In this episode of the Sentient Media Podcast, we meet Nicholas Carter to tackle the myths around animal agriculture.
Nicholas is an ecologist and co-founder of PlantBasedData.org, a library of peer-reviewed articles and summaries on the environmental, health, economic, and zoonotic disease evidence to shift to plant-based diets. He’s recently prepared a scientific report for World Animal Protection, including a contribution to carbon modeling with Navius Research, on the impacts and opportunities with agriculture in Canada.
Nicholas is also on the advisory board of the Eco Cooks Club, an educational program to empower youth to take climate action by connecting how our food choices impact the planet. He’s also helped launch and leads climate communications for a data center that’s part of the Canadian Centre for Climate Services. He was recently a Center for Biological Diversity panelist alongside Dr. Tara Garnett from Oxford University, and a speaker at the launch of the documentary Meat the Future along with the Jane Goodall Institute, the Good Food Institute, and BluNalu. His research during his master’s degree in environmental practice focused on the global greenhouse gas emissions that are attributed to animal agriculture. He’s since written and been interviewed for The New Republic, Plant Based News, Plant Proof, Sentient Media, Forbes, The Globe and Mail, Macleans, and Planet Friendly News. Transitioning to plant-based farming systems has also been a focus where he’s written about regenerative plant farming practices with A-Well-Fed World.
References in this interview:
- Coverage of the Nexus report by Jessica Scott-Reid: https://sentientmedia.org/canadians-meat-dairy-climate-goals/
- Dairy campaign advert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_NII-LL9kw
- Article by Jenny Splitter on Frank Mitloehner, money and miscommunication: https://sentientmedia.org/frank-mitloehner/
- Coverage of Frank Mitloehner in Unearthed and New York Times: https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2022/10/31/frank-mitloehner-uc-davis-climate-funding/ https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/31/climate/frank-mitloehner-uc-davis.html
- George Monbiot’s book, Regenisis: https://twitter.com/georgemonbiot/status/1522851257794318336
- Achieving climate targets in Canada with a shift to plant-based: https://www.worldanimalprotection.ca/news/canadas-2030-climate-targets-are-achievable-if-canadians-move-more-plant-based-diet
- We will not achieve the Paris 1.5 degrees C climate goal without addressing animal agriculture:
- “If global trends in meat and dairy intake continue, global mean temperature rise will more than likely exceed 2° C, even with dramatic emissions reductions across non‐agricultural sectors.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286920313_The_Importance_of_Reducing_Animal_Product_Consumption_and_Wasted_Food_in_Mitigating_Catastrophic_Climate_Change
- Largest meta-analysis on our food system to date looking at over 38,000 farms in 119 countries representing 90% of all foods: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaq0216
- 83% of all agricultural land is used for animal agriculture.
- Shifting entirely away from animal agriculture would free up more than 3 billion hectares of land, equivalent to the continent of Africa.
- As covered here as well: https://ourworldindata.org/meat-production
- Cycling crops through animals at about a 10% conversion rate: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015/meta
- Even the best type of grazing that can draw down some carbon relative to more intensive uses of land, doesn’t offset the methane emissions or other tradeoff environmental concerns: https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/reports/fcrn_gnc_report.pdf
- More myths around Grazing: https://grazingfacts.com/
- Nationwide shift to grass-fed beef requires larger cattle population, emits more methane, and would use far more land than is available: https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/37260135
- Kiss the Ground analysis and podcast: https://plantbasednews.org/opinion/kiss-the-earth-last-ditch-effort-keep-meat-relevant/
- Rewilding documentary and research from Dr. William Ripple https://www.rewildingamountain.com/
- Stock-Free or Veganic Farming: https://sentientmedia.org/farming-for-the-planet/ and https://awellfedworld.org/issues/climate-issues/farming-for-climate/
- “The livestock sector is currently the single major driver of habitat loss and degradation, which is in its turn a leading cause of species decline and extinction worldwide.”
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2530064420300614#bib0085 Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation
- The “past and present processes by which human carnivory threatens the world’s biodiversity makes it arguably the most detrimental aspect of our ecology, from a conservation point-of-view.”
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969715303697 Science of the Total Environment
- Grazing & Biodiversity – Possibly some more birds and insects vs. an intensive feedcrop, but far less than rewilding: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ele.13527 & https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1011013108
- “The livestock sector is currently the single major driver of habitat loss and degradation, which is in its turn a leading cause of species decline and extinction worldwide.”
- Highly paid beef industry academics: https://sentientmedia.org/frank-mitloehner/ https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/31/climate/frank-mitloehner-uc-davis.html
- This study showed doubling the proportion of veg meals offered increases veg sales by between 41%-79%: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1907207116
- Nudge and increase accessibility to plant-based foods: https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/43/2/392/5637580?login=false#.Xeom9b_uTbw.twitter
Find @NicholasDCarter on social:
Ana: Hello, and welcome to the Sentient Media Podcast, where we meet the people who are changing the way we think about and interact with the world around us. Today, I am very excited to have Nicholas Carter, ecologist and co-founder of Plant Based Data. He is a constant myth-buster and long-time contributor and friend of Sentient Media. Today, we’re going to chat about a recent study which directly ties animal agriculture to the climate crisis in Canada. We’re going to bust some myths as Nicholas is known for, and we’re going to hear a few solutions. So hi, Nicholas, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Nicholas: Thanks so much for having me on, and always great to talk with you.
