Dr. Brown : I think a lot of it is also a failure of imagination; it's very hard for people to get their heads around the idea that essentially the easiest way for them to have a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions is simply to eliminate meat from their diets, which is completely non-essential.
HOST: Greetings perceptive viewers and welcome to Planet Earth: Our Loving Home featuring Dr. Patrick Brown of the world-renowned Stanford University School of Medicine, USA who will discuss the devastatingly harmful environmental effects of animal farming and why he believes all such agriculture should end.
Dr. Brown, a vegan, is a leading scientist in the area of genomics, or the study of genomes, and is recognized as one of top biochemists in the US. He is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and became a member of the prestigious US National Academy of Sciences in 2002.
Dr. Brown has also done significant work outside his research field. For example in 2000 he co-founded the Public Library of Science, a free online journal database that offers scientific and medical articles to promote open, effective sharing of new discoveries.
As he is deeply concerned about our planet's future, this distinguished scientist is currently taking time off from his research work to pursue a number of climate change-related initiatives. Among other endeavors, he is currently promoting the production of animal product substitutes so consumers will switch to eco-friendly ways of eating and organizing a broad-based scientific study to demonstrate the many ways humanity can immensely benefit from a global shift to a plant-based diet.
Dr. Patrick Brown (m): Animal farming, is by far the most environmentally destructive activity that humans are engaged in. Thirty percent of the dry surface area of the planet right now is devoted to animal farming, either grazing or raising crops to feed animals. And 20% of the biomass of the planet is animals that are being raised for food.
HOST: Livestock-raising is the single largest emission source of human-caused methane, a highly potent, heat-retaining greenhouse gas, which has 72-times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period and dissipates from the atmosphere within about 12 years.
By contrast it takes a thousand-plus years for carbon dioxide to disperse from the air. Many leading scientists now agree that the fastest way to cool our planet is to end livestock breeding because it will limit methane and other dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr Patrick Brown (m): I think people have been slow to recognize the magnitude of the contribution of animal farming to greenhouse gas production. It's only relatively recently that it's been reasonably widely recognized that it's a major contributor.
The greenhouse gases that are shorter-lived, I think that's a very important issue. I completely agree that reducing methane emissions would have tremendous impacts over a relatively short period of time. You could really make a serious dent in methane emissions, if you reduced the demand for animal products.
I'd really like to see an end to giving livestock farming an exemption on greenhouse gas regulations, which in the US, and now as I understand in the European Union and in the UK currently, livestock farming is exempted from regulation. The real problem is right now feeding seven billion people and four billion cows and pigs and sheep and 18 billion chickens that require massive amounts of land to support.
Dr. Patrick Brown (m): Clearing that land so that it would be available for animal farming historically over the past couple of hundred years released as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning fossil fuel at the current rate releases in a period of 17 years.
And to the extent that that land can be retired from animal farming and allowed to convert CO2 into biomass, we could potentially lower atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
HOST: Meat production consumes a tremendous amount of Earth's scarce freshwater resources and is inherently inefficient when compared to growing plants for food. To produce one serving of beef, over 4,500 liters of water is needed, while one complete vegan meal with tofu, rice, and vegetables requires only 370 liters of water.
Dr. Patrick Brown(m): I have actually done one calculation just in California (USA), because water is often an issue in California. I looked at what would be the effect on the cost of meat and dairy products produced in California, if everybody had to take the total cost of water in California, and everybody was paying the same price per gallon for it.
Right now agriculture is paying a tiny fraction of what household users are paying. If they basically made it all even, it would increase the cost of meat and dairy products produced in California by 50%, which would, I think, have a huge impact on consumption. My guess is probably it would make beef and dairy farming in California unprofitable, and it would just come to a complete halt.
So I would love to see the subsidies stopped. It would have a huge impact on their costs and it might be actually a way of dealing with the taxation issue. For example if you said, you have to pay more for water and land use, that's an interesting idea.
HOST: According to John Robbins' best-selling book “A Diet for A New America,” if the meat industry's water costs were no longer subsidized by US taxpayers, the real price of half a kilogram of hamburger would be US$35 and US$89 for the same amount of beefsteak.
