For those attending any of the presidential candidates' major events last month, it was hard to miss the pigs. Outside of nearly every rally and campaign stop across the state, you could find members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) dressed in bright pink pig costumes, handing out buttons and literature emblazoned with the slogan "Stop Global Warming: Tax Meat."
"Every time someone sits down to a steak dinner, they're basically doing the equivalent environmental damage of taking a very long journey in a Hummer," says Ashley Byrne, a coordinator for PETA's campaign. "One pound of meat is equivalent to driving about 40 miles in a big SUV."
That's surprising to most, but it's true. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found in 2006 that livestock production generates 18 percent of greenhouse gases worldwide — more than the entire transportation sector of cars, trucks, planes, and ships combined. Cows constantly belch methane from their four stomachs, and lagoons of pig effluent release the gas into the air. Much of the world's beef comes from deforested areas (70 percent of former Amazon rainforest is now used for cattle grazing), a one-two punch from the loss of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees and the addition of more animals.
Meat and dairy production is predicted by the U.N. to double in the next 40 years, a growth PETA feels could be abated by a 10-cent tax on each pound of meat. Chicken is less of a global warming culprit than beef, which produces eight pounds of CO2 per pound of flesh, but meat tax advocates favor a flat charge across all varieties, citing heightened health risks (and subsequent costs) from consuming any factory-raised animals. They compare the idea to "sin taxes" like those placed on tobacco, alcohol, and gasoline for their costly effect on the environment and public health. The revenue generated, they propose, would be used for education.
"Even though the average American adult would only pay $20 more per year with this tax, it would encourage reduced meat consumption," says PETA's Byrne. "That could save a family thousands in health care costs."
With its forest of free-roaming pigs who never see a needle or an antibiotic in their feed, Caw Caw Creek Farms, just outside of Columbia, is the antithesis of a crowded factory meat facility. Emile DeFelice "slow raises" the organic heirloom hogs, and he isn't convinced a tax would curb meat consumption. "Gas prices have doubled recently, with little effect on driving habits," he says. "And trying to compare meat to tobacco doesn't work. All cigarettes are bad, but all meat is not bad."
DeFelice is highly critical of the factory system, but believes the solution is in repealing subsidies rather than creating a new tax. "As long as the federal government continues to subsidize corn and soy, the backbone of this industry, then we'll continue to have artificially cheap animal food," DeFelice says. "When you pay your bill at the grocery store, you don't stop paying there. We pay for that food in energy, health care, and the destruction of world communities whose agriculture-based economies can't compete with our subsidies." (Surplus food from the U.S. makes growing crops like corn uneconomical in Mexico and many third-world countries).
Sustainable agriculture requires livestock to provide manure as fertilizer, DeFelice points out, and our current system of plant production relies on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. "It's not as if growing plants doesn't have its component of climate effects," he says.
The corporate meat industry understandably isn't jumping on board with the tax idea either. Cindy Cunningham, a spokesperson for the National Pork Board, doesn't argue with the statistics indicting meat as responsible for climate change, but says new developments in pork production are geared toward reducing its impact.
"Our producers are good stewards of the land, including managing water, manure, and odor," says Cunningham. "A lot of our (pig waste) lagoons are covered, and the methane is captured and turned into electricity. In the pork industry, we talk about using all parts of the pig — everything but the oink."
Pork Board officials couldn't provide a statistic on the percentage of lagoons using methane capturing technology — it's a new practice spurned by legislation in states like North Carolina, where industrial hog farms have devastated river water quality and surrounding communities.
The U.N.'s 2006 report concluded that the meat industry is "one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global," and that eating meat contributes to "problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity."
But the S.C. Department of Agriculture isn't ready to publicly acknowledge the connection. "Meat is a very important part of a healthy diet, and we encourage people to eat healthy — that's all I have to say," says Becky Walton, spokesperson for the state agency. Our state produces around 225,000 cows and 205 million chickens each year — poultry is our largest agricultural export. And judging by our obesity levels, Whopper consumption isn't hurting either.
So What's for Dinner?
"I call the pig an omnivore with no dilemma, but we humans have a dilemma," says hog farmer DeFelice. "My pigs taste great, but you ought not to eat 21 servings a week either. The proper diet is to eat good food, not eat too much, and to eat mostly plants."
Although it'll require the government to repeal the subsidies that favor growing plants for animal rather than human consumption, a responsible diet appears to be the simplest and most effective way individual, concerned citizens can help the environment and reduce their carbon footprint. Can't afford a Prius? The University of Chicago found that switching to a vegan diet is 50 percent more effective at fighting global warming than trading in a standard car for a hybrid.
"I think that people are very happy to hear that there's something they can be doing on a daily basis that makes a big difference, without having to make a big investment," says PETA's Byrne.
So can there be such thing as a meat-eating environmentalist? Even if cutting out burgers and barbeque altogether isn't on the menu, for the conservation-minded, limiting meat consumption might be a sensible approach. Otherwise, the spiteful glare thus far reserved for Hummer drivers may soon come the way of the diner ordering a T-bone.