A red light on green food rhetoric

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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On Earth Day, we’ll hear all kinds of ideas on how to improve the environment, from the small (recycle that bottle!) to the big (get off oil!). And, no doubt, we’ll hear a few about how we need to change what we eat to improve the planet.

As we listen to one proposal after the next, we should keep in mind Newton’s third law: For every action, there is a reaction.

Consider the recent fuss about “pink slime,” which is basically just leftover beef scraps that have been processed to remove fat and kill bacteria. It’s practical — only about half of a cow’s carcass is immediately useable, and this is a way of utilizing food that might otherwise be thrown out.

Unfortunately, the media feasted on pink slime, and the resulting slurry of biased coverage caused production to shut down at several plants. Several retailers won’t use it anymore. Now an estimated 1.5 million more cattle may have to be slaughtered to make up for the loss of “pink slime.”

Where’s that land going to come from? And where will we grow all the crops to feed these animals? Will we have to clear a few forests or rainforests?

That’s the cost of feeling righteous about a perfectly safe — if imperfectly nicknamed — food.

It’s bizarre to see the amount of self-loathing that exists about our modern food system. We grow more food more efficiently than ever before, but supposedly it’s not “sustainable.” That’s according to the so-called foodie movement, which sees processed food — i.e., most food — as inherently inferior.

Their solution is to go backwards to the ways of the past. Many “organic” purists essentially want us to revert to farming like we did decades ago.

But that’s just not realistic. If we did things purely by “organic” means and rejected synthetic methods, we could only support a world population of about 4 billion people. And if you think needing an additional 1.5 million cows to replace “pink slime” sounds like a lot, we’d require 1 billion more livestock for just the U.S. to replace synthetic nitrogen (plus 2 billion acres to plant feed crops for these animals).

We should take organic fundamentalists as seriously as we would someone who thinks we should all get around in horse and buggies instead of cars. Sure, a car may create more greenhouse gas emissions than a horse and buggy — but it allows for faster, wider transportation. It’s a net plus. The same is true with modern agriculture.

Consider this from another angle. Animal rights activists and environmentalists use Earth Day to claim that simply raising animals for meat is harming the planet by driving climate change. They often cite a 2006 United Nations report claiming that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than even all cars, trucks and other vehicles combined.

If that sounds a little too incredible, that’s because it is: The report’s own co-author later admitted that it uses flawed, apples-and-oranges comparisons in its calculations. Essentially, the report uses a more sweeping accounting for agriculture than it does for other sectors of life.

A much more reliable measure comes from the Environmental Protection Agency, which calculates that all agriculture accounts for less than 7 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture accounts for just 4 percent.

The eco-friendly thing to do, then, is to help the Third World get on track with the First World. As usual, we’re the ones driving innovation and efficiency — meeting demand for food. And we’ll have to continue meeting demand as the world population grows to 9 billion by 2050.

While bucolic images of the past are certainly appealing, we have to be realistic and solution-oriented. All the ideologues and pundits who think the best way forward is backward should use Earth Day to learn about how our continued improvement will only come through scientific advances, not regression.

Rick Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.