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A Disregarded Truth

Posted by tinako on April 22, 2009

In honor of Earth Day:

Have you noticed that everybody’s talking about Greenhouse Gases and Global Warming?  Many people saw An Inconvenient Truth and feel motivated like never before to prevent the grim future it foretells.  Lots of suggestions are made, everything from switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs to driving less, buying energy efficient appliances, and turning down the heat.  These are all great ideas.  Some have more impact, some have less.  Some changes cost money, some are somewhat inconvenient, and some require you to put on that ill-fitting sweater your Aunt knitted.  What would you say if I told you that you could reduce your greenhouse gas footprint by 6%, reduce pollution, violence and extinctions, save money, improve your health without a sweaty gym membership, and it wouldn’t waste any time at all, beyond the time you’re already wasting reading this post when you’re supposed to be balancing your checkbook?

Wait, wait, I’m not selling the Bass-O-Matic.  Well, maybe I’m suggesting the Veg-O-Matic.  Because, you see, according to the NY Times, a piece of steak uses 16 times more energy to produce than a collection of rice and vegetables with the same number of calories.  And when you compare the emissions of greenhouse gases, the steak is 24 times worse.

According to a 2006 U.N. Report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” worldwide, “the livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent.  This is a higher share than transport.”  So all the planes, trains, ships, and automobiles spewing exhaust all over the world are making less of an impact on global warming than livestock and associated activities such as feed.  Are you wondering how farm animals manage this?  Are you picturing cows in HumVees driving to the mall for Crocs?  Then you and I are kindred spirits, but it turns out that the truth is a lot uglier and smellier than Walmart.

Thirty-four percent of livestock’s 18% share of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to Amazon deforestation, and this is the largest single source, at 2.4 billion tonnes of CO2 per year.  According to PBS’ “Journey into Amazonia,” “Cattle farming in the rainforest leads to large-scale ‘slash-and-burn’ practices in the Amazon: the rainforest is set on fire to clear away the trees and other plants, and then grass is planted for cows to eat. The meat from these cows often comes to the U.S… Every hamburger patty from the rainforest means 55 square feet of rainforest land has been destroyed.”  I found that last sentence so astonishing I looked further and found it was confirmed at MIT’s “Project Amazonia.”  “Almost one-fifth of Brazil’s Amazon region – an area the size of France – has been deforested to date, mostly in the last 40 years” (“Deforestation in the Amazon,” The Guardian).”  Sixty percent of Amazon deforestation is directly attributed to cattle ranches.   But even eating U.S.-grown beef wreaks havoc on the Amazon, as vast areas are now being converted to soybean production to feed U.S. cattle.  In this article I’m focusing on greenhouse gases, but we both know that Amazon deforestation results in a lot worse than a bunch of smoke.

What else accounts for the enormous greenhouse gas emissions of livestock?  It’s not from chickens standing in front of the open fridge door all the time.  No, the second largest part, at 25%, is politely referred to as “enteric fermentation.”  That phrase always gets a good round of titters at the scientific conferences, but the rest of us will have to settle for “burps and farts.”  Not surprisingly, about the same amount of emissions comes from the steaming mountains of manure created by the 10 billion farm animals we kill every year.  According to David Pimentel of Cornell, your personal share of American livestock’s annual 900 million tons of waste is three tons; UPS has been trying to deliver it to you all week but you’re never home.

Maybe you’ve been at the grocery store.  I was only half surprised to read an offhand comment in a study by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago (“Diet, Energy and Global Warming”).  They had to account for the fact that everybody knows that people need about 2,100 calories per day on average, and yet the U.N. Food & Agriculture Office data they were relying on showed gross average consumption is 3,774 calories.  Now the “gross” means that they were measuring, basically, the end sales of food to consumers; they were not calculating how much actually goes past the lips.  But they explained that the difference of 1,674 calories per person per day, an 80% overage, “is due to overeating and food discarded after being fully processed and distributed.”  Sigh.  Based on those same gross consumption figures, the average American gets 27.7% of his 3,774 calories from animal products (meat, milk and eggs).  Thank goodness we’re able to get enough protein and calories in this country so we can be healthy.  What?  The typical American diet isn’t healthy?  We eat too many calories and too much protein?  Oh.