Dr. Patrick Brown(m): We are subsidizing the eventual cost of all the environmental damage that they are doing. So I think there is little doubt that sometime in the next 50 years there is going to have to be an extremely costly global effort to remedy the causes of climate change, probably water pollution, water shortages, stuff like that, that are driven to a large extent by animal farming. Sooner or later, that bill is going to come due.
Basically, the people who are doing the damage are paying nothing for them. It's like running up a gigantic credit card bill, and then handing it off to your kids to pay it. I think that the sensible solution is to tax these products, not just meat, but it will get a big price tag based on the environmental damage it does. If that were to happen, the prices would go up a lot and I think that would have a huge effect on people's behavior.
HOST: Dr. Brown is advocating for a market-oriented solution to end livestock raising and promote a vegan way of living. He believes that consumers will stop purchasing animal products when there are many animal-free meat-like substitutes available at a cheaper price.
Dr. Patrick Brown(m): I think that strategically the only way that you're going to really make a dent in animal farming is by taking advantage of the fact that you can produce something that's nutritionally equivalent to the least expensive unprocessed meats, for less than four percent of the cost of those meats, just using plant products basically, soya beans, other legumes, grains and so forth.
That I think is a huge business opportunity for some forward-looking food manufacturer or investor because if you could take advantage of the low-cost of production and produce a product that was the sort of sensory equivalent and had the cooking properties, the handling properties of unprocessed meat and sell it for half the price, all you'd have to do is show them the price tag and I think there would be a strong incentive for people to change their behavior.
People's food purchasing is very price sensitive. If you look at smoking rates; the biggest driver of the drop in smoking rates in the US, I think has not been the little labels on the cigarette packages, which talk about how unhealthy it is, it is a little label that that says how much it costs.
HOST: Dr. Brown also endeavors to help push forward the mass production of inexpensive meat alternatives which he feels will be readily embraced by the public.
Dr. Patrick Brown(m): Basically a significant fraction of my effort right now is actually trying to organize funding and a strategic plan for a large-scale manufacturing of meat analogues to be sold to the mainstream consumer on the basis of lower price and equivalent quality. People who don't care about their health, they might just say, “I could buy a pound [.5 kilograms ] of ground beef for a dollar and a half or I could buy this stuff that everybody tells me tastes the same, looks the same, handles the same and so forth, but costs half the price.”
I have just started, over the past month or so, seriously talking to people who are venture capitalists and investors about what I think is a tremendous investment opportunity. Because if you can make a product that you can market to the mainstream consumers, and could take some share of the current market for meat products, in the US alone, it's US$150 billion dollars a year, if you had one percent of that, that's a billion and half dollar a year, that's serious money.
I'm not interested in starting a food manufacturing business myself, I'm just interested in catalyzing this. But anyway, there's been a lot of interest, and I feel like, there is really a compelling business case for this if people are willing to think enough outside the box.
HOST: Dr. Brown also has plans to form a research group as part of his efforts to change government policies which currently support and encourage animal farming.
Dr. Patrick Brown(m): The other thing I am doing is I am trying to organize a scientific study to just look objectively, to have basically the world's expert on all these issues, do a systematic study that compares the economic, environmental, food security, and public health costs and benefits; if the developed world were to switch entirely to a plant-based diet or to various partial degrees.
I just want it to be done rigorously and scientifically, but from everything I know, I think the answer is going to be “It's a huge win in all those dimensions, to make this transition away from animal-based foods.” And if this study is done, which I am trying to organize as part of a group national research council in the US by a really authoritative group, I think it will have a small but significant impact on some public policy decisions.
HOST: We sincerely thank you Dr. Patrick Brown for taking time to discuss your brilliant, benevolent efforts to stop all animal farming and encourage the adoption of the vegan diet. May this goal soon be achieved, with humanity always making eco-friendly, healthful and compassionate food choices.
For more details on Dr. Brown, please visit BrownLab.Stanford.edu