Pescetarian - but hold the dairy?
October 14, 2018 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I know that the modern livestock industry is unsustainable, which is why I follow a pescetarian diet. But if we all stopped eating the animals themselves, and just continued to eat dairy at our current levels, would this still be an unsustainable diet?

I've been slowly working my way to a low-carbon diet, which is now vegetarian (sprinkled with seaweed!) with sardines. In response to articles like this one, however, I'm increasingly scrutinizing the role of dairy in my diet, specifically eggs and Bulgarian yogurt (with the whey).

I know that it's not possible to sustainably and humanely raise enough livestock to feed the world's current demand for meat. But I haven't been able to find any research that's looked into whether the world's current demand for dairy is also unsustainable. If it's just animal products, we should need much less livestock, right? And is it a different story with a chicken product like eggs than with a cow product like yogurt?

If you could link to reputable sources that would be great!
posted by facehugger to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In my country, dairy cattle are raised mostly on grass. (If they get supplemental feed, it's palm kernel expeller mash (ie what's left after palm oil has been extracted from the fruit, which is a whole other environmental issue.)

We have increasing and intractable problems with water quality
, because cattle generate large amounts of urine and shit which manifests as excess nitrogen in waterways and just plain poo.

Most countries are can't grow grass as well as we can here and so have to feed cattle grain or other feed, which is less economic and has a bigger carbon footprint (your corn subsidies in the US are what make that viable there).

When you are dairying you have to do something with the male calves ("bobby calves"). We kill them young and grind them up for pet food. Not sure how that fits in to your "humane" criteria.

Finally ruminant animals are contributors to climate change because they emit methane from their digestive bacteria. Methane is much more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This is also a problem we think about locally.

It is hard for me to imagine a dairy practice that is non polluting and lets animals die a natural death which isn't hugely more costly.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

And is it a different story with a chicken product like eggs than with a cow product like yogurt?

Yes, absolutely. It’s a subtle point that a lot of people miss: dairy production has almost as high scores on total greenhouse gas emissions per calorie produced as beef does, whereas chicken meat is much less, and eggs less so still.

GHG isn’t the only valid metric of course, but he fact that methane is much worse per unit than CO2 in terms of climate change impacts means that bovinw products are generally worse than non-bovine products, with regard to GHG emissions.
posted by SaltySalticid at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

The Cowspiracy website is mostly about meat or all animal products combined, but if you scroll down on the page I linked to, they have links to a few scientific articles specifically about eggs and dairy. If you haven’t watched the movie, I recommend it. I believe it’s still on Netflix.
posted by FencingGal at 1:03 PM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It seems, then, that chicken products are a different story. But is it enough of a different story? Would it be possible/sustainable for all 7 billion people to eat eggs regularly, along with eating less poultry?

I've recently delved into cooking, and friends have started to ask me for dietary advice. I would like to be able to offer advice that is not only scrumptious, but is also actively helpful for the environment. Especially with the IPCC report that just came out...

To not fall into despair, I want my friends and I to do our part to tackle climate change, however small. And increasingly, it seems like dietary choices are not a small part of the problem at all.
posted by facehugger at 2:41 PM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a farm consultant (among other things ) and I can't agree more with
I_am_joe's_spleen, we no longer have many swimmable rivers here in NZ due to (especially) dairy farm expansion. In my region there are 100,000 people and 600,000 cows with a shitting factor approx equal to 3 million people,

If farms are family farms, say 500 cows, they are generally very responsible. But increasingly they are corporate owned by Nestle wtc, and they are awful, awful employers, awful stewards of the land, awful neighbours.
posted by unearthed at 2:49 PM on October 14, 2018 [6 favorites]

Best answer: My understanding was that modern dairy cows are impregnated and only produce milk for about 10 months following a pregnancy only to be impregnated again for a gestation period of about 9 months. Therefore to produce milk, more and more cows are constantly being bred. Those cows are slaughtered early (for food or veal) or raised for larger cuts of beef and more dairy cows. They also of course produce much more waste and require more food. If they weren't being slaughtered they would very quickly rise beyond current levels of livestock - not to mention males don't produce dairy. In the end, dairy directly creates more livestock. (Wikipedia on dairy farming and dairy cattle.)
posted by Crystalinne at 3:28 PM on October 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Would it be possible/sustainable for all 7 billion people to eat eggs regularly, along with eating less poultry?

