Wednesday, July 16, 2008

This is a great article that a friend sent to me!

This is from the new issue of E magazine...


The Meat of the Matter

Our Livestock Industry Creates More Greenhouse Gas than Transportation Does

By Jim Motavalli

© Getty Images, E Magazine Graphic
Ask most Americans about what causes global warming, and they’ll point to a coal plant smokestack or a car’s tailpipe. They’re right, of course, but perhaps two other images should be granted similarly iconic status: the front and rear ends of a cow. According to a little-known 2006 United Nations report entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” livestock is a major player in climate change, accounting for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions (measured in carbon dioxide equivalents).That’s more than the entire transportation system! Unfortunately, this incredibly important revelation has received only limited attention inthe media.How could methane from cows, goats, sheep and other livestock have such a huge impact? As Chris Goodall points out in his book How to Live a Low-Carbon Life(Earthscan Publications), “Ruminant animals [chewing a cud], such as cows and sheep, produce methane as a result of the digestive process…Dairy cows are particularly important sources of methane because of the volume of food, both grass and processed material, that they eat.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the American meat industry produced more than 1.4 billion tons of waste in 1997—five tons for every U.S. citizen and 130 times the volume of human waste. Michael Jacobson, the longtime executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, adds the fact that just one midsized feedlot churns out half a million pounds of manure each day. “The methane that cattle and their manure produce has a global warming effect equal to that of 33 million automobiles,” the Center reports in its book Six Arguments for a Greener Diet.
That’s just one side effect of raising animals for food. It turns outthat nearly every aspect of the huge international meat trade has anenvironmental or health consequence, with global warming at the top ofthe list. If you never thought that eating meat was an environmental(and by extension, political) issue, now is the time to rethink thatposition.
A Really Big Enterprise

To understand livestock’s impact on the planet, you have to considerthe size of the industry. It is the single largest human-related use ofland. Grazing occupies an incredible 26 percent of the ice- andwater-free surface of the planet Earth. The area devoted to growingcrops to feed those animals amounts to 33 percent of arable land. Meatproduction is a major factor in deforestation as well, and grazing nowoccupies 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon region.In Brazil, 60 to 70 percent of rainforest destruction is caused byclearing for animal pasture, one reason why livestock accounts for ninepercent of human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Other sourcesof CO2 include the burning of diesel fuel to operate farm machinery andthe fossil fuels used to keep barns warm during the winter. And food grown for animals could be feeding people. Raising livestockconsumes 90 percent of the soy crop in the U.S., 80 percent of its cornand 70 percent of its grain. David Pimentel, professor of entomology atCornell, points out that “if all the grain currently fed to livestockin the U.S. was consumed directly by people, the number who could befed is nearly 800 million.”
Grazing is itself environmentally destructive. The UN reports that 20 percent of the world’s pastures and rangelands have been at leastsomewhat degraded through overgrazing, soil compaction and erosion.
Methane (a global warming gas 23 times more potent than CO2) comes frommany human sources, but livestock account for an incredible 37 percentof that total. Nitrous oxide is also a very powerful global warming gas(296 times more potent than CO2) and by far the biggest source, 64percent, originates (as does animal-based methane) from manure“off-gassing.” This process of nitrous creation is aggravated byintensive factory farming methods, because manure is a more dangerousemitter when it is concentrated and stored in compacted form.Nitrogen-based fertilizers also emit nitrous oxide. Another byproductof raising livestock is copious amounts of ammonia, which contributesto acid rain and the acidification of ecosystems.
Unacceptable Risks

© Getty Images, E Magazine Graphic
Theenvironmental consequences of meat-based diets extend far beyond theirimpact on climate change. According to the UN report, producing theworldwide meat supply also consumes a large share of natural resourcesand contributes to a variety of pressing problems. Livestock productionconsumes eight percent of the world’s water (mainly to irrigate animalfeed); causes 55 percent of land erosion and sediment; uses 37 percentof all pesticides; directly or indirectly results in 50 percent of allantibiotic use; and dumps a third of all nitrogen and phosphorous intoour fresh water supplies.Astudy by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production(IFAP), released last April, called the human health and environmentalrisks associated with the meat industry “unacceptable.” One of theirmajor recommendations was to “implement a new system to deal with farmwaste to replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today, toprotect Americans from the adverse environmental and human healthhazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.”
And livestock are forcing other animals out. With species loss accelerating in a virtual “sixth extinction,” livestock currently account for 20 percent of all the animal biomass on the planet. As they occupy 30 percent of the planet, they also displace that much wildlife habitat. The grazing of livestock is considered a serious threat to 306 of the 825 “eco-regions” identified by the Worldwide Fund for Nature,and to 23 of Conservation International’s 35 global hotspots for biodiversity.
Upping the Volume
Meatproduction has become a major problem because of its very success as ahuman food. In 1950, world meat production was 44 million poundsannually; today, it has risen fivefold to 253 million tons per year.Pork production, for instance, was less than five million tons annuallyin 1950, but it’s more than 90 million tons today. The average personon the planet ate 90.3 pounds of meat in 2003, double the figure of 50years ago.
These sharp increases are partly the result of dramatically higher meatconsumption in the Third World. China alone now consumes half theworld’s pork, a fivefold increase since 1978.

