AOSC Departmental Seminar
February 26, 2015

Feeding a 9-billion people earth: New insights from the US on the role of individual choices

Gidon Eshel
Bard Center for Environmental Policy, Bard College

Current environmental discourse rightfully pays close attention to agriculture, the largest global user of land and water, a dominant source of GHGs and water pollution, and among the key forces behind biodiversity declines.  Because nearly all national agricultural systems are closely governmentally regulated, the discussion often focuses on national level farm policy. In the US, decades of bipartisan inaction or action in the wrong direction have excluded individual consumers from farm policy decision making, promoting a sense of powerlessness to achieve desired changes. As a counterpoint to this sentiment, in my talk I will present several key novel agricultural sustainability results that restore individual consumers' key role. I will describe a new method for comparing the previously unknown individual environmental costs of the five livestock categories (beef, pork, poultry, dairy & eggs) in terms of four key environmental performance metrics: land and water use, GHG emissions, and reactive nitrogen discharge, all on the basis of both per kcal and g protein. The calculations reveal that beef is by far the most resource intensive of all human food sources in all four performance metrics, roughly an order of magnitude less resource efficient than the other four livestock categories. Because our papers are repeatedly criticized in popular media as neglecting grazing---which some authors feel offers a waiver from beef's resource intensity---I will conclude by presenting preliminary calculations addressing grass fed beef. These results show that far from being a source of environmentally sound beef, grazing is so land inefficient that it is manifestly impossible to scale up to necessary levels. While grazing may offer some modest advantages in other metrics, it can only do so under massive relocation to the moist southeast.