9.25

Lamb: world average

25.58

Beef: world average

26.61

 

The differences between animal and vegetable emissions are likely to continue in future unless major technological changes affect animal products. This is because of emissions from animal feed production; deforestation from agriculture to produce feed; animals creating additional emissions from enteric fermentation, manure and aquaculture ponds; emissions from processing; and higher wastage (pp. 990-91, bit.ly/poore18).

While fruit and vegetables in general have lower emissions than meat, boiling down to individual foods with some differentiation on the manner of their production reveals some important overlap. Of course, a kilo of chicken is a different portion to a kilo of lettuce. But it shows that the equation: meat = bad, vegetables = good, is too simplistic.

Table 4: Summary of global warming potential values by food

Food

Median kg CO2-eq/kg

Lentils

1.03

Pilchards

1.10

Almonds

1.54

Pollock

1.60

Strawberries: heated greenhouse

1.64

Tuna

2.15

Tomatoes: heated greenhouse

2.20

Rice

2.55

Chicken

3.65

Lettuce: heated greenhouse

3.70

 

International context

Any socialist programme to radically alter global food production and consumption has to assess the impact on living standards of workers and peasants who either do the work or rely on it for their basic necessities. There are more than 500 million farms across the globe, producing in almost all the world’s climates and soils. Average farm sizes vary from 0.5 hectares in Bangladesh to 3,000 hectares in Australia (p. 987, bit.ly/poore18).

The current food system, its production, transport, processing, packaging, storage, retail, consumption, loss and waste, supports the livelihoods of around 200 million people (ch. 5, pp. 5-5, https://ipcc.ch/srccl). For some people, there may be no alternative to diets high in meat and other animal-sourced food. Nomadic pastoralists in desert environments and Inuit communities in the Arctic can only farm or hunt animals because they have limited opportunities to grow or purchase other types of food (p. 2, bit.ly/god18).

Globally more than 820 million people remain undernourished and more than 2 billion people are micronutrient deficient. Seafood provides 3·1 billion people with about 20% of their daily intake of animal protein (pp. 449, 476, bit.ly/food-anthro). Even the IPCC recognises food poverty affects the UK. About four million adults are moderately to severely food insecure, while the Trussell Trust distributes more than one million three-day emergency food parcels a year. Older researchers found that 40% of adults and 15% of children admitted to hospitals were malnourished (ch. 5, pp. 5-15-16, https://ipcc.ch/srccl).

Anyone advocating the phasing out of almost all animal products has to spell out how these issues would be addressed.

“Vegan capital”

A central problem with the position of phasing out almost all animal products is that it leaves “vegan capital” uncriticised and intact. A good example is Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014), the Netflix film that argued that animal agriculture is responsible for 51% of global emissions, rainforest destruction and other environmental problems. The 51% figure came from a Worldwatch Institute report littered with errors.

Philip Lymbery’s book Farmageddon (2014) is a sharp criticism of the meat industry, but indicts other aspects of capitalist agriculture. It points to the intensive farming in California, where 60 million almond trees provide 80% of the world’s almonds. This industry is profitable due to a cocktail of chemicals, plundered rivers and importing billions of bees to pollinate the almond trees.
On 12 October, The Economist magazine published an article, Fake Moos, arguing that plant-based meat could create a radically different food chain. Economists estimate that global sales of meat substitutes could grow from 1% of the total market for meat to 10% over the next decade.

Pioneers include US firms Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, as well as the Dutch firm, the Vegetarian Butcher. They hope to repeat the profits made by plant-based milk, which now accounts for about 15% of retail milk sales in America and 8% in Britain. However these companies are not paragons of virtue: Unilever bought the Vegetarian Butcher last year; Tyson Foods, a large meat processor was an early investor in Beyond Meat; and Cargill, a big food conglomerate, is working with Puris, a firm that produces the protein.

Advocates for meat substitutes claim their burgers account for a third of the emissions of chicken, a quarter of those of pork and a tiny fraction of beef. But contradictions are not far from the surface. The Impossible Burger is served in the British Airways first-class lounge in New York and the Beyond Burger in business class on some Virgin Atlantic flights. Honest Burgers, a small chain of restaurants in Britain, has its patties flown in from the US. No doubt rich passengers console themselves that eating plant burgers on a flight will offset the carbon emissions of a transatlantic journey (of course, they don’t).

The main enemy = fossil fuel capital.

A central problem with the demand to phase out almost all animal products is that shifts the focus away from fossil fuel burning, the central cause of climate change. Yet data on the damage wrought by fossil fuels is overwhelming and should guide strategy and tactics within the climate movement.