Ana: First things first, I wanted to chat about this recent study from World Animal Protection and energy economy research consultancy Navius, which shows — it had this huge, wonderful headline that said that Canadians should eat less meat and dairy to reach climate goals — and one of the top level figures that the report found was that Canada can cheaply and effectively reach 2030 climate targets if meat and dairy consumption is reduced by just 30 percent, and reach net zero emissions by 2050 if meat and dairy consumption is cut in half. So this, I believe, is the first study to come out that actually acknowledges this direct tie between animal ag and climate crisis in Canada. Is that right?
Nicholas: There’s been studies that have attempted to kind of make that comparison. But this is one of the largest done with a modeling base. And exactly like you said, they looked at 2030 and 2050, and how much reduction in animal-source foods needs to happen to hit certain targets. And there’s a number of interesting findings from the studies, I only contributed a little bit to this portion. But the follow-up portion was a lot more of a bigger picture view that I contributed to. And I think the biggest findings of this one, is this would not impact the economy doing this. Often the narrative is that shifting away from such a large industry, like meat and dairy, may impact the economy. And what this found is actually it did not at all, and it enhanced certain industries — of course, plant protein industries. One thing that is not necessarily in the study — but this is something that I’ve seen in my research — Canada is the world’s largest producer of lentils, but the majority of it is exported away. And of course, if we consumed a bit more of it, it’d be better for our health, would be better for the planet, we would shift away from these damaging industries that are contributing significantly to not only greenhouse gases, but biodiversity loss, land use, fresh water use, and so on. So, yeah, there’s never a good finding from the studies but I think one of the biggest ones is showing that there’s a pathway that does not affect the economy. There’s, of course, ways that we can shift livelihoods in a just manner that contributes work to other new sectors. And at the same time, we can reduce greenhouse gases and help achieve targets. And the last thing that I’ll say is, if we don’t do that, we won’t even come close to hitting the 1.5 Paris Agreement goal. There’s been numerous studies globally and nationally that have looked at how we need to do this transformational change, to even come close to hitting this greenhouse gas goal. And without addressing the food sector, we won’t even come close.
Ana: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I know that there is a follow-up study coming out. Can you tell us anything to expect from that study that hasn’t been released yet — the follow-up part?
Nicholas: So this is a lot of the stuff that I talk about overall. So if you look at anything I’m posting on Twitter, on Instagram, these are just findings related to the numerous studies that come out, urging us to shift our food toward plant-based, urging us to address this sector for a number of reasons. So I looked at that from a global context, and then I compared that a bit to the Canadian situation. And luckily, what’s already happened to Canada has happened in other countries, too —these national food guides, they’re changing. So in Canada a couple years ago —this is mostly nutrition related — but they changed their entire national food guide to remove dairy. They urge mostly plant-based, they urge plant proteins — like proteins, it’s a category instead of the typical meat category that it was before. And — important to know — I’m not naive, not everyone follows these national food guides. They’ve been in place for a number of things — but these help guide policy, these help guide what’s in schools, what’s in hospitals, and it’s a legislated document that can be used to urge this. And this was mostly just from the nutritional standpoint. They didn’t have industry input like they had in previous guides, and instead they looked at what the science showed, they looked at a number of findings from the group EAT-Lancet, and what they’re recommending to achieve nutrition goals. And it would be a big one, environmentally, of course, too.
Ana: What’s been the response to this study so far from the industries that might feel threatened by it?
Nicholas: It’s not really much different than the typical mess you see when there’s an expressed urgency to shift to plant-based. There is the myth that all land needs to have cattle, or at least grassland needs cattle to graze in order to maintain its healthy state. There is this myth that if we do this shift, people will not have proper nutrition. I’ll leave that to many other people to discuss, of course, it’s not my expertise. But I’ve seen enough of the science to say that, of course, we can absolutely thrive on a plant-based diet. There is this false dichotomy of thinking that plant-based diets equals monocultures and industrial chemical use, when in reality, what we know and what we see from all the science is: The vast majority of cropland that is very intensively produced is feed crops for confined animals. If you look at some of the biggest crops like corn or soy, upwards of 80 percent of all global corn and soy is specifically grown to feed animals. And it’s not like this is then fed to animals, and then perfectly turns that same amount of calories and protein into meat, of course — these are functioning animals. So during the process of feeding them over the course of a year or two, they’re going to get bigger, you lose a lot of those calories. So I’ve been pretty vocal about food waste — we need to address food waste from many different angles. It’s a major problem. But one of the biggest sources of food waste would be the amount of food we’re producing that otherwise would be human-edible, feeding it to farm animals and returning on average about 10 percent back in calories. It’s a bit higher for protein, maybe about 30 percent, it depends per animal, depends how big the animal is. But that’s about the average of what you get back. So you’re seeing about a 90 percent loss right away in terms of food waste, and that’s additional land wasted, additional water wasted, that we don’t need to do. So, that’s kind of what’s happening, at least in terms of the typical narrative. We can get into the discussion of whether cattle are needed on land or not too, because this is such an important point that keeps coming up.
Ana: Yeah, for sure. And before we go on to that, though, I feel like one of the issues that we come up against a lot at Sentient Media, when we’re talking about studies, and we’re talking about research, and we’re talking about statistics, is everybody always seems to have a different study with a different number that backs up a different argument, when it comes to the role of animal agriculture in climate crisis in particular. I mean, do you have any insight into why this is? This is what you’re doing at Plant Based Data, is you’re getting into the root and into the breakdown of what statistics mean — and what statistics we should be looking at? I mean, what’s your thoughts on why the number, why the percentage of greenhouse gases emitted from animal agriculture is so contentious? Why is there so much argument around it?
