Hamburgers and fish and chips have had a difficult spring. In March, Netflix launched Seaspiracy, a controversial Netflix docu-drama slamming the commercial fishing industry. Within days, it was among the platform's top 10 movies, drawing praise from celebrities like musician Bryan Adams and pro cyclist Chris Froome.

Weeks later, the recipe publishing giant Epicurious announced it was ditching beef because of environmental concerns. Shortly after, Eleven Madison Park — one of the world's top-ranked restaurantssaid that it is no longer serving meat or fish.

With each announcement, the internet's army of critics and commentators jumped at the opportunity to attack someone else's dinner. Yet beneath the noise lies an uncomfortable truth: We need to change what we eat.

Cattle emit roughly the same amount of emissions as 910 million cars each year, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last week, the UN reported that about a third of the world's fish populations are being overfished.

But will bashing beef and slamming seafood help?

“I don't think it's going to cause any cultural shift,” said Silvia Secchi, a professor of geography and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa who studies the environmental impact of food and farming. “It might be causing some cultural wars, (but) I don't think it's very serious in terms of addressing the fundamental problems we face.”

The problems with how we produce food are varied, she explained, but in North America, they lie primarily with the industrial farms and globalized supply chains that supply most of the continent's food. Industrialized farming — whether of cattle, chickens, or corn — concentrates the negative impact of food production into relatively small areas.

For instance, intensively growing a handful of crops like corn or soy requires pesticides and fertilizers; both degrade soil health and biodiversity. Raising thousands of pigs or chickens in confined barns can lead to manure and antibiotics contaminating nearby environments, and is associated with lower animal welfare, she noted.

We need to change what we eat. But will bashing beef and slamming seafood help? @ProfSecchi @dyhiapadilla

Nor do these problems stop at the farm gate: Most North American food production, processing, and distribution relies on migrant and temporary workers filling low-wage, dangerous, and backbreaking jobs for minimal pay. And about two-thirds of the 35.5 million tonnes of food waste generated in Canada annually is thrown out before it reaches supermarket shelves, according to food rescue organization Second Harvest.

“We need to think more holistically and systematically about the linkages between how we grow our food and how we eat it,” Secchi explained. Helping farmers farm with agroecological or regenerative techniques — a suite of practices that integrate livestock into crop and pasture farming to promote soil health and carbon sequestration — is essential. This will likely make food production, particularly meat, more expensive, she acknowledged, but that's not necessarily bad if it reduces how much of it we eat.

“Eating beef more sparingly — it's what we need to do,” she said.

Livestock can be integrated in sustainable farming techniques if the animals have adequate space, good food, and a healthy environment, explained Julia Smith, executive director of the B.C. Small-Scale Meat Producers Association. Photo by Tori Ball

Yet some people believe no level of meat consumption is sustainable.

“The entire animal industry is unsustainable on every level, not just ecologically, but morally — for humans, for workers, for health, for everyone,” said Jason Scorse, professor of food studies and environment at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “The question is: How do we accelerate to a new ... protein system?”

The solution, he said, is making “meat” from plants — or to grow it in vats. Lab-grown meat is becoming increasingly prominent, with Singapore approving the first lab-grown meat for commercial sale last year.

Alternative meats — meat-like products that are produced from plant protein or grown in a lab — are surging in popularity. Driven by demand from consumers who have decided to cut meat from their diets and efforts by companies like McDonald's and Maple Leaf Foods to reduce their environmental footprints, the market for alternative meat is expected to reach $23.1 billion by 2023.

That shift can't come fast enough, said Scorse.

“If we get this economically viable within, say, 10 years, we could be growing perfectly clean, bacteria-free cuts of beef and pork in breweries. If it can get cost-competitive, it's a game over for factory farming,” he said, arguing that regenerative and agroecological farming techniques will never be able to produce enough food to feed the world affordably.

Yet, Secchi is skeptical of Scorse's utopian vision.

“This other stuff that people are making is highly processed food, whether it's lab-grown or fake meat,” she said. “It's another industrial product... The way to reduce our environmental footprint is to eat better, and that includes a little bit of meat, in my opinion, for those people who want to eat it.”

The same could be said for seafood, noted Dyhia Belhabib, a fisheries scientist who specializes in illegal fishing, conservation, and food security. For years, environmentalists, including the directors of Seaspiracy, have argued that all fishing should end. That perspective, she explained, is deeply problematic.

“It's basically like saying something really racist about somebody or a group of people,” she said. “For me, it's the same thing, because it's not only stereotyping fish or the problems of fishing, but it's also (stereotyping) whole coastal communities and their cultural traditions ... which then leads to discriminatory approaches.”

There are definitely issues in the world's fisheries, she said. Industrial fishing fleets, for instance, are driving overfishing worldwide. Bottom trawling — a common practice among the planet's industrial fleets — emits roughly as much CO2 as the world's farms combined, according to a groundbreaking study released earlier this year.

Failing to distinguish these harmful practices from the thousands of sustainable, smaller-scale fisheries worldwide — many of them culturally and economically important and essential for many of the world's poorest people to meet their nutritional needs — is a “dangerous, discriminatory view,” she said.

