Less meat means less climate problem


Methane, which is a byproduct of digestion by cud-chewing animals, is a gas 23 times more warming to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. A 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation attributed 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases produced each year to livestock.

But a more recent report for the World Watch Institute, by Robert Goodland, former environmental adviser to the World Bank estimates this figure to be much higher: 51 per cent, when the entire life cycle and supply chain of the livestock industry is taken into consideration.

Their report ‘Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change are...cows, pigs and chickens?’  factors in emissions from the tens of billions of animals exhaling CO2 annually, as well as deforestation for feed production and grazing, which prevents the reduction in greenhouse gases that would normally result from photosynthesis.

Reversing role

As things stand, global meat and dairy consumption is projected by the FAO to more than double by 2050. Reversing the role of livestock in climate change is “even more important than the urgent transition to renewable energy,” Goodland said.

In the report released last month, Dr Goodland and Anhang wrote that “livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe.”

Their solution to livestock’s global warming effect is simple: eat less animal products, or better still, none at all.

The researchers propose revenue-neutral carbon taxes on products that are greenhouse gas intensive, so that foods like pork and beef would pay for their high environmental cost.

But their wider proposal, however, is to find “better alternatives to livestock products,” like foods made with soy, seitan and mycoprotein.

Instead of looking to science and the future for a solution to the world’s livestock woes, many others are looking back at an old-world approach to agriculture in the form of small-scale, sustainable family farms.

Jo Robinson is the founder of EatWild.com, a US-based website promoting grass-fed meat and dairy products. The website is a resource for farmers who have chosen to raise their animals on pasture rather than send them to confined feedlots and for the consumers that want to buy these grass-fed products.

“In 1989, when I did my research into the industry, there were only about 50 such farms marketing themselves as pasture-raised in the US,” said Jo. “Now there are thousands.”

“Replacing nonsustainable farmland with pastureland would restore the fertility of the soil, hold on to soil moisture, and greatly reduce soil erosion. Replacing corn and soy production with permanent, productive grassland would be a net benefit to the environment,” said Jo.

But Terry Jones, of the National Farmer’s Union in Britain, wants to get away from discussions of good or bad livestock production, stating that “this is usually an idea promoted by single issue groups.” Jones added, “if you go on a single issue tangent, you are in danger of exporting the issue to somewhere else.”

And calls to eat less meat, like the “Meat Free Mondays” campaign in Britain, have farmers feeling unduly singled out in the debate. “Farmers for a long time have seen themselves as a solution to climate change, not as part of the problem,” said Jones. “There is a realisation that we have a role to play in mitigation, but there is a feeling of disappointment that agriculture is looked at in isolation, when we should be looking at what we can do across the board to reduce emissions.”

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