Nicholas: Yeah. To your first point, I think globally we have an unlimited amount of information right now. And I don’t think our personal critical analysis skills have improved. We’re instead inundated with a massive amount of information, so people can pick and choose what narrative they want. And what people typically use to see what’s true is something that fits their own behavior, something that doesn’t need a difficult change. So there’s that. There’s also the lack of access to peer-reviewed research, some poor communication in studies too, so l think that’s important. Some of these studies are just not created for the general public to understand. So this is partly why we created Plant Based Data. It’s all open access. There’s thousands and thousands of peer-reviewed studies on there that look at the environmental impact of food, the health impact, the zoonotic disease and pandemic risk, and the economic and policy implications. So this is stuff that we’ve compiled over many years, with a small team, just to kind of make that first step easier for people that want to dig into the research, journalists that want to report on it, anyone that wants quick access to something that they can see that this is not just cherry-picked information. This is scientific consensus, this is what we see is something we need to do, especially in the food place, but also the wider environmental, and different crises we have going on. So this kind of came about — to the second part of your question — it came about during my thesis work that looked specifically at the topic of the varying greenhouse gas estimates for animal agriculture. They vary from, you know, 5 percent if it’s like a national number, like the EPA in the States, but globally about 14.5 percent to 51 percent, and there’s even 87 percent figures for estimates of greenhouse gases to animal agriculture. So when I first started my master’s degree, before I even really embarked on this research — I was not plant-based, I was not vegan — I came across a couple of case studies on the topic. And at the time, I planned on focusing most of the master’s degree on solar panels, wind farms, more biomedical technology. And I still think those are important, but I just thought that there’s a whole other piece to the story that isn’t being told — also has all kinds of opportunities — that we should be focusing on to help shift to the way we need to shift to. So I narrowed that down — my thesis work at the time — on finding out what is a good estimate for greenhouse gases. And I published some of those findings, of course, with you at Sentient Media. And there’s not a definite number, I’m still not 100 percent sure on that, because there’s so many variables. I would even probably change some of the things that were written on it, knowing more, at the time. So I’m happy to do some updates on that, by the way. But with environmental action as a whole — if I can kind of sum it up a little bit quickly there — you can use different metrics to tell the story you want to tell. So if you just focus on carbon dioxide, you don’t look at methane, you don’t look at nitrous oxide, you don’t look at land use, then you can make just about any industry, outside of maybe fossil fuels, look pretty good — look like it’s not a huge impact. But if you look at these other greenhouse gases, like methane, nitrous oxide, how land is used, and how if we use land intensively it might take away from the opportunity to draw down lots of carbon, then when you look at these other factors, you can see that something like food — where it’s contributed the most to deforestation since the agricultural revolution, has displaced the most wildlife, has displaced major carbon sinks, ecosystems — then you can kind of see that, okay, this is a big part of the picture. So I looked at that kind of initial 14.5 percent FAO figure, saw there’s all kinds of holes in it. And it’s not surprising This was funded by the Meat Secretariat, this was funded by animal agriculture industry as a whole. That’s not to say there’s not lots of good things in there, because there is, but the number didn’t include the opportunity to draw down carbon, when you free up this land from grazing, when you free up this land from feed crops. It didn’t include the severe impacts of methane that we’re seeing to the level it should, didn’t include all feed crops, used references from the 90s — so there’s all kinds of issues with it. So, you know, I made an attempt to put it in more of a range of what I think it is, and I think it’s probably somewhere between probably 25 percent to maybe as high as 40 percent, but something like that. I can’t have an exact number on it, because I don’t know exactly what that is. Because there’s all kinds of variables with the carbon drawdown numbers, we see different ecosystems draw down different amounts, depending on all kinds of scenarios. But I think it’s safe to say if you value methane properly, include some carbon drawdown, that numbers are higher than 14.5 percent.
Ana: Yeah, and just the mere fact of not including the feed crops, to me, that’s like — even if we’re not even thinking about what could happen to the soil or the drawdown, things like that — just thinking about — how are we going to calculate the impact of these 80 billion land animals without thinking about what they’re eating? It just seems, it seems…
Nicholas: It’s so common too. Feed crops, often In these kind of food analyses, feed crops is just looped in with cropland. And even there’s a recent study that looked at this that showed cropland grazing and you have to separate that out. Because you have to look at the industry as a whole. And where these crops are going. And something like soy, we see that only 6 percent of soy globally is going to human-edible food, like tofu and things like that. So it’s such a small percentage.
Ana: Yeah, right. One of our Canadian reporters, Jessica Scott Reed, covered the release of this study for us. And she highlighted that since June, in Canada, there’s been this commercial that has been airing 24/7 paid for by the dairy farmers of Canada. And this commercial basically just talks about how — I’ll put a link to it — I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it just talks about how hard-working the Canadian dairy industry, farmers are, how they take care of the land and how they are all in to cut the environmental impact of dairy. Have you seen that advert? By any chance?
Nicholas: I don’t think I have but it sounds like it’s all looped in with the other dairy ads that I’m seeing. Right?
Ana: Exactly. And three areas of solutions, the three solutions that they propose are: one, crop rotation, two, solar energy, and three, dairy industry biodiversity protections. I was just wondering what your thoughts are on those three proposals from the dairy industry.
