Global warming: it's not just cars and power plants

Cows: The UN estimates that cows and other livestock are responsible for 18% of the global warming effect. Save the planet, eat a cow?
Cows: The UN estimates that cows and other livestock are responsible for 18% of the global warming effect. Save the planet, eat a cow?
Last night, I was curled up on the sofa reading an old issue of The New Yorker (January 22, 2007, to be exact). The book review feature ("Vegetable Love: The History of Vegetarianism") was about Tristram Stuart's The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times. And one section, in particular, made me sit up and read a little closer. I quote:

"These days, the environmental argument [for vegetarianism] os not about maximizing the number of people that the environment can sustain but about sustaining the environment. Does producing a pound of lentils involve burning less fossil fuel than producing a pound of hamburger meat, or more? How many square miles of forest are cleared to graze cattle? How much biodiversity is lost both in grazing livestock and in raising the corn and soybeans to fatten them? A recent report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reckons that at least 18% of the global warming effect comes from livestock, more than is cause by all the world's transportation systems. It has been estimated that 40% of global grain output is used to feed animals rather than people, and that half of this grain would be sufficient to eliminate world hunger if--and it's not a small if--the political will could be found to insure equitable distribution.

Yet the energy-cost argument is formidably complicated and cannot by itself support refusing all forms of meat in favor of all forms of plant matter: shooting and eating the deer chewing up the tulips in your garden may turn out to be more environmentally virtuous than dining on tofu manufactured from Chinese soybeans, and walking to the local supermaket for a nice hanger cut steak cut from a grass-fed New Zealand steer may be kinder to the planet than getting into your Toyota Prius to drive five miles for some organic Zambian green beans."

(This issue continues to befuddle me. Is it better to buy all local produce when I can, regardless of organic status (which, I must admit, I don't really care so much about)? Or does the bulk production and transport of the run-of-the-mill produce at the big-box grocery cancel out some harmful environmental effects?)

The article continues:

"The number of vegetarians in developed countries is evidently on the increase, but the world's per capita consumption of meat rises relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, in increased from 238.1 pounds to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally herbivorous Asia. Indians' meat consumption has rised from 8.4 to 11.5 pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an astonishing 115.5 pounds. This result has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with prosperity."

(275.1 pounds! Crazy! My family eats a lot of vegetarian meals, not on principle, but just because we like them. I wonder how we compare?)

The article ends with an awesome quote from Ben Franklin, who flirted with vegetarianism but didn't quite make it stick. He was 16, and on his first sea voyage from Boston, when his ship was becalmed off Block Island in the Narragansett Bay. He wrote:

"Our Peopl set about catching Cod, & haul'd up a great many. Hitherto I had stick to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider'd . . . the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok'd Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. All this seem'd very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle & Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then though I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now & then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Indeed! :)

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Gene's picture
Gene says:

PETA – the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – have recently taken Al Gore to task over this very issue.

They sent him a letter stating that the best way to fight global warming is to go vegetarian. Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth did not cite the meat industry’s enormous impact on the environment.

This has led some bloggers to wonder why. Perhaps environmental activists know that getting people to cut down on meat would be a much harder sell than getting them to cut down on oil consumption. Or perhaps their not really worried about global warming at all, but are just using it as an excuse to force reductions in oil use. (That latter one seems a bit far-fetched to me.)

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 4:24pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Liza --

275 pounds per year works out to 12 ounces a day, or just four ounces per meal.

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 4:25pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Sure, I thought about that. But I almost never eat meat for breakfast, hardly ever for lunch, and when we have meat with dinner, it's usually small amounts--tiny pieces mixed into something instead of a honkin' slab. I'd be surprised if I came anywhere close to 12 ounces a day every day.

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 5:11pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

OK, but balance that against all the people who regularly chow down on a T-bone, or have a couple of Big Macs for lunch, and it all adds up.

posted on Thu, 03/08/2007 - 5:33pm
Greg Laden's picture
Greg Laden says:

This is a very complicated issue, as you do a very good job of pointing out.

For instance, 40% of the grain goes to producing meat. But this does not mean that this 40% of grain is gone ... it is converted into meat. If you switch any percentage of that back from meat into grain, you have to account for the loss of meat. IN other words, it is not the case that "Grain is good" and "meat is bad".
We (as a specie) eat both, both provide nutrients, both provide calories.

Cattle grazing (other than the forest that may have been cut down) do less environmental damage than fields of beans and grain. The cattle are not dusted with thousands of pounds of poisons every couple of weeks, but the grains are.

And so on and so forth.

Assessing one's carbon footprint and/or other environmental effects via our food supply would require a complicated calculator that would have to be recalibrated every few months.

One partial solution to this problem would be to address things along the supply line. Instead of getting people to eat less of a certain meat, for instance, simply don't allow certain types of meat (like meat grown on ex-rain forest land in Brazil) on the market, or tax certain kind of food so it simply becomes more expensive and use the tax income to "fix" some other part of the food supply.

No single consumer can do this intelligently, perhaps.

posted on Sat, 03/10/2007 - 10:30am

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