A similar argument could be said for farming, Secchi noted. Livestock is central to many sustainable farming systems, and is culturally important to millions worldwide. The key is implementing laws that ensure it is produced (or caught), processed, distributed, and consumed sustainably — and ensuring wages are high enough for everyone to afford healthy, culturally relevant food.

Simplifying this complexity into a black and white view where people who eat meat or seafood are bad — and those who don't are good — will not save the planet, the researchers agree.

“Oversimplifying an issue always emanates from a place of ignorance,” said Belhabib — even if the effort is laden with good intentions meant to save the planet.

“(Even) good intentions have led to disasters,” she said.

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It is very misleading to compare emissions from cattle to emissions from 910 million cars because one is a natural recycling of carbon that has been part of the environment and the other is bringing carbon up fron underground that has been stored away safely for millions of years.

Emissions are emissions, whatever their source.

And the extent of both is grotesquely higher than they ever have been.

I am not sure why prople can't understand that one source of carbon is just continuously cycling in the environment and the other is brought up from underground and spewed out into the atmosphere as new to the surface of the earth, carbon. It isn't ruminents of any kind that have caused our problem. If all cattle disappeared from earth but we still pumped and burned fossil fuel we would be no better off.

Methane is a much more potent (effective) greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but its “residence time” in the atmosphere is much shorter. The bad news here is that as long as atmospheric methane is being replenished or even increased, its warming effect continues or even increases. The good news is that dramatically reducing methane emissions can make a significant difference in a relatively short time. That is why dramatically reducing methane emissions from livestock is essential if we are to meet climate targets.

I'd like to see a cow, a pig, and a chicken posted outside the entrance of every grocery store.. the kids would love it!

I found this article very informative, and balanced. "Moderation in all things" eh

The only element I would have added to the industrial farming aspect (and probably the fishing as well, but I'm not knowledgeable about that) is the cruelty that's been incorporated, and often enforced, within the "feed animal" chain--the obscene ways in which huge industrial farms breed, select, house, raise, transport, and slaughter the animals.

After decades as an anti-hunting proponent, I came to a different place several years ago: IF the animal is killed quickly and cleanly and painlessly by a competent hunter, I can accept that--the animal has had a natural life, in a natural environment, free--and as someone dear pointed out to me years ago, "honey, nothing in nature ever dies of old age".

Consider this hypothetical scenario: the entire population of the Americas and Europe stops eating seafood. Would that cause the ocean population of fish and shellfish to return to sustainable levels? No it wouldn't; it would just make more fish available for the Asian factory ships to vacuum up.
The factory ships must be confined to territorial waters, if not eliminated altogether. A good place to start would be the fleet of Chinese factory ships off the Galapagos Islands; see
They need to be chased out of the Antarctic, too, and all "harvesting" of krill needs to be stopped.

Everybody read that, over and over. Until there is a global agreement on limiting "X", then any one-sided restrictions on "X" simply guarantee that somebody else will consume it anyway. There can be experimental efforts at doing-without, just to show it can be done, that there are alternatives. But, ultimately, the restriction has to be global.

My pet peeve comes from my engineering background. Engineers make more available for less by increasing efficiency. When I was in engineering school, it was the 70s "oil crisis", and everybody was buying compact cars, talking what proved to be BS about the New Generation, the Boomers, weren't so material as their elders, didn't want huge land-barges with fins.

On top of the swing to compact cars, engineers put in 30 years of ulcers and failed marriages improving the whole internal combustion engine - electronic ignition, higher pressures, lighter engines, aluminum bodies - and made it 30% more efficient in consumption. Yay!

And when the price of oil went back down, relative to income, those Boomers, and all Gen-X, went out and bought their kids vans and SUVs. Vehicle weight went up 30%. Zero savings! Zero! Also, they bought bigger houses out in the 'burbs. And, started taking those kids on far-flung vacations around the planet, when my family mostly camped for vacations. Greyhound just gave up providing bus service here, for lack of customers.

Until we get a grip on that consumption mentality, food is about 3rd or 4th priority.

And one more thing: drift nets have got to go.

It isn't "bashing" to do the math. I have seen human population triple in my own lifetime, and this has changed all the options. We could feed ten billion healthy vegans and give Nature the half she needs, or we can try to continue with a stone-age diet, forcing extinctions and then following with our own crash. It takes less that two weeks for your body to realize that vegan food has everything we need if we just plan a bit. Forget the sophistry and bite the bean.

Do you think it's desirable to have ten billion people on this planet? I don't.

Interesting article on CBC today:

"Decades of data shows today's average whale is a metre shorter than it was in the 1980s
"North Atlantic right whales seem to be shrinking: They are an average of a metre shorter today than whales of the same species were in the 1980s.
"And some whales are as much as three metres smaller than their predecessors.
"To put that into perspective, some of today's 10-year-old whales are only growing the size of a one- or two-year-old whale from 40 years ago.
"The likely culprit? Whales are getting caught in fishing gear.
"'The big thing that we found were that whales that have these extended entanglements that last for months or years are stunted compared to whales that aren't entangled.'
"Most North Atlantic right whales become trapped in fishing nets and traps at some point in their lives.
"'Over 85% of the population has entanglement injuries, either scars or attached gear, so it's a pretty chronic problem for this population.'
"The toll being caught in nets and lines is extremely damaging to a whale's body and often leads to its death."

What we put on our plate matters.