The GW Issue Few Wish to Hear

November 9th, 2009
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Most environmentally aware people try to keep up with the science, the debates, and the drafting of policy that will hopefully address Global Climate Change (a.k.a. Global Warming). The hope is that we can diminish human contributions to greenhouse gases before the planet becomes unlivable. Things like developing energy sources that don’t require raping the earth or poisoning the air and water (Mountaintop Removal) or never-ending oil wars, conservation at home and at work, switching urban transportation fleets to biodiesel, purchasing hybrid cars, commitments to rebuilding infrastructure such as the electrical grid so it doesn’t ‘lose’ nearly half of our generation capacity, ending the decimation of tropical rainforests, etc.

And many of the people young and old who are paying attention and doing what they can to mitigate their own carbon footprints are also well aware that with some tweaking of our antiquated agricultural policies that were originally designed to ‘beat’ the Soviets in some kind of mock Cold War game of who can produce the most corn, we could be saving 20% of our fossil fuel consumption simply by switching the nation’s primary shipping systems – trains, ships and semi fleets – to biodiesel made with alternative feedstock crops. Along with our agricultural machinery. A combine can run just fine on biodiesel – or, with a pre-heater refit, straight vegetable oil.

Yet there’s a huge contributor to climate change that people don’t seem to be particularly aware of or take seriously as far as choices they could make to lessen their own impact. It’s not about carbon dioxide, which is the primary focus of most attempts to mitigate Global Warming, but about other greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide and methane. For these the agricultural sector is again the most significant contributor, and it all revolves around our hard-to-kick habit of eating way too much meat.


Meat production accounts for a majority of the deforestation both in the tropics and temperate regions. Researchers from Johns Hopkins published a paper in the journal Public Health Nutrition last year examining the shortcomings of media reporting about agricultural (thus food choices) contributions to climate change which illustrates why this aspect of the issue is escaping so many otherwise concerned citizens.

According to the United Nations meat production accounts for 9% of human CO2 production. Yet meat production accounts for 65% of humanity’s contribution of nitrous oxide, which has nearly 300 times the greenhouse impact of carbon dioxide! Meat production further produces 37% of the methane contribution (a gas 23 tomes more greenhouse potent than CO2) and 64% of ammonia – a potent contributor to acid rain. Land use dedicated to livestock production includes 30% of the planet’s entire land surface and 33% of global arable land just for growing food for those cattle, swine, chickens and such. Together, livestock production accounts for a fifth of all global emissions. Which is higher than all transportation sources combined.

Truth is that feed enough to produce a single pound of steak could provide adequate nutrition for 5 humans. Not to mention livestock production’s contributions to water shortages and pollution loads, epidemic obesity in the population that for some reason believes it needs meat 4 or 5 times a day, thus serious contributions to the notably lousy health of our population across the board – and cost of health care for so many obese, sickly meat-eaters.

Beef and lamb are the most inefficient and most polluting meats, pork is a bit more GHG efficient (but not less polluting per water quality and usage), chicken is lowest. By simply not eating meat during one meal a day, we could cut our GHG emissions overall by more than 10%. Individuals could still maintain their weight problems, hardened arteries and high cholesterol levels just fine despite skipping the bacon or strip steak once a day. If they chose to eat meat only once a day, they might lose some weight and find themselves in better overall health while lessening their personal contribution to global climate change by half!

Chances are that the world’s governments aren’t going to do enough in the next decade or two to delay or prevent massive global climate change and all the deadly consequences of that to humans and the rest of the life we share this planet with. Chances are that individual people’s diet and lifestyle choices will kill them sooner than they might have liked no matter what governments do or don’t do in the future. For those of us who have made serious lifestyle choices to become more responsible and more aware by doing as much as we can for ourselves, we’ve a big investment is staying healthy and active, in wholesome food production and preservation, and in educating our children, friends and neighbors toward healthier lifestyles and smaller footprints on the face of the earth.

Everyone dies in the end, all generations. The questions today are how much of the world will we take with us when we go, and how much will we leave to future generations so they have a chance to experience life too. We faced a similar dilemma with our vast arsenals of WMDs a generation ago, and while it still plays a role in international tensions, we no longer live our lives under Damocles’ Sword threatening to make us extinct 400+ times over just because we can. A decision was made in the ether of humanity’s collective consciousness to have a future, to allow life to continue its evolutionary journey on this rock. We could make such a decision again, without too much sacrifice and both we and future generations would be much healthier and happier for it.

Pick a day and go meatless. Pick a meal and skip the meat in it every day. Switch to chicken and stop eating beef or pork or lamb apart from holidays once or twice a year. If enough of us did just that much we might buy the future some time, and time is a precious – but diminishing – commodity right now.

Here are some links to sources readers may find helpful in educating themselves about this aspect of global climate change, and possibly for help in making the right choices…

WaPo: The Meat of the Problem

AAAS: Climate-Friendly Dining … Meats

IA State: Food, Fuel and Freeways

Why is the Media Afraid to Tackle Livestock’s Role in Climate Change?

Cornell: Food for Livestock or People

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