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On Media Coverage of Climate Change and Food

The vegan and animal rights communities have long been frustrated with the media's insistence on omitting or downplaying the connection between climate change and food. It's a truth so inconvenient that it wasn't included in An Inconvenient Truth.

Enter Roni Neff and her colleagues at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who have just released a study, about this significant coverage shortage. Grist's Anna Lappe interviewed Neff (in "Where's the Beef?") and the study can be found here. The abstract includes:

CONCLUSIONS: US newspaper coverage of food systems' effects on climate change during the study period increased, but still did not reflect the increasingly solid evidence of the importance of these effects. Increased coverage may lead to responses by individuals, industry and government.

The more we needle with our blogs, our letters, our editorials, our petitions and our debates, insisting on discussing food whenever climate change is raised, the greater the attention the topic will get (if past performance is an indication of future results, unlike in the mutual fund world).

In the interview, Neff says:

"We saw that there's been a change in terms of who the news media is saying is responsible for taking action. We coded the food-related articles, asking: If you were to infer from this article who was the party to take action, who would it be? In the beginning, it was overwhelmingly individuals. By the end, it was overwhelmingly government. So that really showed a broadening of the depth of reporting on the issue, though this isn't to say there is one right way to look at an issue."

And here I was thinking all of our daily advocacy wasn't doing any good. Au contraire! The coverage is not only more frequent but also more in depth.

Before you get too excited . . .

"Q: Have you changed what you eat because of what you've learned?

"A: I have. I haven't gone totally vegetarian, although I waiver in and out of it. I don't think that it's necessary to go for extreme delineations. So I eat a lot less meat, and I don't eat red meat, I just eat chicken or turkey, sustainably produced."

Extreme delineations? That's a new one. At least she does recommend "eating less meat and dairy," and I'm glad she included dairy. Ever the middle-of-the-roader, though, she says "we really need to cut back on meat consumption, but it doesn't have to mean going vegetarian or vegan." And if the environment is your number one concern and you don't have the propensity to believe that sentient nonhumans shouldn't be killed when they don't need to be, there's not much to disagree with there.

A discussion has begun, and no one has suggested pondering the ethics of using animals for food. Be the first to point your finger at the elephant in the room! (And do you find "elephant in the room" offensive in any way? I don't, but I could be missing something.)

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    I agree, Mary, that if one is a speciesist environmentalist (as currently 9 out of 10 environmentalists are), one certainly need not “go for extreme delineations” like veganism. If I devalued sentient life like anthropocentric environmentalists, I would also merely “eat less meat and dairy”. However, as someone who respects the lives of nonhuman beings, being vegan is no more an “extreme delineation” than being a non-cannibal because I respect the lives of human beings.

    The word vegan includes the moral issue, the respect for individual lives that only vegans adequately possess. Someone who is vegan solely for the environment or their health is not really vegan. A better term for that person would be “strict vegetarian.”

    I don’t find “elephant in the room” offensive, since it does not represent any of the traditional exploitive practices of speciesists like most animal-related expressions do.

    October 17, 2008
  2. I agree with Dan that someone who refrains from consuming products derived from animals for secondary reasons such as environmentalism or health is not a vegan. I’m sure some people will say "who cares," the motivation or moral purity of the act is irrelevant so long as the end result is a reduction in animal suffering. However, as a practical matter (as least from my own observation), people who mimic vegan behavior for reasons other than preventing animal suffering are much more likely to abandon their “veganism” after a brief trial period.

    October 17, 2008
  3. Davedrum #

    I too have had a problem with the term "vegan" only being associated with the way one chooses to eat. I even stated here recently that being vegan for me is my life and the lifestyle that I live. While I appreciate some of those in the mainstream that are advocating both AR and a vegan diet, I feel many will just see this as another "GREEN" fad to follow…just like the Mom or Dad that uses their own shopping bags but puts them into a brand new Escalade that gets 8 MPH… that also drives and drops off their kids to school instead of making them take the bus….or those that buy a Prius yet still fertilizes their lawn and saturate their home/yards with pesticides. I fear that some of those "preaching" about being vegan to the masses are missing what it is all about and are not the ones who should be out there doing the preaching (or educating).

    But anyway….on the topic of eating a vegan diet… I made up a recipe this morning for Habenero Corn Muffins/Bread…and if I eat anymore of this right now, I'm going to have to bake another one tomorrow for breakfast! This stuff be GOOD! 🙂

    October 17, 2008
  4. Bea Elliott #

    I'm starting to hear an echo here: "The word vegan includes the moral issue". I absolutely agree. That's one of the reasons I found Oprah's "cleanse" so disappointing. Veganism was reduced to just another "diet". Vegan implies a respect for life and a love of fairness – It means making a choice to live a compassionate life… It means causing as little harm as possible… The most obvious (preventable) harm man is causing is to billions of sentient beings. That is the ground that all our arguments, debates and discussions eventually rest on. Global warming, world hunger, and public health are just more reasons that validate a vegan position.

