Hamburgers in a Heated World: Providing Scientific Evidence in the Food Sustainability Debate
with Matthew Hayek, Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies, New York University whose research quantifies the environmental impacts of our food system, with a specific focus on greenhouse gas emissions and contributions to climate change.
Abstract: The global food system emits one third of greenhouse gases, breeds diseases with pandemic potential, and is the largest driver of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and freshwater depletion and pollution on Earth. Policies must address these urgent challenges without compromising food security. But food is also deeply personal, so debates quickly get heated and ideological, with polarized endpoints.
My research aims to moderate food sustainability debates by quantifying the complex middle ground. I will highlight how my research operationalizes and tests high-profile proposals using mixed empirical methods, including remote sensing and geospatial statistics. I will discuss recently published analyses, which include quantifying tradeoffs in free-range meat production, constraining methane emissions from globally-expanding intensive animal production operations, and mapping land use and carbon opportunity costs of livestock production globally.
I will also present forthcoming research on pastureland degradation and carrying capacity for livestock. This analysis constrains past estimates of potentially “cost-free” livestock production globally at a high spatial resolution. Preliminary results suggest that native grasslands presently support 32% of ruminant livestock herds, while the remaining 68% are raised on artificial pastures in native forest areas and on crop products, entailing tradeoffs with food security and ecosystem services.
This work and far more is urgently needed to provide empirical guideposts to contentious debates, revealing and quantifying limits and opportunities for solutions to scale. I will conclude by discussing how more socially- and politically-responsive environmental science, when applied to food systems, can steer popular conversations and policymaking away from ideology and vested financial interests, and toward shaping food consumption and production more sustainably.
The Earth Science Colloquium Series is sponsored by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia University Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES). This series provides a lively forum for discussing a wide variety of topics within the earth sciences and related fields. Colloquia are attended by the full range of scientific and technical staff at LDEO. Colloquium attendance is required of all pre-orals DEES graduate students. The Colloquium Series supports the Lamont Seminar Diversity Initiative.
A Zoom link will be provided on the day of the lecture.