Dairy cows are particularly important sources of methane because of the volume of food they eat.
© Getty Images, E Magazine Graphic
Brazilmakes an excellent case history. With 160 million head of cattle, ithas the second-largest herd in the world after India. In Brazil, cattleprovide 29 percent of the country’s methane production, and an amazing10 percent of the world total. If that were the only issue, Brazil’slarge cattle herd would be a major problem. But it would be an enormousglobal warming aggravator even if its cattle produced no methane,because Brazilian farmers burn rainforest land to create pastures. This process releases carbon into the atmosphere from the heavy fires,and also destroys the rainforests’ ability to act as a carbon sink andcapture CO2. These fires are Brazil’s largest contribution to globalwarming, which worries Brazilian environmentalists such as Rubens Bornof the group Vitae Civilis. He says he’s waiting for Brazil’s nationalinventory of greenhouse gas emissions, which will allow him to see moreprecisely the scope of the problem.
Selective Solutions
Thefew commentators who have taken on the connection between meatconsumption and global warming ignore the most obvious solution: noteating meat.
The UN report offers a lengthy section entitled “mitigation options”with a range of other choices. To avoid cutting down rainforests thatsequester carbon, the report suggests “intensification of agriculturalproduction on some of the better lands, for example by increasedfertilizer benefits.” The logical conclusion to this suggestion is thetotal confinement factory farming methods used in the U.S.—which, bytwisted logic, could be said to have environmental benefits becausethey are not land intensive (and don’t cut down trees). But theenvironmental problems associated with factory farming are legion, andinclude polluted air and waterways.
OtherUN suggestions include conservation tillage (leaving agriculturalresidue on the soil surface to enrich its health) and organic farmingfor better soil health; improved grassland management; better nutritionfor livestock to reduce methane gas production; and capturing methanein anaerobic digesters to produce “biogas.”

Displaced Wildlife
© Getty Images
The latter method has been adopted by several Vermont dairy farms andworks well. Cow manure is stored in the digesters (huge tanks) at 100degrees Fahrenheit and deprived of oxygen. That encourages the bacteriato break the manure down, releasing biogas that is 90 percent methane.This fuel is captured and burned in an engine to generate electricity.Unfortunately, the equipment is expensive—$200,000 to $1 million,depending on the size of the farm. Only 32 farms in the U.S. were usingdigesters at press time, so only a tiny amount of methane productionhas been mitigated in this way.ACanadian study by Karin Wittinberg and Dinah Boadi of the University ofManitoba lists 20 separate ways to reduce greenhouse gas productionfrom livestock. These include grinding and pelletizing food forconfined animals to make it more fully digestible (a 20 to 40 percentreduction); grazing steers on high-quality alfalfa grass pastures (50percent reduction); adding canola oil to feedlot rations (30 percentreduction); and separating animals by age group and phasing in foodrelated to their growth stages (50 percent reduction). These arelaudable solutions and should be implemented, but, absent legislation,they’re unlikely to be put in place.
It takes seven pounds of corn to add a pound of weight to a cow, and that’s why 200 million acres of land in the U.S. are devoted to raising grains, oilseeds, pasture and hay for livestock. That land requires 181 billion pounds of pesticides, 22 billion pounds of fertilizer and 17 trillion gallons of irrigation water (not to mention billions of gallons of global warming-aggravating fossil fuel for farm equipment).
Another way of looking at this, supplied by M.E. Ensminger, the former chair of the animal sciences department at Washington State University, is that“2,000 pounds of grain must be supplied to livestock in order to produce enough meat and other livestock products to support a person for a year, whereas 400 pounds of grain eaten directly will support a person for a year.”

Meatproduction is a major factor in deforestation, and grazing now occupies70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon region.
© Getty Images
Because vegetarians enjoy lower levels of blood cholesterol and sufferless frequently from obesity and hypertension, their life expectanciesare several years greater. But the benefits of the vegetarian optionare rarely on the agenda, even when the environmental effects of themeat industry are under discussion.A Very Big Change
Mostpeople grow up eating meat and seeing others doing the same. Themessage that “meat is good and necessary for health” is routinelyreinforced through advertising and the cultural signals we’re sent atschool, work and church. Vegetarianism is regularly depicted as afringe choice for “health faddists.” The government reinforces thismessage with meat featured prominently in its food pyramids.
Jim Mason, coauthor of the book The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter(Rodale Books), offers another possible reason we’ve kept vegetarianismoff the mainstream agenda. “People who eat meat and animal products arein denial about anything and everything having to do with animalfarming,” he says. “They know that it must be bad, but they don’t wantto look at any part of it. So all of it stays hidden and abusesflourish—whether of animals, workers or the environment.”
Even such an enlightened source as the 2005 Worldwatch report “HappierMeals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry” is careful not to advocatefor a vegetarian diet, including it in a range of options that alsoincludes eating less meat, switching to pasture-raised “humane” meat,and opting for a few non-meat entrees per week. Vegetarianism is the“elephant in the room,” but even in a very food-conscious age it is noteasily made the centerpiece of an activist agenda.
DanielleNierenberg, author of the Worldwatch study, works for both thatorganization and for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).She’s a vegan, and very aware of the climate impacts of meat-baseddiets. But, she says, “Food choices are a very personal decision formost people, and we are only now convincing them that this is a tool attheir disposal if they care about the environment.”
Nierenberg says that some of the Worldwatch report was published in Environmental Health Perspectives,and there was concern that it wouldn’t see print if it overemphasizedvegetarian diets. “People have a very visceral reaction when told theyshouldn’t be eating the core meats they grew up with,” she says. “Theyget upset.”