That NY Times article reported that “Americans eat…about 8 oz. of meat per day, roughly twice the global average.”  Well, I’m not eating any, so someone out there is eating a pound a day.  World per capita meat consumption doubled between 1961 and 2007, and it’s expected to double again by 2050.  A person following the typical American diet causes emissions of about 1½ tons CO2-equivalent above those of a person consuming the same number of calories, but from plant sources.

Numbers, numbers, numbers, billions, percents, who can make sense of them?  Let’s stop and talk about cars.  Well, cars and numbers.  Let’s imagine that our good friend Williamshire Frederickstonsky, a Camry-driver, eats a diet consisting of 20% animal products (which, remember, is well below the average of 27.7%).  Those busy researchers at the University of Chicago calculated that Bill can go out and buy a $20,000 Prius, or he can stop buying animal products – the effect on greenhouse gas emissions will be the same!  As a second example, they said that if our pal Lola drives a Suburban and eats a 35% animal product diet, she can either switch to a Camry or stop eating animal products – they’re equivalent in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.  And the whole vegetable foods, such as grains and beans, that would replace the animal products, are much cheaper.

I saw another comparison that I found interesting.  People agonize over whether they should ask for paper or plastic at the checkout, but they are unaware that, assuming that a day’s food for four is in the bag, the decisions they made in the meat and dairy departments are 186 times more important energy-wise.  “The energy saved by four people choosing a vegetable-based diet for one day equals the energy needed to produce 186 plastic bags, or drive the average U.S passenger car over 15 miles.” (“Paper vs. Plastic – The Final Analysis,” Justin Brant, Sightline Daily)

I’m definitely not trying to diminish the importance of car or bag selection, or any of the other recommended changes; I just want to lift food selection up into its rightful place, and get people talking about it.  This issue is absent from most web sites about global warming.  Look in vain for it on Al Gore’s list of ten things you can do.  The EPA ignores it.  Even people who care deeply about the environment often have no idea of the devastating impact livestock has on almost every issue our precious Earth faces, from acid rain to water pollution, desertification to mass extinctions and, of course, climate change.

So now what?  Well, the U.N. report had lots of suggestions for lowering livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as not burning down the rainforest, and trapping the methane from manure.  I’m not a scientist, but they appeared to know what they were talking about.  The changes they propose might help, some.  We could sit back and wait for the government and industry to improve the greenhouse situation.  How’s that working so far?  Oh, I just heard a faint voice from faraway Washington, D.C., say, “What Greenhouse problem?”  [I wrote this when George W. Bush was in office.]

By now you probably have a pretty good idea of where I’m going with this.  Watch out, I might surprise you now.  I am vegan, but not because of global warming; while there are literally trillions of great reasons to be vegan, this article isn’t one of them, because you don’t have to eliminate every particle of animals from your diet in order to make a difference for our climate.  Don’t do nothing because you won’t do everything.  Each of us has the power to do something.  How much are you willing to do?


7 Responses to “A Disregarded Truth”

  1. […] four hours in front of a display I made about Livestock’s contribution to global warming.  Here is something I wrote to put that research into written form.  While there, I spoke to a man who […]

  2. […] destroyed to plant soybeans, not for tofu, but for livestock feed.  You can see my essay, “A Disregarded Truth,” for more.  This same group was interested in pigs, so I showed them two photos on my […]

  3. […] impact on water usage and pollution, acid rain, soil erosion and pollution, air pollution, global warming, wildlife, oceans, antibiotics, and non-renewable energy.  I don’t mean that our need to eat […]

  4. […] Institute (Wikipedia entry) is claiming that the 18% greenhouse-gases-from-livestock figure that the U.N. came up with is too low, and the actual number […]

  5. […] greenhouse gases first, because that is what the display had been originally designed about (“A Disregarded Truth”).  I told them about how livestock causes more greenhouse gases than transportation, then moved […]

  6. […] put this into perspective, the U.N. estimates that livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases, which is more than all transportation.  A more recent study suggests […]

  7. […] wrote the information I researched into an essay, A Disregarded Truth.  But verbally, my catch question is, “Did you know that what we eat has an enormous impact […]

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