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December 23, 2015 | We are What We Eat: How Big is Animal Agriculture Really?

I didn’t find out for quite some time that being a vegetarian actually helps the environment. It was only after watching Food Inc. that I realized how much energy it takes to produce meat and how harmful it is to the environment. Before that, I never cared where my food came from. And most of us still do not consider it. Maybe we just don’t know because there is no transparency within this industry. Maybe it is because we have heard rumors about what goes on behind our food production, but we just do not want to know. It is only natural. If electricity is deeply ingrained within the modern society, then food is even more primeval to our survival.

We do not realize how much greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal agriculture. While the UN resolution that was passed at COP21 speaks more generally rather than focusing on any one sector, the INDCs should be expected to mention reductions in greenhouse gases by sector. The United States' INDC attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% in 2025 from the 2005 levels. The U.S. target mentions that it covers all sectors and specifies certain policies within industries. Simply put, the Clean Air Act refers to the transportation section, the Clean Power Plan refers to the power production sector, and the Energy Policy Act refers to the reducing energy from buildings. While all three are important sectors, one is conspicuously absent: animal agriculture and forestry use.

According to the EPA, in 2014, electricity production, industrial processes, transportation, and buildings contributed to 25%, 21%, 14%, and 6%, respectively, of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. And agriculture and forest use contributes to a whopping 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions — nearly the same amount as the electricity production sector. While industrial processes follow an amalgamation of policies, the agricultural sector has very little regulation from the government. Thus, monopolies are free to run amok. USA’s INDC is already an ambitious goal that becomes very difficult to achieve unless animal agriculture and sustainable farming are brought into the discussion.

An encouraging sign is that the EPA is taking action to cut methane emissions. Here, animal agriculture and forestry is mentioned as well as landfill gas. This issue is beginning to come to light as methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The highly acclaimed 2014 documentary Cowspiracy attempts to bring animal agriculture to the forefront. It takes 660 gallons of water to make a quarter pound of hamburger meat, 136 million acres of the rainforest have been cleared for cattle grazing, and growing feed crops and cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day. When I heard these numbers, the sheer volume was too much to comprehend. While we can debate the accuracy of these numbers, there is no doubt about the environmental impact of animal agriculture.

Cowspiracy states some mind-boggling numbers, and the aforementioned Food Inc. also covers the industrial monopoly by food production companies such as Tyson Foods and Monsanto. We hear news of oil companies using cleverly placed “donations” to members of Congress. Meanwhile, we know nothing about Tyson and Monsanto, two companies that produce and package so much of the food we eat everyday. It is not well known that they have a similar amount of power in the political spectrum as oil companies do. We prefer the status quo for policies in this sphere because any change in the food we eat or its source induces fear from the most primitive areas of our brain. These corporations are not renowned for their treatment of farmers either, which is a potential topic of discussion that would in turn bring up the lack of regulation in food processing and treatment.

As the EPA focuses on reducing methane emissions, hopefully, we see this industry and its impact highlighted. As an optimist, I hope to see policy that calls for more transparency and a forced reduction of emissions throughout the life cycle. The transportation sector experienced huge innovation once CAFE standards were introduced. This hints at the fact that established standards are a huge driver of innovation. I believe similar innovation can happen in the agricultural industry, but only if companies have clear goals to work towards.

While an analogy can be drawn with the tobacco industry, in agriculture, policies must be approached more subtly. Simply through packaging requirements, tobacco use in USA dropped from 40% in 1970 to 18% in 2012. One could argue that the same type of ubiquitous and familiar packaging is a solution to this problem of excessive consumption of beef. But could you envision a policy that states that a picture of a cow being slaughtered must be shown on every beef package?

We can enact as many policies as we wish on the supply side, however, the biggest lever is still the demand side. From the consumer perspective, it is prudent to know the source of our food. While organic food has experienced huge growth in the last few years, it is still more expensive than conventional food and the majority of consumers are unwilling to pay more for a product that, on the surface, seems no different.

Now comes my feeble attempt to convince you to go vegetarian. While I don’t have high hopes of this blog changing anyone’s mind, we need to be more mindful of what we eat and where it comes from. Cowspiracy stresses hard on veganism and its benefits. While that is extreme, it is definitely possible to reduce our consumption of red meat. If consumer behavior changes, the industry must respond. Even though our species is famously resistant to change, we are at a point where we have no choice. Climate change has become so serious that individuals, rather than corporations, must also take action in their personal lives to reduce the impact on the environment.

It is that time of the year when everyone makes his or her New Year's resolutions. Remember those Meatless Mondays you may have had at school? Maybe it is time to bring them back.


Rohith Desikan is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Rohith is a first year Master's student studying Civil and Environmental Engineering with a concentration in Atmosphere/Energy at Stanford University.