The year 2015 didn’t exactly start off well. The deadly attack of January 7 against the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo has stunned the whole of Europe and created a climate of insecurity that is hardly conducive to reflection and even less to any large-scale political action. However, facing ecological and social issues with lucidity and audacity is more imperative than ever to dry up the sources of violence created by the current disorders and to install a climate of peace, trust and stability.
It is precisely the climate that we will be talking about in the coming months. The world climate conference (or COP21) will take place in Paris from November 30 to December 11; it should lead to a new « ambitious » agreement, it is announced, committing all UN member states in a binding process to finally bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
I have the greatest doubts as to the true outcome of the debates of this new mega-conference. Certainly, there will undoubtedly be a joint commitment solemnly proclaimed in the usual atmosphere of self-congratulation that ends this kind of event. But solemn commitments are of little value or significance if they are not accompanied by effective mechanisms for their implementation. We have seen what the Kyoto Protocol has brought, celebrated at the time (in 1997) as a great first that will lead to the future. By entrusting the market with the keys to success, with the added benefit of legal means to escape constraints, the signatories programmed the failure of the protocol. The generalized blindness of environmental protection associations and environmentalist parties, which were content to denounce the withdrawal of the United States without questioning the totally inadequate character of the mechanism itself, is all the more distressing.
The dynamics of development, even if it is accompanied by the attractive term « sustainable », which aims to permanently increase the growth of economic activities, can lead neither to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions nor to a return to ecological balance. The reductions obtained by technological changes can only be temporary if they are not part of a perspective of profound change that implies the abandonment of productivism and consumerism.
In developed countries, overconsumption must be the subject of ambitious dissuasive policies. Otherwise, the tears shed over the unfortunate fate of the impoverished and starving populations of the South can only be crocodile tears. It is unlikely that large gatherings of policy makers, clinging to their inherited certainties and convinced of the need to pursue their growth objectives one against the other, will result in innovative commitments, especially if unanimity is required.
However, I deeply believe in the possibility of another scenario: a few States, among those most threatened by the growing ecological disorders, become aware of the urgency of the change of economic paradigm and take the gamble to implement it. We can dream of a Belgium, which commits itself in such a way. The awareness that the sea will one day reach the Brussels periphery should be a major incentive.(1)
The current political context does not allow us to hope that this dream will soon become reality… In the absence of a serious initiative from the political class, it is not forbidden to think that many of our fellow citizens accept, each at their own level, to play a positive role by modifying their diet.
It is simply a matter of reducing one’s meat consumption by choosing to renounce all meat of industrial origin in favor of guaranteed local or regional farm products. Without unbalancing the food budget, it is perfectly realistic to increase the plant-based portion of the diet and to use only animal products of peasant origin (certified organic or not).
We can legitimately ask ourselves how this change in diet can influence the climate in any way. Probably not at all if only a few isolated people make this choice; on the other hand, if by cultural contagion, a significant part of the population adheres to it, the impact can be important to the point of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The focus on the production and consumption of fossil fuels as the main cause of CO2 emissions (the most abundant greenhouse gas) and the focus on high-consumption sectors such as large-scale industry, road transport, electricity production by thermal power plants and heating have resulted in other important or even essential contributions being left in the shade. This is the case of deforestation. Forests sequester CO2; cutting down trees reduces this sequestration. This is also the case with land use change: soils contain large amounts of carbon, and plowing results in the release of this carbon into the atmosphere.
It is therefore understandable that livestock farming, when it uses a diet based on soy and corn, has a necessarily significant impact in terms of CO2 emissions, especially when the crops are grown in deforested areas such as Brazil. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans. The expansion of soy and cattle farming is taking place at the expense of the Amazon rainforest.
Every year, 25,000 km² of forest disappear. Europe imports Brazilian soybeans massively for livestock feed. The European meat consumer, by his choices, weighs directly on the carbon balance of Brazil but also participates in the destruction of the Amazonian forest. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has calculated that livestock farming alone is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is as much as transport(2). These gases are not only CO2 released from deforestation and ploughing, but also methane resulting from the digestion of ruminants and the fermentation of their excrement and finally nitrous oxide (N2O) resulting from the application of nitrogen fertilizers and ammonia emissions. I remind you that methane has an absorbing power that is 23 times that of CO2. For N2O (nitrous oxide) the ratio is 296!
This overall assessment conflates industrial meat production, with confinement of animals to small areas, with land-based livestock production. In the latter case, the farms are open-air poultry and pig farms and pasture-based cattle farms. The impact of soil-based livestock farming on the climate is obviously reduced, if only because it necessarily limits the number of animals, replaces soy with grass from natural meadows, dispenses with chemical nitrogen fertilizers and considerably reduces transport.
For the consumer of rich countries, eating only animal products from peasant farms and renouncing products from meat factories is a daily political act of capital importance for the planet, as the repentant scientist Pierre Hinard reminds us with pertinence and conviction(3). It is a political act that is all the more stimulating because it is pleasant (the taste of the products is incomparably superior) and beneficial for the person who makes it (he will be better off).
We will not forget the moral satisfaction of not contributing to the starvation of Brazilian children and the destruction of the living conditions of the forest peoples. Everyone wins except the agribusiness multinationals.
- E.M.Conway et N.Oreskes, L’effondrement de la civilisation occidentale, éd. Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2014.
- FAO : « Tacking climate change through livestock » — 2013
- Je ne peux qu’inciter vivement le lecteur intéressé à dévorer son essai publié chez Grasset : « Omerta sur la viande » — 2014. Relire aussi le dossier de D.Cauchy et R.Gomez Canca : « 10 bonnes raisons de manger moins de viande. La qualité plutôt que la quantité » ; édité par le Grappe — 2012.