Green New Meal

by Michael C. Dorf

The Green New Deal (GND) resolution pending in Congress sets ambitious goals for attacking climate change while also promoting job growth. I applaud its authors and sponsors for recognizing the urgency of the problem and the need for bold action. I especially appreciate two aspects of the template: (1) it does not bow to the conventional wisdom that addressing environmental harms conflicts with prosperity, because, after all, a healthy economy ultimately depends on a livable environment; and (2) neither does it compromise in advance with deniers, skeptics, and self-described moderates, because anything that will ultimately make it through Congress (even a Democratic Congress with a future Democratic president) will be watered down somewhat, so one should at least start with what makes sense as policy.

Accordingly, and as a friendly amendment, I want to point out an important omission from the resolution: it fails to recognize or respond to the very large role that animal agriculture plays in generating climate change and other environmental damage. That omission is especially disappointing, because the most prominent spokesperson for the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, understands that animal agriculture substantially contributes to global warming. She recently touted plant-based milk and urged a group of schoolchildren to avoid meat and dairy for at least one meal per day as a concrete action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint.

Even that advice strikes me as insufficiently bold and thus out of step with point (2) above, but it is still better than what the resolution itself states. In her advice to the schoolchildren, AOC recognized that animal agriculture itself is problematic. The GND resolution does not.

But wait. Didn't Sean Hannity say that the GND would mean "no more cows?" He did indeed, but there is nothing in the GND resolution itself that remotely implies such a thing. The resolution proposes "working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible."

That is a non sequitur. You cannot work with ranchers to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, because you will achieve much greater reductions by working against ranchers, i.e., by eliminating animal agriculture.

Scientists debate just how much animal agriculture contributes to global warming, but the accepted range is somewhere between "a lot" and "an enormous amount." Depending on how one traces impacts, estimates range from 10% to over 50% of greenhouse gas emissions coming from animal agriculture. Here's a World Bank analysis. Here's a recent analysis by a couple of Oxford scientists. Because the GND resolution refers to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it's worth noting that in addition to its substantial contribution to climate change, animal agriculture is a major driver of water pollution, desertification, and associated ills.

There are complexities and variations, but the easiest way to understand why animal agriculture has such a devastating environmental impact is to focus on its inefficiency. Creating x calories of food from animal products requires growing many times x calories of plant food to be fed to the animals. How many times x? That varies, but it's always a substantial multiplier. From the Oxford scientists: to produce the same number of calories from dairy or beef as one produces from peas (which are high in protein and other nutrients), the dairy/beef will use 6 times as much land and generate 36 times as much greenhouse gas as the peas.

Although some animal foods can be produced somewhat less wastefully than others, it is undeniable that substituting plant products for animal products greatly reduces the environmental impact. Consider the almond, which, as plant foods go, is highly water-intensive. Nonetheless, it takes about 2.5 times as much fresh water to produce each ounce of cow's milk as it takes to produce each ounce of almond milk. So yes, there are more enviro-friendly plant-based milk choices than almond milk. But any plant-based milk will do much less harm to the environment than dairy.

A Green New Deal that included a Green New Meal would cohere better with the overall idea that many of the supposed tradeoffs that are offered as reasons not to change are illusory. Switching from animal to plant foods mostly does not compete with other values we hold dear; it furthers them. Assuming that people do not simply replace the Big Macs with French fries, a plant-based diet leads to better health, which is a direct benefit to the people eating the diet and results in a reduction in medical costs for the society as a whole. And that's to say nothing of the billions of animals who would not lead the miserable lives that animals in food production lead.

To be sure, any transition imposes short-term costs. Just as humane policies that encourage shifting from coal mining to cleaner energy must find alternative employment opportunities for the displaced miners, so a shift from meat and dairy to peas and sweet potatoes must also look out for workers. But due to automation, that is a much smaller task than it would have been a century ago. US farm labor peaked at just under 12 million people in 1910. Today, there are roughly 2 million people working in the agricultural sector. During that same period, the US population more than tripled. Thus, in proportional terms, agricultural employment has declined to about 1/18th of its size a century ago. Transitioning people employed in animal agriculture into growing plant-based foods and other lines of work will not be trivial, but it will involve a substantially less dramatic shift in the labor economics of food production than what has already occurred.

The real question for a Green New Meal is not whether to promote a shift away from animal agriculture but how to do so. Government policy plays a role. The government should stop subsidizing commodity crops that are grown largely as feed for animals. Likewise, it should stop promotional programs for animal foods. Ending those obvious subsidies should be a no-brainer.

Hidden subsidies probably do even more damage. What hidden subsidies? Animal agriculture externalizes the cost of its environmental damage. That's clear when one looks at local impacts. Pig waste lagoons cause severe problems after storms, but even in normal times they're hazardous. In addition to the stench, a recent study in North Carolina found "higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality of patients with multimorbidity, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia" for people living near  concentrated animal feeding operations (sometimes called "CAFOs" or colloquially "factory farms"). Requiring operators of animal farms to compensate their neighbors and the public for the local and diffuse externalized harm would increase the price of animal products and thus dampen demand for them.

Eliminating express and hidden subsidies for animal products should thus be part of the GND, but supply-side interventions can only do so much. If the proponents of the GND really want to achieve the environmental (and other) gains associated with a shift away from animal agriculture, they need to affect demand. To that end, it would be great if AOC and the other proponents of the GND promoted and modeled the personal and planetary benefits of eating plants, not just for one meal per day but exclusively.