Mixed Greens Blog

Mixed Greens Blog
Living Sustainably in the Pacific Northwest


Carbon 101, Foodprints

chickens in the barnyard

In the past few years I’ve read several books about food and meat production, Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan), Grub (Anna Lappe & Bryant Terry), watched the film, Food Inc. I reached a tipping point recently while reading Eating Animals (Jonathan Safran Foer). A perfect storm of revelation and repulsion happened. I guess you could call it reflection, my wide-eyed, middle of the night omnivoric mortification over the wretchedness of industrial animal farming and its product, a lot of iffy meat. CAFO, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, euphemism for an horrific practice that has become our norm; and CFE, Common Farming Exemptions make it all legal. (Lappe, Grub).

It’s not like I didn’t already know about this stuff – I haven’t been living in a cave – but there’s a proverbial tipping point, different for each of us, where something else kicks in.

chicken coop

I don’t think of myself as a killer of animals. I doubt that many of us meat-eaters do. I just cook them, put them on my plate and eat them. I recognize the irony in that, but raised on a ranch, I accepted the reality of animals as food (for many of us) a long time ago –  though I’ve never thought of them as animal units as is their tag in the CAFO industry. The new reality of industrialized factory-farmed meat is a whole different animal, and I mean that literally, though it’s not a bad pun. Industrialized farming got started by accident in the 1920s and in the past fifty years has gradually – now emphatically – become our domestic norm (99% of available meat is industrialized). Upside is that there’s a lot more cheap meat available, downside, it’s a really bad life for the animals, the hygiene of the meat is compromised (an understatement!), environmental and public health undermined.

Anna Moore Lappe states that it’s very difficult to find meat these days that isn’t factory farmed. Jonathan Safran Foer further defines difficult with specific percentages. Up to 99% of all available meat in the U.S. comes to us via industrialized factory farming: 78% of available beef, 95% and 97% respectively of pigs and turkeys, 99% of chickens. The photos in this piece are what we like to imagine is the truth, but the truth is that small farming operations like Plum Forest Farm and Sea Breeze Farm on Vashon Island, Skagit River Ranch, among others, provide a minuscule amount of our available meat.

You have to really want it, go out of your way to find it, pay more upfront for meat and fish that isn’t contaminating both the planet and our bodies via its production. Europe banned the importation of U.S. hormone-raised beef in 1985, and the European Union continues the ban.

I was eight or nine when my dad thought I should learn how to shoot a gun. It was a -22 I think. He showed me how to aim and shoot at soaring clay pigeons slung into the air with a slingshot gizmo. I was a haphazard shooter and my Annie Oakley career as a gunman was short-lived, but in those few days I practiced and aimed as carefully as I could at Jack Rabbits inhabiting the back pastures of our cattle ranch. I remember feeling appalled at the possibility that I might actually have hurt one of them. Three days of a killing spree – if indeed I hit anything at all – were enough for me. My dad apparently came to the same conclusion years later when, living in Alaska, he would hike for hours, indeed half the night in summer, with a camera and never again a gun. We never gave up eating meat. Funny how that is in our culture, except for dogs and cats, that we think about animals as plates of food and not as creatures with lives to live in spite of their destiny to be eaten.

But this isn’t about the kill of the conscientious hunter, but revelations in print and film – and reality! – that give new meaning to those meaty plates of food we omnivores buy at the store.

Chicken coop


I’d read the books I’ve mentioned, seen the film and begun wee hours’ musings about it all when I discovered this article on the Gourmet site, Carbon 101. I thought it worth sharing. Though I recommend the reading and watching the film, this brief article provides succinct, relatively non-judgmental information about what is required/recommended to put meat on our plates. Go ahead and buy your meat they say, but be aware of a few things as you do. For me it means less meat, carefully chosen.

Even then, from what I’ve read there are no guarantees that what I think I’m buying is what I’m actually getting.

I think I trust PCC (Pacific Consumer Coop). They seem to be conscientious about their sources. But I must admit my confidence has been shaken. Meat from small farmers at Farmers’ Markets is more costly, another reason to consume less of it, but at the same time it’s decidedly cleaner food. We’ll say that it’s too expensive. But if the *cost of fuel, transportation, environmental degradation and subsidies that corporate farms receive are factored in, in balance it’s a lot better deal for all of us.