Nicholas: It’s ridiculous. Cover crops is a good one. Cover crops is something that is a part of conservation agriculture, has been for millennia. It helps prevent soil erosion especially. Doesn’t do a ton for carbon drawdown. But the less soil erosion you have, the better. Solar panels is good. But the actual fossil fuel energy use of food and agriculture is a very small part of the actual total footprint of food. With dairy, with all food, generally, the biggest sources of environmental issues come from methane, which is predominantly from cows, from dairy cows, from beef cows, probably upwards of about 89 percent of all methane from food comes from ruminants more widely. So with methane, deforestation, land use, these are the things that cause most of the greenhouse gas impacts. And then the wider environmental issues — runoff would come from maybe not using cover crops, for example, not protecting that erosion, but often agriculture far over-applies manure, even synthetic fertilizers they overuse, and a lot of it’s just washed away into waterways, causing dead zones and eutrophication. So this is where you see a lot of the issues. Putting up solar panels, as much as that’s a good thing, that’s not the focus they should be having. And probably the most laughable part of that is the biodiversity claim. Biodiversity, by far, is way higher off any agricultural land, including cropland, including grazing land, everything. There’s been a number of studies that perhaps we can link in this to show that biodiversity is far higher off agricultural land. And what we see is, the biggest driver of biodiversity loss globally, any industry that humans are a part of, it’s animal agriculture. And the reason is a lot of land that’s being converted to feed crops, a lot of land that’s being converted to intensive grazing and even sparse grazing still fences out wildlife, still prevents that natural interaction between native animals and predators, even on a protected area of land. So to increase some biodiversity on say, a dairy farm, like what are you talking about? You might be increasing a couple of insects, maybe you might be increasing some maybe small wildlife that doesn’t affect their business. But that’s not the kind of biodiversity we need to address to address the biodiversity crisis. It’s the larger mammals, it’s even some land for predators like wolves to return to where they natively were before, even ruminants on grasslands where they’re native, bring that on and have some protected land and that would be far better than attempting to graze cattle in a way that mimics that, because it’s been shown study after study that that’s just not at all the same. So yeah, that biodiversity claim is pretty ridiculous.
Ana: Yeah, it’s kind of similar to this idea of cherry-picking which aspects of emissions you want to measure in order to come up with a number, like 5 percent or 14.5 percent. They’re saying that yeah, maybe they introduced one or two more insects and that counts as biodiversity. Another issue that we’re skirting around here is regenerative agriculture, which of course has been — it’s getting a bit of a spotlight, it has had a bit of a spotlight this year and last year, with “Kiss the Ground,” your favorite documentary, and George Monbiot’s “Regenesis,” which came out earlier this year, and I’ve been noticing it a lot trending in Google and just little upticks. It’s not huge, by any means. And a lot of people — the average person probably still doesn’t know what it is. Could you explain what regenerative agriculture is? And perhaps dig into a little bit about why the protection of soil is so important?
Nicholas: Yes, okay. Happy to. It’s entirely like a buzzword, there’s really a lack of definitions of exactly what regenerative agriculture means. But from what we see over the last five years, especially, regenerative agriculture has come to mean using cover crops, which I think is great. Not tilling, or, you know, minimal tilling on the land. Also, I think that’s great. Other conservation agricultural methods, like perhaps apply more compost to your land. Also, I think that’s great. And some of that stuff was featured in “Kiss the Ground” and I was supportive of that. I think that’s great — things we should shift to get away from this kind of industrial agriculture. But the more niche that is dominating the conversation though, with regenerative agriculture, the idea that we need cattle to repair land, holistic grazing, came about from Allan Savory, his TED Talk, maybe almost 10 years ago now. This is not backed by a whole lot of science. This, immediately when you integrate animals into an otherwise conservation-agriculture-type farm, you’re going to massively increase the land use, you’re going to increase the resources, you’re going to produce less food, too. So this is where it starts getting a bit sketchy. this narrative. A big part of regenerative agriculture is also enhancing biodiversity. And, same to what I just mentioned before — compared to what? Are you enhancing the biodiversity more than the native land before, because you wouldn’t be, even the best form — even plant agriculture — is not a biodiversity solution. But with plant agriculture you free up so much land — upwards of 3 billion hectares of land, which is the size of the continent of Africa, is what you could free up in this hypothetical scenario where we all shifted to plant-based. So you’d free up that land to rewilding, right? And that’s where you would see the major biodiversity benefits. Regenerative agriculture also includes organic farming, so it wouldn’t use as many synthetic fertilizers. It would use some because some organic farming still uses some fertilizers, but less, and generally, I think that’s good. But the thing with the organic label is often that means manure instead of synthetic fertilizers. And that’s not always a beneficial switch. The best form of organic farming by far would be stock-free organic farming, which would be — veganic farming would be another name for it. I tend not to use the term veganic farming as much because often a lot of these farmers that are shifting to this form of farming are not doing it for ethical reasons, they’re doing it because they don’t want to bring in as many inputs from off-farm. They don’t want to bring in manure, they don’t want bring in synthetic fertilizers, they just want to use mulch and compost that they’ve created on the land, from food waste or from waste on the farm. So this is something that is at least achievable on a smaller scale. And, you know, debatable whether it’s scalable to the level to feed the world, I think there would need to be some kind of industrial compost facilities to help that. But that wouldn’t be unachievable if you redress some of the food waste around the world, 30 percent of all food is wasted. Some of that could be composted into helping create stock-free soil. So I think that’s where I’d like to see the regenerative agriculture narrative go — is towards this scenario. But with the corporate investments in regenerative ranching especially, General Mills, some of the biggest companies in the world, are investing in regenerative agriculture as this way to get a social license to greenwash, essentially. There’s these farms that are certified by the Savory Institute, like White Oak Pastures — there’s been study after study that shows that this would use far more land. It’s not carbon neutral, even though their marketing materials are saying that they might even be carbon negative. So this is kind of what regenerative agriculture is at the moment. And I don’t think this is going to go away, anyways it’s not going to go away anytime soon, because this is the way for big animal agriculture to be seen as something that is eco-friendly, because they need to shift that narrative, because they see the pressure.
