Tomorrow is a chance for San Franciscans to express gratitude, not only for generous plates of turkey or Dungeness crab, but also to be safe from fires and hazardous smoke. It’s also an opportunity to make a connection between our food and climate change.
For months, members of the Episcopal Diocese of California, which covers the San Francisco Bay Area, have grappled with how to lower their environmental “foodprint.” At the annual Diocesan convention in October, delegates considered a resolution encouraging parishioners to reduce red meat at church events. Proponents asserted meat production from industrialized animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and can cause animal suffering.
“This is one of a zillion ways to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions,” Rev. Sally Bingham, the Canon for the Environment for the Diocese of California, told me. “And it’s better for you and the animals.”
The vote was close, but the resolution didn’t pass. Instead, it prompted a heated debate. Delegates recognized the moral responsibility to care for suffering animals, vulnerable populations impacted by climate change and God’s creation. But, ultimately, they were unwilling to commit to reducing beef consumption.
The decision doesn’t mean the conversation is over. It may take a more time, but Bingham and others believe reducing red meat must happen to keep the planet livable.
According to a United Nations report, livestock represents 14.5 percent of all human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle are the biggest contributor.
They also have other environmental impacts. Not only do cattle need a lot of water, but the United Nations found that 26 percent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing. When combined with other concerns, such as antibiotics misuse and toxins from manure and fertilizer creating oxygen-deprived swaths of the ocean, it’s clear why red meat gets a bad rap.
“I was always interested in animals and their experiences — their suffering and their right to live good lives on this planet” Nicolette Hahn Niman, the delegate from St. Aidan’s in Bolinas, told me. “Thinking about my own role on the planet, I decided I shouldn’t be participating in that.”
Despite marrying the founder of two meat companies, Niman has remained a vegetarian for 30 years. But she’s developed a more nuanced point of view. Now, after decades of studying and advocating for sustainable food systems, Niman is a defender of beef.
This background fueled her strong opposition to the resolution at the convention. Although the final version only called for a reduction, Niman insists it was a beef ban, and introduced a competing resolution. While encouraging mindful food choices, her resolution also states that red meat is a better environmental choice than pork, poultry or fish.
“Pigs, chickens and turkey are omnivores and you have to raise crops and create feed for them,” Niman explained. “Cattle, goats and sheep can go out and live on nothing but grass.”
While not all beef comes from grass-fed cows, it’s true that grazing animals can have environmental benefits. In San Francisco and they Bay Area, goats are often deployed to munch on weeds. Researchers have also found properly managed grazing land can suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil.
Red meat plays other important roles. Iron in beef, for example, can be beneficial to pregnant women. Hamburgers on the Fourth of July and Christmas roasts are beloved traditions. No one should be demonized for bringing beef chili to a church potluck.
But reducing red meat remains critical. To provide copious amounts of beef at cheap prices, too many operations hurt animals, endanger human health and wreak havoc on the planet. No one wins when the true cost of meat gets downplayed, as it often does.
Bingham and others plan to re-introduce the topic at a future Diocesan convention. Rev. Andy Lobban, who also worked on the resolution, believes one-on-one conversations can inform more inclusive language. Ultimately, it’s about nudging the Diocese closer to true environmental stewardship.
“This process has a long arc,” Lobban told me. “I’m not sure we’ll ever be finished.”
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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com