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Why EatReal Is Right for All the Wrong Reasons

Philip+Ackerman-Leist+of+Green+Mountain+College+gave+a+lecture+on+%E2%80%9Creal+food%E2%80%9D+in+April+2013.
Philip Ackerman-Leist of Green Mountain College gave a lecture on “real food” in April 2013.

Philip Ackerman-Leist of Green Mountain College gave a lecture on “real food” in April 2013.

Julia John/The Middlebury Campus

Julia John/The Middlebury Campus

Philip Ackerman-Leist of Green Mountain College gave a lecture on “real food” in April 2013.

By CHARLIE MITCHELL

EatReal distributed a survey to garner support for a proposal to reduce meat in the dining halls by 30 percent by the pound over the next three years. The majority of students approved the plan. It will likely pass through SGA next week.

I support the goals of this proposal with enthusiasm. The methods, however, are all wrong.

To justify the proposed changes, EatReal claims that “animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gases worldwide than the entire transportation sector and is a leading cause of deforestation.”

This sentence is cut straight from “Cowspiracy,” a dramatic documentary that deserves credit for its boldness and intentions (sort of) but, at the end of the day, is sensationalist, oversimplified propaganda that warrants critical examination and perspective.

Why is it obvious they’re drawing from “Cowspiracy” to back this up?

First of all, the use of the term “animal agriculture” is a huge giveaway, because it’s a term popularized by “Cowspiracy” that refers to production of any animal products, including dairy and eggs.

The film’s message is veganist, and if EatReal wasn’t borrowing it, they would say “meat production,” an accurate phrase they use later in their list.

So if we take out the milk and eggs that make up almost 30 percent of livestock sector emissions, meat production’s contribution to climate change is significantly less than “animal agriculture” as a whole. The environmental ramifications of a meat-based diet are indisputably significant. But if we’re going to talk about meat, let’s talk about meat.

Second, the survey’s comparison of animal agriculture’s climate change impacts to the transportation sector is a clear reference to a 2006 FAO report that is a main rally cry of “Conspiracy.” Take the first fact from the documentary’s fact page: “Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.”

In 2013 this report was thoroughly updated and estimates livestock production to be responsible for 14.5 percent of human emissions, and makes no claims comparing sectors.

“Cowspiracy” was released in 2014.

Ignoring the corrections on an outdated, questionable report is not just poor journalism, it’s compromising the truth to make a point, and that is when integrity flies out the window. We can do better research than this.

Not only is this livestock–transportation comparison illegitimate, it’s out of context. “Cowspiracy” uses global estimates from a global organization. These patterns do not hold universally. In the U.S., the EPA reports that transportation is responsible for almost three times the emissions of the entire agricultural sector itself (not even just livestock).

So when it comes to domestic environmental policy, transportation is a much more urgent problem than agriculture itself, much less “animal agriculture,” much less meat production.

Whatever your opinions on “Cowspiracy” are, it should bother you very much that EatReal is quoting it verbatim in this proposal. This group is responsible for advocating with a sophisticated understanding of these issues.

I say again, I am thrilled that Middlebury College is going to buy less industrial meat in favor of smaller producers closer to Addison County. It makes our environment, economy, humans and animals healthier. It’s a slam dunk.

But we need to be clear about why that is, and we need to do better than intimidation and sensationalism — even if it is being used to advance progressive ends.

Supporting an important and perfectly justifiable campaign with false and deceptive information damages the credibility of an entire movement. Let’s continue this work, but let’s be clear, informed and accurate. Otherwise, it inhibits the movement’s progress.

This movement is strong and growing. EatReal is Middlebury’s chapter of Real Food Challenge, a vast network of campuses creating a more just and sustainable food system. This stuff matters: for advancing agendas of social justice, human rights and environmentalism, which are all connected.

Let’s talk about why these issues are connected, and how. Let’s inform ourselves about our food system with sources that respect our dignity. Civil Eats is a great place to start.

1 Comment

One Response to “Why EatReal Is Right for All the Wrong Reasons”

  1. Karen Orr on May 11th, 2017 8:09 am

    The term “animal agriculture” was common long before the documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret” was released.

    Regarding the UN FAO animal ag/climate change numbers:

    https://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/fao-yields-to-meat-industry-pressure-on-climate-change/?_r=0#more-4281

    “FAO’s new activity isn’t entirely a surprise, as its livestock specialists have elsewhere acted to reverse a common perception that a prescription for less livestock was built into their report “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” For example, its lead author and a co-author later wrote to prescribe more factory farming, not less, and no limit on meat.”

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