The IPCC’s fifth assessment report concluded that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed about 78% of the total greenhouse emission increase from 1970 to 2010, with similar percentage contribution for the period 2000-2010. Cumulative fossil CO2 emissions (since 1750) more than tripled between 1970 and 2010 (p. 354, bit.ly/blanco14).

Richard Heede from the Climate Accountability Institute has produced very strong evidence for the root of the climate problem and what needs to change (bit.ly/heede13). Heede demonstrated that 90 top emitting firms produced almost two-thirds (63%) of the cumulative global emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 to 2010. All but seven of the 90 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers.

The list of 90 companies included 50 privately-owned firms: Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell and coal producers such as British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton among others. Others were state-owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil. Just 100 companies produced 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 (bit.ly/griffin17).

Heede recently published further work (bit.ly/heede19), showing that the top 20 companies have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide since 1965. These same firms plan to continue burning fossil fuels over the next decade in a further profitable splurge. In doing so, they will destroy any possibility of preventing temperatures reaching the 1.5°C threshold and increasing the probability of at least 4°C warming this century.

System change, not personal behaviour

IPCC publications and most academic papers assume nothing dramatic will change with respect to land ownership or the social relations of capitalist production. Although their proposals may challenge the profits of some individual firms or at most some sections of capital, as a whole they leave capitalism intact.

Hence the focus on diet like much else within bourgeois politics, shifts the blame for climate change onto working class people and other direct producers. The polite fiction of capitalist political economy is that consumers are sovereign and that demand creates its own supply. Putting the emphasis on dietary options atomises the cause of climate change to matters of personal choice. It puts the focus on individual decisions, while leaving the food system and the capitalist combines that control it mostly untouched.

One of the great insights Marxism brings to the climate movement is the explanation for climate change at the system level: capitalism, as a system of private profiteering from the exploitation of labour determines what is produced, how, where and when. Fighting for structural reforms is a necessary part of mobilising millions of working class people to meet their needs now and begin to question the system as a whole. The solution to climate change is not individual dietary changes, but a radical transformation of the entire capitalist food system.

Political agency

While academic and government research reports suggest the need to shift toward more plant-based diets to enable food production to stay within the climate change boundary, they are remarkably reticent about the political conclusions needed to make such a transition.

The most shrill tend to pose the issues from a top-down perspective of meeting targets. Earlier Oxford studies argued that levelling up global dietary guidelines is not enough to “to achieve a climate stabilisation pathway”: to make its “prorated contribution, reductions in animal-based foods of the degree found only in the vegan scenario would be required” (p. 4150 bit.ly/diet-cc). Poore and Nemecek’s revised assessment is that the “no animal products” scenario “delivers a 28% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions”, while “a 50% reduction in animal products targeting the highest-impact producers delivers a 20% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions”. The most recent IPCC and Oxford studies target diets in high-income countries (p. e451, bit.ly/nutr-sust; pp. 5-66, ch.5, https://ipcc.ch/srccl).

Academic reports promote the use of private sector approaches (market-based instruments) as well as regulation. They talk of demand and supply side interventions, with multiple incentives including fiscal changes (p. e460, bit.ly/nutr-sust; pp. 481-82, bit.ly/food-anthro). This means taxation, designed to increase the price of certain foods. Such indirect taxes are regressive, disproportionately hitting working class people. They also allow the rich to carry on polluting, because they can avoid to pay. Most academics agree that changing dietary behaviour is a slow process (bit.ly/god18).

Conclusion

The demand to phase out almost all animal products appears to have purchase as a no-nonsense response to the imperative of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However it is possible to drastically reduce emissions by concentrating on red meat production and consumption. Specific demands on red meat are more consistent with the climate science. Providing land use change is rationally planned, farms previously used for cattle could become carbon sinks. But this requires a programme of measures to ensure capitalist landowners not the direct producers pay for the transition.

Our demands and slogans are meant to rouse up the working class to take its future (including the future of the planet) into its own hands. The demand to phase out almost all animal products doesn’t do that. To demand phasing out fossil fuels when the substitute energy is nuclear or renewable makes no difference to the workers’ consumption, providing the costs are equal. The situation is different for food consumption. Imposing veganism on workers through bourgeois states smacks of totalitarianism, whereas socialism is about increasing freedom and widening choice.

Phasing out almost all animal products is not central to the climate movement – for example it formed no part of the recent Green New Deal campaign.

No doubt comrades will meet some climate campaigners who foreground their personal stoicism. But our task is to rouse millions of workers to make climate change part of the fight for socialism. That means clarity in formulating our programme, not abstract ethical appeals.

See Misha Zubrowski's reply to the above article, "Reforestation: A science based argument".

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