Ana: So say the big animal ag groups — like JBS and Tyson, etc. — obviously, they cannot switch their operations to regenerative ag because they wouldn’t be able to produce enough animals, right? But do you feel like it’s just a byproduct — that people will then associate meat with an organic label or whatever, even though we know that the labeling is completely wrong? Is that the feeling? Is that why big animal ag is so invested in regenerative agriculture, even though financially, presumably, and actually in terms of production, it won’t be as profitable? Or are there huge subsidies going into it? I guess I’m struggling — I can see some idea of how they stand to gain from it as a byproduct of this kind of narrative shift. But is there something I’m missing there?
Nicholas: No, I think you’re spot on there, this is not something they’re going to be able to shift their whole operations to, because they would just produce far less food, the yield would be substantially lower. And assuming they have goals to reduce their methane — which most of them don’t — most of them are trying to do the same thing as that dairy commercial — most of them are saying they’re putting solar panels on their slaughterhouses. And saying that this is eco-friendly. So the amount of meat they’ll produce will be far less. And just like you said, with labels too — the labels are a way to kind of create confusion, really, because there’s little regulation on this in terms of whether something is actually regenerative. I would love to see more science-based labels to know where food comes from — more transparency of supply chains, I think this is needed across the board with all food. You know, there’s very little food now that’s flown to different places. Most food travels by truck or boat, which is far better, of course. But I would like to know if there’s a certain piece of produce that came in by plane, because that would be a much higher footprint., and I’d probably avoid that. But there’s just very little transparency, and they would be playing on the lack of transparency to help sell some more food. And I think you and I wouldn’t have done a number of podcasts or writing on regenerative agriculture, if it included the strict narrative of: We need to massively reduce animal-source foods first, and for what’s left, let’s do it in this way. I think that would be a fine narrative. There are some, still issues with that, because methane would still increase with this. But if we’re producing far less animal-source foods then it would still have been a net positive, I think, but that’s not at all what’s happening here. You don’t see anyone advocating for regenerative ranching saying that, and instead they’re saying that the plant-based narrative is flawed. And it’s, you know, from Bill Gates, or it’s all these conspiracies that are coming about with the need to shift to plant-based. And I think that’s coming about because they’re feeling pressure, because plant-based industry, and people shifting their habits — there is positive trends in this way, and especially with dairy, people are shifting away from dairy in a major way.
Ana: Yeah, absolutely. So there are a couple of other narratives that we’re hearing that go alongside the regenerative, and one is carbon credits and the idea of carbon credits being a great solution to animal agriculture and big ag. Do you have any thoughts on if carbon credits are problematic and what you think on them?
Nicholas: Right now, I think they’re very problematic, because there’s not a whole lot of regulation in terms of what’s a science-based way of crediting companies with these carbon credits. So right now, you see some of the biggest emitters in the world, some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, investing in these carbon credit schemes to offset their emissions. I mean, I think this is terrible. They first need to reduce all their emissions. And then for whatever is left that we really can’t shift away from it as a society — like say we still want to support long haul flights, things like that, where there’s really no alternative and certainly connecting family members, you know, not luxury travel necessarily, but things that would be good for lifestyle, for social well-being, things like that — perhaps there’s some offsetting there that would be beneficial. But to offset an industry that — all the IPCC reports are saying we need to stop all new oil and gas, we need to stop this intensive energy — to then try to offset that and pretend like that’s the solution, I think that’s a major issue. And then with the whole regenerative agriculture movement, you have these claims with grazing, that some forms of grazing can store carbon. And what’s happening there is, you’d have a previous intensive use of land, perhaps it’s a monoculture of crops, they’re then letting that land rest a bit, and then putting some grazing on there that’s maybe a mob grazing type, which is not quite as intensive, they can move around — you’re going to see a slight improvement to the land. But what these carbon credit systems are not doing is they’re not factoring in the methane that’s emitted from these cows. And study after study has shown that it’s far from offsetting the methane increase there. So there should not be any benefit for any little bit of carbon stored when you’re still net increasing methane. And over the next 20 years especially, reducing methane is our biggest opportunity to see atmospheric effects quickly. We still need to bring CO2 to as low as possible, but even if we bring CO2 to zero tomorrow, we’re not going to see atmospheric effects for 100 years, because that’s how long it lasts in the atmosphere. So we should reduce both, but methane, if we reduce that to near zero now, then, within 10, 20 years we could possibly not hit these kinds of feedback loops, climate feedback loops that are really going to make the world not as liveable, essentially.
Ana: So one of the other solutions to the methane problem is seaweed — feeding cows seaweed. And I’ve seen quite a few pieces come out on this, this year in particular. So forgetting about if you care about cows being sentient and blah, blah, blah, just thinking technically, if we fed all the cows that we eat seaweed, would we be able to mitigate climate crisis?