TheAmerican meat industry produces more than 60 million tons of wasteannually—five tons for every U.S. citizen and 130 times the volume ofhuman waste.
© Getty Images, E Magazine Graphic
David Pimentel agrees that Americans are acculturated to eating meat.“The nutritionists say we’re eating way too much meat for our health,”he says. “The public knows this but it doesn’t change their dietaryhabits. What will alter their behavior is higher prices for meat andmilk, which are inevitable because of higher fuel prices and the risingcost of corn [caused in part by the diversion of corn crops to makingethanol].” Although he admits it’s an unpopular position, Pimentel says he’d liketo see gas reach $10 a gallon, because it will encourage energy conservation and increase prices for environmentally destructive meat,milk and eggs. “Right now, we have some of the lowest food prices in the world,” he says. “In the U.S. we pay 15 percent of our budgets for food, compared to 30 percent in Europe and 60 percent in Indonesia.”
Jacobson agrees. “People are pretty wedded to what they eat,” he says. “The government should be sponsoring major mass media campaigns to convince people to eat more fruit, vegetables and whole grains.”
He argues that cutting down meat consumption should be a public healthpriority. “From an environmental point of view, the less beef peopleeat the better,” he says, citing not only the release of methane fromlivestock but also increased risk of colon cancer and heart disease.Jacobson adds that grass-fed, free-range beef (which has less overallfat) is a healthier alternative, but grazing takes longer to bring theanimals to market weight “and they’re emitting methane all that time.”
He posits that the Centers for Disease Control or the Environmental Protection Agency should be convincing Americans to eat lower on the food chain. “There are the environmental and animal welfare problems caused by ‘modern’ agriculture,” he says. “The animals’ retribution is that we die of heart disease and cancer.” Is there an environmental argument to be made for livestock? Gidon Eshel, co-author of the report“Diet, Energy and Global Warming” and a professor at Bard College, says that livestock “has an important role to play in nutrient recycling.Minerals are taken up by growing plants, and when those plants are eaten by grazers, some of it ends up in their tissues and some is returned to the soil in their waste products. But what’s good in small quantities becomes toxic and devastating in large amounts. So it is only beneficial if we were raising livestock in much smaller numbers than we are today.”
Eshel calls for enforcement of the frequently ignored federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, which contain provisions to protect against harmful discharges of both animal wastes and the fertilizers used to grow animal feed.
Eating More Meat

Although anaerobic digesters show promise, they are prohibitively expensive.
A record 284 million tons of meat were produced worldwide in 2007. Inmost developing countries, meat consumption per capita is expected to double from the 1980s to 2020. Meat is an economically important product in most parts of the world in 2008, and it has powerful lobbies and enormous vested interests. There’s just one problem: It’s hurting the planet, and wasting huge resources that could easily feed a hungry world. Offer these facts to many meat eaters, and they’ll respond that they can’t be healthy without meat. “Where would I get my protein?” is answer. But the latest medical research shows that the does not need meat to be healthy. Indeed, meat is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and a balanced vegetarian diet provides all the protein needed for glowing health. Were humans “meant” to eat meat, just because our ancestors did? Nonsense, says Dr. Milton Mills,a leading vegetarian voice. “The human gastrointestinal tract features the anatomical modifications consistent with an herbivorous diet,” he asserts.
With the recognition of meat’s impact on the planet (and the realization that we don’t need it to stay healthy), is it possible that the human diet will undergo a fundamental change? The fact that the cornerstone of the American diet aids and abets climate change is an“inconvenient truth” that many of us don’t want to face, says Joseph Connelly, publisher the San Francisco-based VegNews Magazine. He takes a dig at Al Gore for not mentioning meat-based dietsin his film and only dealing with them glancingly in his book, An Inconvenient Truth (Rodale Books).
A 2003 Harris Poll said that between four and 10 percent of the American people identify themselves as vegetarians. So far, Connelly says that number seems to be holding steady. “From a sustainability point of view, what’s really needed is for people to understand the connections between factory farming, meat eating and environmental impacts,” he says. “That’s the first step.”
Lisa Mickleborough, an editor at VegNews, is probably right when she says that animal concerns are a powerful force for turning meat eating intoa moral issue. To be an animal rights leader is almost by definition tobe a vegan. But few environmental leaders have gone that far. “As an environmental issue, it’s pretty compelling,” she says. “The figures on methane production speak for themselves. But when it comes to doing what’s right for the environment, most people don’t take big steps—they just do the best they can.”
JIM MOTAVALLI is the former editor of E.

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