Your next hamburger may come with a side of endangered wolf
When it comes to valuable real estate, the square inches that comprise the official food nutrition label may be a hotter commodity than the most impressive street address in Manhattan. How consumers react to the label's black-and-white facts about calories, fats, sugars, and vitamins is worth billions of dollars to the food industry.
An environmental group would like to factor in one more thing: how food production affects wildlife. Piggybacking on the government's overhauled nutrition label—which, despite industry opposition, now distinguishes added from naturally occurring sugars—the Center for Biological Diversity has released "extinction labels" that suggest how much impact a hamburger, a chicken breast, or a serving of bacon has on water supplies, forests, the climate, and the survival of endangered species.
"People probably don't think that when they're eating a hamburger they're harming a wolf, but there's a direct correlation," said Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. "A wolf, for example, will be targeted by predator control programs in their natural environment, at the behest of the livestock industry, to protect the cattle."
The CBD and other animal welfare groups have charged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program, which kills millions of wild coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, and other animals annually, lacks transparency as well as scientific justification for its practices. States also run such programs.
There are other impacts as well. Increasing amounts of livestock manure are the leading driver of growing methane emissions from agriculture. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and can also degrade air quality. Raising alfalfa for cow feed uses up 2.7 trillion gallons of water a year in California alone.
The CBD would like the government to advise the public on how to make eating choices that have less impact on wildlife and natural resources. "We're in the sixth major extinction crisis, the first human-caused extinction crisis, and it's highly related to our diet," said Molidor. "Americans eat about three times the global average of meat consumption. If the rest of the world ate like Americans ate in terms of meat and dairy, we would need four more Earths."
Author and futurist Jamais Cascio has experience using the nutrition label format to make an environmental point. His "cheeseburger footprint" graphic, which was based on his research into the carbon emissions created by a quarter-pound cheeseburger, went viral in the mid-2000s, landing him an appearance in a National Geographic documentary about climate change.
(Full disclosure: Casio and I were colleagues on a blog-and-book project called Worldchanging during the mid-2000s.)
Ten years later, Cascio said, he continues to get requests to use the image, and he features it in his consulting on sustainability and future planning.
"I can say from my experience that adding that carbon facts image dramatically increased the amount of conversation around carbon footprints," he said. "I started to see, in some places, the cheeseburger as the symbol of unintended climate consequences."
Cascio called the extinction label "a good first draft," but noted that "it doesn't pretend to be objective."
"This looks like they're combining the nutrition label with a cigarette warning," he said. "If you want to blame the elimination of sage grouse and wolves on beef production, I can understand that. I'm not sure how it factors into polar bears."
But images can evoke interest and reactions in ways that pages full of text can't match, he added.
"Greenhouse gases, water, manure, all have links to beef production," Cascio said. "If they can draw a more direct link to the consequences, I could see this being applied across a wide array of products—or even a political candidate."
Sign the Petition: End Lethal Control of Red Wolves in North Carolina
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Eating Meat Contributes to Climate Change—but How Much?
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Oregon's Legendary Wolf Killed