Nicholas: This is a pervasive narrative. Not only is it logistically not possible because so much cattle is being reared in areas that are so far away from where seaweed is produced, so there’s that. Where the truth comes from that, is there were some studies that showed that if you kind of integrate seaweed into some of the feed that cattle on feedlots are eating, then they were showing that there was a slight decrease in methane, and this was from a chemical called bromoform, and this is an ozone-depleting chemical. There’s more research on it needed, if that would cause issues to the ozone layer later, but let’s say it doesn’t. There’s a few other issues with this. Cows don’t like the taste of seaweed, so they need to really mix that in so there’s not much of a taste. A lot of cows spend most of their lives, at least the first year or so, on pasture. It’s often to fatten them up before slaughter where they’re in a feedlot — intensive feedlots — and you don’t have a pasture. This doesn’t mean it’s like a lush, beautiful pasture. Some of these are still not great places for cows to live out their short lives, but still, there’s not a solution to feed them when they’re just out eating grass, right. So this is really only in the feedlot scenario. So when you factor all that in, you’re really only going to reduce methane emissions by a few percent. So what that could in turn end up doing is make it seem like the industry has figured out the methane issue with cows. And that’s of course, how the narrative is being played. That all you need to do is feed them some seaweed, and we can reduce methane by as much as 90 percent. This is what people are saying in the media, but even looking at the original studies, that’s not what the original studies were even saying — it was saying for a particular area. There is some credible, although probably still industry-related research behind this study that wasn’t even saying the extreme situations that are coming up the media, and I’m sure if we wait a month or two, we’re going to see another story that comes out about seaweed. It’s like it’s in cycles, where it hasn’t been mentioned for a while so let’s try this — magazines shift the wording a bit and if you track the money behind all this I’m sure you could trace it to different beef associations, major companies like JBS, Cargill, but it’s probably hidden behind — different ways you hide money being transferred around. So I think there’s a really big narrative there too, to greenwash essentially.
Ana: Yeah, absolutely. There are a couple of other trends that we’ve noticed in this year in particular, which I’d love to get your take on — trends that have been coming out in the media and I think are also part of this, like you say, this loop of just keeping it coming out, likely to be funded by those who stand to gain. So there’s there’s three trends here that I’ve done, I’ve highlighted. The first one is local food versus imported food.
Nicholas: This is one of the biggest things you think of when you — if someone who’s never approached this topic, never looked into it, you would probably think, and I think I even thought this before, too, that if you eat local, no matter what it is, you’re going to be eating more environmentally friendly. So because intuitively it kind of makes sense, because we’re all told that by far the biggest and almost the only focus of the environmental movement should be CO2 from energy. So if you only look at that metric, then of course, that would look like it’s probably a good move. But when you just dig in a little bit into the research around that, you can see that for certain foods especially, transportation is such a small part of the overall greenhouse gas footprint. Looking at beef, it’s 1 percent of the total greenhouse gas footprint of beef. So eating local beef really doesn’t matter. Especially environmentally, anytime I talk about this topic, it really fires people up because — I get it — this is farmers next door, this is your community. There’s other reasons, of course, to support locally — you probably would be able to know how the food is grown. If you support locally, this is your local economy too. So I understand that. I’m not minimizing that. But the big narrative, of course, is to buy local food. And that’s just not a situation we should be focusing our policy on, we shouldn’t be focusing personal changes on that. Because it’s very little — looking at the wider scheme of all food, it’s about 10 percent of all the footprint of food is from transportation. So we should instead be looking at what reduces deforestation, what is less greenhouse gas intensive overall. And that’s plant foods. What reduces the chance of manure runoff, synthetic fertilizer runoff, damaging waterways, what causes biodiversity loss? And science is clear on that, there’s scientific consensus, from the IPCC, from some of the biggest institutions in the world that have looked at this topic from as unbiased a lens as possible. And that’s shifting as much as possible plant-based. And, you know, this wasn’t welcome information for me, when I was eating the traditional kind of American diet. It’s, of course, I’m aware that this is a difficult thing to do. And, you know, food is culture, right? Food is like, upbringing, food you share with people. So that’s difficult, I get it. But I think we should still be prepared to know what’s true, to be okay with information that might be against our personal bias. And the more you’re equipped with what’s true, then you can work through the other things of where you want to go — do you want to fully go vegan and do you want to eat as plant-based as possible? Do you want to perhaps, eat vegan at home, and maybe you’re not gonna eat that out, there’s all kinds of different ways you can do this. I just decided to try to for 30 days, like, full on and it was little bit difficult doing it like that, but I took the time ahead of time, at the time, to really learn about the benefits of it. And part of what makes me stick to it — I’ve been vegan for seven years now — is probably beyond the environmental side, of course, I learned a bit more, but the ethical side, the health side, and once you learn about the multiple different things that this can help address, then it’s, it’s almost like — that’s the way to go. And you just need to help people understand in a way that is approachable to them. Because a lot of people — this would be a very triggering topic to talk about and can bring out kind of emotional responses. But it doesn’t need to. I think we can get better at communicating it.
Ana: Yeah, for sure. And that’s another piece of work that I feel is being done right now is actually changing this all-o-nothing type narrative from the vegan community in the animal rights space, this historic argument that you have to go vegan, you have to be 100 percent. You can’t have, you know, honey or alcohol or all of these things. I think that relaxing and actually just cutting out, you know, one meat-based meal a week is a great step and great progress, and you should be very happy to start that journey. So obviously we focus a lot on the media, at Sentient media — we focus a lot on the narratives and what’s being picked up, what kind of pitches our writers are sending out to mainstream publications. Do you have any sense of why the media is resistant to covering animal agriculture’s impact on the climate crisis? We did this study back in 20 — oh, gosh, 2019/2020. And aviation was reported on in Covering Climate Now — the group of 400 publications — aviation was reported on 120 times more than animal agriculture, despite only accounting for, you know, 2.5 to 5 percent. So do you have any sense of why the media is resistant to this topic? Or do you feel that they’re getting more accepting of it? Do you feel that there is a shift happening? What are your thoughts?