I think so, actually. A hen at peak laying produces 2 eggs every 3 days. Including less productive periods and the presence of a rooster for every dozen or two hens and you conservatively get an average of 1 egg every 2.5 days per bird. If I'm not wrong with my barely-passed-math math, for 7 billion people to eat an average of 1 egg per day you'd need 17.5 billion chickens. According to google there are currently 19 billion chickens in the world. So if the only chicken meat we eat are roosters and old stewing hens, that means we could feed everybody eggs and accomplish that with fewer chickens than we currently have. And as mentioned above, 17.5 billion chickens would do much less environmental harm than the 1.5 billion cows currently on the planet.
posted by Rust Moranis at 4:14 PM on October 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

It all depends on what you mean by sustainability. Everything is potentially unsustainable. But it depends on supply and demand. Take gasoline, for instance. There has been a lot of weird hand wringing since the idea of peak oil about the sustainability of using fossil fuels. But it almost always seemed to hinge on the notion that petrol fuels would be the relative same price forever and ever, regardless how scarce and costly it becomes to produce. But this doesn't happen. If/when oil becomes prohibitively expensive, consumption drops. In the long run, it's unlikely that we'll run out of petroleum so much as it will be so costly that we'll develop alternatives to using it.

Same goes with meat/dairy/etc consumption, hell, all farming practices. Sure, it's unsustainable, if you assume supply and demand will be disregarded somehow to where we reach a point where we all starve because there's no food left. More likely, if supply and demand create an environment where the meat/dairy industry is in decline, it will likely shrink to the point where it is sustainable. And alternative foods become staples in the way we may regard meat/dairy today.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:16 PM on October 14, 2018

Best answer: This year, the University of Oxford published a massive study on the comprehensive environmental impacts of global food production, surveying almost 40,000 farms and over 1,500 processors. Their conclusion?

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Guardian wrote up a summary in May; the article links to the full study.

Additionally, it's worth exploring the idea of "sustainability." If everyone on earth could eat one egg a day without measurably increasing worldwide temperatures, would that be ok, even if the resulting chicken manure would impact waterways around production facilities drastically? Laying hens and dairy cows are kept in unspeakably cruel conditions. You didn't ask for that info, but you can research it if you're interested. Farm animals are part and parcel of "the environment" and the enormous suffering they carry to produce our food either by their excretions or bodies is an environmental impact in and of itself.

To most, the idea of being vegan is so far outside the realm of normal, particularly when coming from a western diet, it's seen as a distasteful and wacky idea for the privileged. It's easier than people think. You're welcome to Memail me for help, even just for ways to reduce animal consumption, if you're not up for total elimination.
posted by missmary6 at 5:35 PM on October 14, 2018 [9 favorites]

The catchment scale is one way of determining system sustainability. Sustainability has to be based on a real metric (else it's just an empty word) and a viable one is preserving the natural water runoff rate from a catchment. It is my understanding the Berlin Biotope Area Factor acts as a functional metric for both hydrology and plant cover.

When I dig back in my hydrology theory (and look at modern views on that) it appears that if you develop more than 15% of a catchment you are behaving unsustainably - and once a catchment has been changed beyond that 15% it's a VERY hard problem to get back below that figure.

So using a tool like the BAF above, sustainability is almost always negative, which can/could be used to write enabling policy to encourage people to aim for targets, rather than satisfy minimums.

Interestingly I'm getting queries from leading edge organic and innovative farmers where they are wanting to explore this kind of territory.
posted by unearthed at 6:22 PM on October 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

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