Can we omnivores get by with eating significantly less meat raised on reliable small farms when most of the earth’s environmental degradation is related to the raising of domesticated animals for food? And aside from the moral, environmental, ethical issues of factory farming we do need to figure out ways to feed a burgeoning world population. How to accomplish that with integrity in regard to our own bodies, the animals and the planet? Many of us are rethinking our meat eating habits and finding ways to moderate.

I’ve consciously chosen not to include graphic details of the industrial farming processes – this is a family show and the specifics are readily available. I do hope you’re inspired to reassess your appetite, but not to lose it entirely. (And then there’s the decimation of our oceans’ fish. More lost sleep.)

*Eating Animals, Jonathan Foer: “A University of Chicago study recently found that our food choices contribute at least as much as our transportation choices to global warming. More recent and authoritative studies by the United Nations and the Pew Commission show conclusively that globally, farming animals contribute more to climate change than transport. According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40% more than the entire transport sector – cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. Animal agriculture is responsible for 37% of anthropogenic methane . . .  The most current data even quantifies the role of diet: omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.”

Scottish cattle

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6 Responses »

  1. Hear hear! I started my anti-food porn with Fast Food Nation and read through the same list you did and saw the films (did you see End of the Line – very powerful), but it was really Eating Animals and the sadistic behavior in the CAFO’s that finally turned my stomach. We eat some meat, not sure I can ever eat ground beef again, and also shop at PCC. We’ve now only buy wild salmon, never farmed. If it adds up to less meat, we’re fine with that.

  2. I’m really glad to see you write about this in such a well put and thought provoking manner. I look forward to reading the book that was the final straw for you – each person has their own turning point to change and trigger for it. I have progressively been making changes in my diet for over ten years now, changing more as I learned more and as I discovered what made me feel better overall. That eventually led me to where I am now – I like to call it 98% vegetarian. I will still have a local sustainable seafood now and again and my husband has the option to pick up a local sustainable piece of meat from a farmer’s market source – though he hasn’t really wanted to in quite some time. Taking baby steps to find that place that works for each person is essential. Mindfulness is the most important thing we can do to change out impact on this world, the environment and ourselves.

  3. I think it’s really important and worth the money to buy pastured animals & animal products. As for carbon footprint, I urge you to read the Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. I wish everyone could read it. Agriculture is very quickly destroying our planet and our health, but most of the information out there tells us to eat less meat to save the planet. Pastured meat, especially stacked a la Joel Salatin, restores the planet – and our health. Millions of animals are killed as a result of agriculture and those are unseen deaths. I raised my own chickens this year after being a vegetarian because I wanted to be face to face with killing the animal to eat it. It was really hard but I am glad I did it. Whenever I eat meat I am 100% aware of the death involved, but how many people realize how much death and destruction are represented by the bread in their sandwiches?

  4. Carbzilla, Maurie & Marcy, thank you for thoughtful responses. The less is more philosophy is a hard sell for people and their food, in this case their meat. Glad you’re on the bandwagon!

  5. Thank you for posting about this. You write very eloquently on a subject I’ve been playing with my entire life. Learning about this kind of thing made me become a vegetarian at 14, and then a vegan, and then teeter back and forth between pescetarian and vegan ever since. It’s hard to know where to draw the line if you don’t know what practices are behind each piece of meat you find on your plate. Another interesting point to consider, when contemplating your carbon ‘foodprint’ (good word!) is the environmental impact of industrialized farming. The amount of land needed to grow grain to feed industrialized animals is (I’m really not sure of these statistics) many many times more than the amount needed to grow grain and vegetables solely for human consumption, which inevitably means the destruction of a great many ecosystems, etc. Did any of your sources mention this by any chance? Its been a while since I read up on the details. I really appreciate your research and insight and really enjoy your blog!

  6. Katie, thanks. I think Jonathan Foer’s statistic that omnivores are responsible for 7 times more greenhouse gases than vegans addresses your question about destruction of ecosystems for the raising of meat, especially via factory farming methods.