    It seems that if the elephant in the room could be dealt with – so many problems would begin to find their proper solution.
    Vertical, urban hydroponics anyone?

    October 17, 2008
  5. Speaking of beef in the media, I just got an email of this Sunday's NY Times Book Review which will have a review of two beef books, one sounding euphoric over it, one more historical and acknowledging industry problems, both with recipes. Not sure if this link will work because the website still has last week's issue up, but I'll put it in.

    October 17, 2008
  6. Nick #

    Why are self-proclaimed environmentalists always locavore/happy-meat people? It makes me want to vomit.

    October 17, 2008
  7. Bea Elliott #

    Nick – I also know that some "vegans" are also not Animal Rights people – I don't get that either…

    October 17, 2008
  8. Angus #

    This morning the C.B.C. devoted half an hour to the issue of global warming and meat-eating in Australia. It seems that kangaroos don't produce methane, so kangaroo meat is being promoted as environmentally friendly — which it may well be, for all I know. However, not all Australians are keen on killing and eating their national symbol. A wildlife-federation spokesman was denouncing the killing of kangaroos as horribly cruel, and he added that the meat was not healthy to eat. Then he said something like, "Why not just eat chicken or beef instead?"

    As Mary has pointed out, people just want to eat meat, and they're not going to stop. I once had a student tell me that, intellectually, he was completely convinced by Tom Regan's argument for animal rights — but he had absolutely no intention of giving up meat. John Kenneth Galbraith once said that when faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof. In fact, it seems, most people don't even bother much with any proof. There are some things they just won't give up, regardless of evidence or arguments.

    October 17, 2008
  9. Bea Elliott #

    The kangaroos, the student… Galbraith's assesment – It's all very disheartening.

    But I'm sure it's all true – Against all reason many still defend their position as a racist or sexist. They know it's wrong but they can't help being a biggot… and they can't help their misogyny. To the degree that they can't "get with the program" – society ostracises them – or the law contains them. Betraying one's rationality seems to deserve a similar fate. Especially when it involves murder.

    October 18, 2008
  10. Anonymous Vegan #

    My faith has been shaken recently: perhaps the environmental argument/approach is a dead-end.

    A complete waste of time.

    I don't think people really care.

    I'm writing this anonymously because I'm still working to reach people through the environmental argument, but I'm THAT close to taking a vow never to bring it up again.

    Am I wrong?

    If some genius figured out a way to breed and slaughter animals in outer space, with little detriment to the terrestrial environment, we would all be back at square one. Perhaps even a few steps before square one.

    Whereas if the ethical argument somehow became widespread, law and custom would dictate our non-use of animals, not complicated arguments about the production of carbon, methane and nitrogen by the livestock industry.

    I'm really confused.

    98% of the professional environmentalists I've met are meat-eaters. Unabashedly so, even. Their arguments for how to solve the conflict between Meat and Climate Change have endless loopholes that allow them to continue doing this. Treehugger? Greenpeace? World Wildlife Fund? Jane Goodall Institute? The Great Ape Project? Bill McKibben … The list goes on. These "ecological heroes" are some of the most committed exploiters of animals I've ever encountered. They all "love" their steaks, their hamburgers, their eggs, their milkshakes, their fish.

    They assign some kind of virtuous value to rescuing an abstraction called "The environment" but meal after meal after meal eat something that is literally destroying that "environment" and the habitats of the "wild" animals they save and killing their children's world in the process.

    WHY are vegans leading this argument? There is something radically wrong with this picture.

    I'm really sad. I've spent a full two years having this environmental conversation and the only people it's really seemed to have any effect on are those who are already intensely compassionate in the first place.

    Also, in continuing to make the environmental argument, I feel like a fraud. I am NOT an environmentalist. I am a human with a conscience. That's it.

    If even people like E.O. Wilson, James Lovelock and Richard Dawkins can't give up their steak and eggs, why bother trying to convince the average person. I know about 0.001% of what Richard Dawkins or Lovelock know about life on Earth, and yet they keep chowing down on other sentient beings while lamenting the loss of biodiversity.

    Many, many members of the environmentalists are also hunters. Sport hunters.

    Total hypocrites. Worse, they make a virtue out of something that has no inherent virtue.

    I think it would be better if ethical vegans spent more time in churches. Even those of us who are atheists or agnostics. I'm not being sarcastic. Go to a church, be honest and admit to being an atheist or agnostic (if you are, like me) and then ask if you could speak to their congregation.

    I bet you'd find more welcome audiences in churches than in the teflon hearts of environmentalists, ecologists, ethologist, conservationists and other kinds of "people who should know better."

    Worse, this use of energy to entertain a clearly scientific argument should not be a burden which vegans have to carry. We have a much higher virtue – to reduce the suffering of the exploited.

    It is almost an insult to the nonhuman animals we are trying help.

    The more I think about it, it's almost like going around trying to convince someone that slaves should be freed because the shackle-making industry is spewing too much carbon into the environment: What would the motto be? "Real environmentalists should free their slaves."

    October 19, 2008

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