Each morning, I often find myself brewing a cup of coffee and settling into my recliner for a few minutes of peace and quiet over the morning news. I’ll often grab one of the recent editions of my favorite running magazines and reading a few columns to start my day. (How old do those sentences make me sound?) Most often, I’ll find a story or two each month that touches on our environment and how we can save the planet. For good reason, this is an important topic for trail and ultra runners who spend several hours each week enjoying trails and public lands.

As a runner who also has been involved in ranching my entire life, I have deep ties and appreciation for the land, air, water, and wildlife. As farms and ranches make significant contributions to maintaining green space, open lands and wildlife habitat across this country, agriculture has a vested interest in conservation efforts. Without healthy land and clean air or water, these farms and ranches that have been in the hands of families for generations wouldn’t exist to see the next growing season.

However, I often find myself frustrated by the simple solutions offered to stop climate change and to save our public lands by recreational users.

running environment
I love the trails as much as any runner. But I also love my ranch lands.

Looking for someone to blame

For example, in the March 2020 edition of Ultrarunning Magazine, Clare Gallagher’s solution was phrased like this: “Of course, restricting animal products in our diets, reducing air and auto travel and consuming more consciously are all necessary steps to achieving a livable climate with clean air.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the intention behind this statement. We all want to look for an opportunity to make contributions to the environment that make us feel good like we’re doing something to make a change. I know I’m sensitive to this due to my role in agriculture, but why do we focus on such a small piece of the pie when it comes to emissions and air pollution?

Restricting animal products or choosing a vegetarian/vegan diet rolls off the tongue, alongside reducing travel and limiting single-use plastics. It feels good to have someone or something to blame for our environment’s problems. But does eliminating or reducing animal products in our diet have the impact we want it to make?

Related: How A Plant-Based Diet Made Me A Stronger Ultrarunner

Let’s sit down for a post-run coffee and breakfast and think about this for a few minutes.

Livestock’s Long Shadow

Much of the blame for livestock’s contributions to our environmental degradation stem back to a 2006 report from the FAO titled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. The report aimed to assess the total environmental impact of global livestock and determined this sector of agriculture is among the world’s top contributors to negative environmental impacts, including Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

Following its release, the UN admitted flaws in reporting data that exaggerated the negative impacts of animal agriculture that resulted in livestock ranking higher in emissions than transportation. A UN policy officer was quoted saying, “we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport” – a factor that would have a significant impact on the findings.

Despite this admission of error, opponents to animal agriculture have consistently avoided that correction and used the report as an argument to minimize, or even eliminate, animal agriculture and meat consumption, citing it as the source for continuing degradation of our environment.

The simple solution is to give up meat and dairy products. The idea that taking just one small action to save the planet makes us feel empowered. That perception gets repeated as if it’s true and we turn back to the original report as evidence for our actions – conveniently omitting the error reported following its publication.

And the Science Says…

Science shows that driving to the trailhead, flying to our next destination race, or even tossing that half-eaten bag of trail mix has a far greater impact on our sustainability and the environment than giving up a burger once a week or animal products altogether. But the former is more inconvenient truths that are more difficult for us to admit.

2018 data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are:

  • 28.2% from Transportation – primarily from burning fossil fuel for cars, trucks, ships, trains and planes
  • 26.9% from Electricity – 63% of which is produced by burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas
  • 22.0% from Industry – production of goods from raw materials
  • 12.3% from Commercial and Residential – production of heat, use of products and handling of waste
  • 11.6% from Land Use and Forestry – managed lands can act as a carbon sink, offsetting emissions, and are also a natural source of greenhouse gases
  • 9.9% from Agriculture – livestock, agricultural soils and rice production

Look at that. Agriculture and Land Use in the US combined don’t account for near the emissions as transportation, electricity, industry or housing, yet we want to focus on the smallest portions of the pie as blame for our environmental problems.

Critics will then point to global numbers, which indicate higher contributions from livestock. But what this misses is that agriculture in the United States is far more efficient and contributes far fewer emissions than food production methods in foreign countries. Global and US figures are different for a reason. Even with food imports, the majority of our food supply is still domestic.

Solutions for the Environment

While it may be convenient to place the blame on someone else, I’d argue that both runners and ranchers have a vested interest in seeing our environment and open lands continue to exist for generations to come.

Shared-use lands may be a good opportunity to find common ground and a place to start the conversations. I’d encourage the trail running community to reach out to ranchers to learn more about the value of grazing management on rangelands. And at the same time, I’d encourage ranchers to open their gates to the local running community and learn more about their passion for the conservation of our environment.

Now, who wants to host an epic ultra distance trail running event on some ranch land – social distancing at its peak – as a good opportunity to launch the discussion? Followed by a good steak sandwich meal for recovery, of course.

beyond burger environment
Removing meat doesn’t eliminate environmental impact. There’s still an impact and contributions from the plants grown, processing, and transportation required to produce this plant-based burger patty. And it doesn’t necessarily make the meal any healthier.

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