Will vegetarian marketing save the planet?

Will vegetarian marketing save the planet?

According to PETA, eating animals and/or animal products is synonymous with “wasting resources and destroying our environment.” A 2010 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) makes essentially the same argument: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

According to an article at the time in the UK news source, The Guardian, professor Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of the report, said: "Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels."

Today I just saw a blog from Robert Goodland, former senior environmental advisor to the World Bank Group from 1978 to 2001, advocating a global replacement of 25 percent of livestock products with vegan alternatives—seitan, soy, nut milks, etc. He says, “a shocking forty-five percent of all land on earth today is used for raising livestock and growing crops to feed them.” He goes so far as to say that “the entire goal of today’s international climate objectives can be achieved by replacing just 1/4 of today’s least eco-friendly food products with better alternatives.” Provocative to say the least.

You are what you are marketed to eat?

But for me the most thought-provoking part of Goodland’s blog was this: “People may not recognize it, but their food habits are greatly induced by marketing, which today promote meat and dairy products strenuously.”

I have to admit that I’ve thought this myself. At a conference last year, representatives from the National Dairy Council lead an in-depth educational seminar ostensibly about the importance of getting enough protein to stay healthy as you age. But it focused entirely on whey as the protein source and came across as one long infomercial for whey, the wonder food.

So what about whey? I put this question to Mr. Goodland and while he didn’t tell me to throw out the protein powder sitting in my pantry he did say he’d “never promote whey because as it comes 100% from cows, promoting whey means promoting cattle, deforestation, GHG emissions, etc, the whole syndrome.”

Changing the current farming paradigm

Now here’s where these questions get sticky and end up stalemated when it comes to real decision making. Citing the resilience of the U.S. agricultural economy, Goodland suggests that, “U.S. farmers electing to reduce their cattle production by 25 percent can grow the traditional grain-based diets that they used to do so superbly, as well as the ingredients for meat analogs. This would be a big boost to U.S. farmers by making them more sustainable and producing less expensive and damaging foods.”

This sounds great on the surface, but I can’t imagine any U.S. rancher or dairy farmer is going to see this as a realistic suggestion. Could cattle ranchers with hundreds of acres of land that have never been tilled, without the equipment to turn it to farming, and little financial incentive to do so, realistically turn a quarter of their resources to growing soy or other meat and dairy alternatives? Do we really want them to?

The vast majority of soy crops are genetically modified and there certainly have been deforestation and energy use concerns around the production of soy—particularly in South America. Environmentalists have raised concerns about coconut production around the globe and while I’m not familiar with the environmental impact of almond farming, I’d imagine it has it’s own set of limitations.

While I believe that PETA, the UNEP and Robert Goodland are all undoubtedly on the right track, how do we make this massive and expensive shift a practical reality for U.S. farmers?

How do we shift the money, the message and the marketing away from meat and dairy to more planet-friendly, healthier alternatives? We have to answer the "What's in it for me?" for the food industry before real changes will happen. Let me know your thoughts.

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