Nicholas: Yeah, I don’t really have an answer to that. Because I don’t know for sure why. I suspect it’s probably related to a number of factors. One certainly has to be that there is strategic financial investment into academics, into writers to write these stories that are so clearly not researched. Well, saying things like: See, we reduced this methane’s impact by 90 percent — barely even reading the original study that was based on, not even citing much research, but then kind of recycling this narrative over and over. That’s just not one person’s goal to do that, I think this is more of a coordinated effort to do that. So certainly, if you follow I think the money to this reporting, you can trace it back to industry narratives and attempting to avoid the shift to a new industry, right, that might impact them. So I think that’s part of it. I think politically, I think it’s begun, it’s become a little bit better over time. You can see different politicians a bit more outspoken about the need to eat less meat. Before even six, seven years ago, I think that was even more so a very — something political you cannot say because of a number of factors. The lobby groups for politicians, though, still, that’s such a huge part of why people get voted in, especially in typically rural areas, is these major companies. These aren’t small farms, these are major animal agriculture conglomerates that influence lobbying, influence politicians, to keep this narrative going. There’s a story that would — a couple days ago, from Unearthed and Greenpeace, I don’t know if you saw it, but it was specific to Dr. Frank Mitloehner. I won’t be able to go into it all right now, but people should definitely take a look at this, because people claim this is a hit piece on him that this was not well researched. But I’ve been following this person’s work for probably about four years. And it’s about as biased as it comes in terms of just looking to greenwash animal agriculture through an academic lens. And then that filters down into media, that filters down into policy. I know in fact, in the United States, he’s blocked some positive legislation that would have been beneficial for a shift to plant-based. And, I mean, you can look at this guy’s Twitter feed to see just how kind of biased it is, of course, so that, that’s good reporting to point out this misinformation. I would say that that kind of claim to be a hit piece — it also needs to have a balanced take, I think, probably maybe a bit more than it was it needs to also shift the reader into: “Okay, well, what are the solutions?” How do we then, if this person is so clearly paid by, JBS, Cargill and so on, has people on his research board specifically doing that narrative, then what, where is the solution we go to? Because people, with environmental action, they feel overwhelmed, they don’t feel empowered, they don’t feel like they have the tools to do this. Part of my work before was in communications and there’s clearly a communication issue. We can’t just continue attacking the worst industries — oil and gas, animal agriculture, the plastic industry and so on. We need to look at the solutions too. So, roundabout way of answering but there’s other, of course, influences with media that have got it to the point where it is now. And you would probably know more than I would on that. But you know, I’d be interested to know what you think. Why is — in your experience doing this for so long — why are major media outlets shying away from what the IPPC and some of the biggest institutions are saying is the scientific consensus?
Ana: Yeah, I think that you’re right, I think you’ve touched on all of the points there that I would touch on as well. And I also think that perhaps there’s something at play of just — often it’s not news, like it’s not always attached to a news trend or news story, or it’s not something that we can really like, reveal is like breaking news, you know what I mean? So I feel that that might have something to do with it as well. But with that piece you were just referencing in the New York Times, they actually linked to an article that Jenny Splitter our managing editor had written for Undark before, and actually the number that she got to in terms of the dark money found now, it’s way larger than then she was able to report on so we’re publishing a piece today that’s her response and follow-up. I’ll put all of those links.
Nicholas: I really appreciate how she tries to be as unbiased as possible on this topic. And I catch myself sometimes, because I’m passionate about this. And I’ll say things that — you know, there’s probably a bit more nuance to what I say. But anyone can just know that I want to get things right and I’m happy to admit when I was wrong, too. But yeah, that type of reporting that you’re all doing, at Sentient Media, it’s phenomenal. And I think it’s leading to bigger publications like The New York Times running these pieces. So I think that’s something you should really be proud of.
Ana: Thank you. Yeah — it’s definitely our mission to be a part of changing this conversation around animal agriculture. And I think that leaning into the environmental reporting side of things is such a great way in, because there is so much data, there is so much science, and there are so many people like yourself, who are working and doing the hard work of uncovering these real studies and trying to get to the bottom of the actual statistics. We’re running out of time. I told you before we started, I have 19 pages of questions for you. So I’m having to skip over some of these. I think we’ll we’ll definitely do a part two at some point. But just to finish off, I would love to hear your thoughts on the solutions that we’re touching on. Are you thinking rewilding, are you thinking alt protein, cultivated meat? What do you think are the solutions?
