In Copenhagen, Delete Meat?

In Copenhagen, Delete Meat?

Followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai outside the Bella Center in Copenhagen

Much of the debate among government delegations in Copenhagen is about language and specifically, brackets around words. Sometime it’s many words’whole paragraphs’and sometimes it’s just a few. “Brackets” are a kind of holding place. Deleting the brackets means the text stays in the final document. Leaving the brackets in place means the issue is still controversial’and resolving it awaits another round. Of course, some text in brackets gets deleted altogether.

“Earth in Need: Delete Meat,” reads a sign at the large civil society climate march. Delegates at the Bella Center are greeted going in and coming out by followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai, who has made the meat-global warming connection a central message in her spiritual community’s outreach work.“Be a hero, be veg,” “Go green, Go veg,” “Save the planet, Be vegan,” and data about climate change and the livestock sector festoon large signs and banners taped to the concrete walls of the metro station or are held by individual women and men (hardy individuals, since it’s been very cold the past few days).

Yesterday, for the first time, I saw a woman in a chicken costume holding a sign that said, “I am not a nugget.” The groups also passed out thousands of cotton tote bags covered with veg-climate slogans. You see them on the shoulders of people throughout the Bella Center. (Inside the bag there’s a hardcover book by Supreme Master Ching Hai herself on the birds she’s known. I’ve seen a few of the books left behind at the Bella Center, too.)

But has the “meat” been deleted? Meat and livestock are barely on the agenda of the government talks. That’s a deletion of sorts. That’s not to say there’s not discussion. In fact, there’s quite a bit’but almost solely among the NGOs. In addition to the side event Brighter Green co-sponsored with the Green Belt Movement, livestock/meat/farmed animals have been addressed on several other panels.

One, sponsored by the Netherlands government, was titled “Meat: How far can governments go in influencing lifestyles?” and featured Indian physicist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva. Another, focused on Brazil and co-sponsored by the International Livestock Research Institute, delved into the emissions produced by cattle ranching attributable to deforestation, burning and enteric fermentation. One of the presenters, documenting research from a new report on the cattle sector’s carbon footprint, was Roberto Smeraldi, director of Amigos da Terra – Amazônia Brasileira. His previous research is cited in Brighter Green’s case study on the intensification of animal agriculture in Brazil, currently in draft form. Roberto told me afterward that, like our side event, his panel had been very well-attended, including by some “high-level” folks, among them Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and a member of the U.S. delegation here. I can only hope he was taking copious notes.

Even a researcher speaking at a session on the Congo Basin forests mentioned global demand for meat as a factor in rates of deforestation in central Africa. That’s not the norm. Other gleanings: Yesterday, everyone ordering lunch when I did (about 5:30 p.m.) at the Bella Center was ordering the vegetarian plate. At the Klimaforum, several events on meat/dairy and climate are being held, in addition to Brighter Green’s screening of “What’s for Dinner?” (tonight!).

And yet, I can’t help but feel that many delegates walking day after day by the Supreme Master Ching Hai signs and leaflets and people don’t quite take it seriously’don’t quite accept that if the growth of livestock is a key driver of deforestation, which it is, and climate change overall, which it also is, that means business as usual has to change, and fast. But it’s hard to “delete meat” when it doesn’t even get into brackets.

Wangari Maathai (more on her in an upcoming blog) has been saying here that we need to accept the science of climate change (no more skeptics). But we also need to acknowledge that some things’forests, other species, the planet itself’are “priceless.” So here, she says, is where values like empathy and compassion and a concern for justice come in, not as a side dish but at the center of the plate. In the context of meat and dairy and the billions of farmed animals alive today, I’m not sure that’s a message that’s gotten through here in Copenhagen. Hopenhagen? Still in brackets.

Photo Courtesy of Mat McDermott