Nicholas: So I think it depends which lens you look at. If you look at policy, I think one of the biggest things that are relatively easy right now to get political support on is — it’s really nudge behavior. So it’s increasing the availability of plant proteins, plant-based alternatives, ensuring that the options provided at restaurants, but especially schools, hospitals, government facilities are quality, tasty plant-based options, because there’s tons of it out there. And I think that will make a big difference. Because it’s gotten way better over the last four or five, six years, but it’s still not anywhere close to where it should be. Especially in these kinds of very influential places, like schools, there should be no reason for dairy to even be in schools. And yet, dairy is funding a lot of these food programs. So I think that’s one of the easier changes we need to see. You know, there needs to continue to be more education around this topic, more continued education on critical analysis, how to determine if something is true. That’s wider than just this topic, of course. But in this age of social media and unlimited information people really need to know how to determine whether something is true or not on their own — and, you know, just determine whether something is a good piece of evidence to help change your mind on something. So I think that’s a good solution there. Rewilding is the huge one, when we shift more to plant-based diets, and we protect land and rewild it, it shows that we’re going to draw down all kinds of carbon, we’re going to increase the biodiversity that we need to. There was a recent study that showed the carbon opportunity costs of shifting away from animal-source foods, and it showed that by 2050, if we shift to plant-based diets, that we would draw down the equivalent of 9 to 16 years of fossil fuel-related emissions. So this is huge. And I think with looking at all these kinds of solutions, any of these kind of proposed solutions should not take away from the others. We still need to massively decarbonize our energy system, we need to get away from this kind of massive consumption, luxury lifestyle — it’s just not something that’s scalable to the whole world, so we need to get away from that. I think a huge solution is having an equity lens with all this — all these climate change impacts, all these environmental impacts are going to be first felt most from poor regions of the world, racialized regions of the world. So this is a major issue. And it’s an issue for everyone like myself living in rich areas of the world that are comfortable living good lives. I think we need to look at that bigger picture and see that there’s a lot of people are already being affected by this and will continue to be affected over the coming years if we don’t do something. The media plays a big role in solutions. There’s a number of documentaries, of course, are out, that are increasingly having a good scientific lens to it, but also telling a story that really helps create a movement. If you think of the last few weeks, there was soup being thrown on artwork, and there was milk being poured out. Obviously, that’s creating a huge conversation about that — some people are for, some people are against it. I’m a huge supporter of activism, I think peaceful activism really gets that conversation going. Ultimately, when you have such huge institutions, government, business that are not changing, despite the scientific consensus that we need to have transformative change, activism is a way to say “No, we’re not going to put up with this.” So I would love to see way more scientists that are activists. Peter Kalmus comes to mind, he is a scientist with the credentials that works for NASA, and he’s also an activist. And I think this is very important. Yet on the food and farming side of veganic farming, I think this is something that we should continue looking at. I’m working on contributing to a study right now that looked at stock reforming at a place in Canada, that has been measuring the carbon drawdown on that farm, but also just the amount of land it frees up farming this way, in terms of how much yield you can produce growing in this way. So I think this should increasingly be part of the regenerative agriculture narrative that we’re seeing. Because this is indeed one of the best kind of conservation, eco-friendly ways of farming. And at the same time, it frees up all kinds of land to rewild. So it’s a win-win.
There’s all kinds of more solutions too. The food guides — I think that’s a big one. That kind of goes in with increasing the abundance of plant-based foods. But if we can continue to shift food guides. that can help shift what’s available, it can hopefully help shift subsidies, which is a gigantic issue, and also a difficult thing to shift. But we’re seeing that in Canada, they’re saying choose protein foods that come from plants more oft. I looked at all the different countries that have been changing their guides and Sweden, they’re saying eat less meat, even in Brazil, of all places, which is like the dominant area for cattle and beef deforestation, tropical deforestation. The Brazilian government is, in their food guide, they’re saying choose diets based on a variety of foods of plant origin now, so this is amazing to see. And, you know, there’s political change there now too. So hopefully there should be far less deforestation in Brazil. So also, one thing I do for my work is I’m advisory to a group called EcoCooks in B.C., just a small group that does plant education for kids and youth, learning how to cook plant-based foods. So this is such a small thing, but learning how to cook delicious, plant-based foods as young as possible — I think this is an amazing thing. And so that’s why I want to support them in terms of not only that, but including some environmental education at the same time, and why this is a good kind of empowering thing for youth to consider. Because there’s so many things — especially young people, they don’t have influence on a lot of people, a lot of young people can’t vote depending on their age, depending on where you are in the world — but you can certainly vote with what you’re eating three times a day. Given certain family situations, maybe not, but you can certainly try, and you can learn to do that. So I think if there’s a better education to help people know how to cook delicious whole-food, plant-based meals, how to incorporate some of these amazing new plant-based product, I think this is a good grassroots way of solving this issue?
Ana: Yeah, absolutely. I think the summation of that is there is no one solution, there is no one way forward. But it’s a selection of all of these things working together to push us more towards a plant-based diet. And I definitely feel that Sentient Media — our mission to support and encourage public buy-in for these transitions, that’s got to be core to our mission — if we manage to engage the public to actually start questioning and being curious about these things and we’re there with fact-based, science-based, peer-reviewed information and studies to help educate people without judgment. I feel that that’s definitely a part of this journey. Nicholas, it has been amazing to talk to you, I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone. I so appreciate you coming on. Is there anything that we should be looking out for coming out from you early 2023.
Nicholas: I spent a lot of this year doing kind of long-form articles and reports and none of them are out yet. So they’re coming out soon. I’ll share them when they’re out on my Twitter, Instagram. People can find my work too at https://www.plantbaseddata.org, where you have all these peer-reviewed papers, but we’re also kind of breaking it down as best as possible to be more approachable to different people, that can read into and see this topic. So look out for those places. And I’m happy to also connect with anyone if they want to send me a message and to chat it out.
Ana: Amazing. Thank you so much. And I do encourage everybody to go to https://www.plantbaseddata.org. And I’ll obviously put the links at the bottom here as well. Thank you, Nicholas. Have a great rest of your day.
Nicholas: Thanks, you too.
Ana is the Executive Director at Sentient Media. Her background is in content production and startup consultancy.