Thursday, October 30, 2008

Global Warming, Beef, and the Bovine Curtain













George Wuerthner

Just like the old Iron Curtain that squelched any critical discussion of Communism’s failures, we in the West live behind a “Bovine Curtain.” The Bovine Curtain is—like the Iron Curtain—operated by the state, using taxpayer dollars to continuously broadcast propaganda about the virtues of ranching in the West and suppressing any negative or critical information. The mantra “cows are good” is repeated so often that it has attained cult status, even among many conservation groups—who should know better.

Eating meat (domestic livestock), particularly beef, has one of the biggest environmental impacts on the planet. In many ways making a change from a livestock based diet to plants (or wild game) is one of the easiest things that most of us can modify in our personal behavior to lessen our collective burden upon the planet. Producing one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times as much fossil fuel input—releasing more than 10 times as much carbon dioxide—than does a calorie of plant protein.

In the summer 2007 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, UN researchers concluded that livestock production is one of the … most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” According to the UN, livestock contributes to “problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” But few environmental groups mention this report or its findings, particularly if they are located in the cowboy West behind the Bovine Curtain. They would have to admit that the findings conclusions apply equally as well to the western U.S.

In particular the report singled out livestock production as a major contributor to global warming emissions, yet even Al Gore ignored livestock’s role in global warming during his Live Earth Concert. I don’t want to denigrate Gore’s efforts for he has brought much needed attention to global climate change. Nevertheless, while it’s well and good to ask people to screw in florescent light bulbs to reduce energy demands, the single biggest change that anyone could do to immediately reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases is to eat less meat.

Eating less meat has a surprisingly big bang for effort. Ranch and farm raised livestock produce millions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane annually. These two gases account for 90 percent of US greenhouse emissions. For instance, all the trucks, SUVs, cars, airplanes, trains and other transportation combined accounts for 13 percent of global warming emissions, while livestock production is responsible for an astounding 18 percent of all US greenhouse gases.

Not only are there the carbon dioxide emissions from livestock production, but livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for the majority of emissions of several other greenhouse causing gases. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is responsible for a whopping 65 percent of worldwide nitrous oxide emissions. Bear in mind that nitrous oxide is about 300 times more effective as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide.

Methane is another gas produced by livestock. Methane traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that livestock production is the single greatest source of methane emissions in the US.

But when you live behind the Bovine Curtain most people are afraid to speak the truth or have internalized group think so completely that it does not even occur to people to ponder livestock’s central role in a host of environmental and health problems. Given their role as obsequious hand maidens to the livestock industry, it’s not surprising that federal and state governments hide the connection between meat production and global warming. But it’s totally unacceptable for environmental organizations to ignore this inconvenient truth.

For instance I recently checked the Sierra Club’s global climate change web site. They list ten things one can do to reduce global warming, from driving a more energy efficient auto to supporting renewable energy sources—but eating less meat is not one of them. It’s hard to believe that the Sierra Club is not aware of the UN report or other recent research linking livestock production with global warming, but one must assume that saying anything about livestock production is off limits when you live behind the Bovine Curtain.

Similarly I reviewed National Parks and Conservation Association’s new report, “Unnatural Disaster,” which describes the multiple ways that global warming will impact our national parks. The report suggests a host of solutions that range from more efficient energy use to adoption of renewable energy, but I could not locate any mention of eating less meat in the 48 page report.

And the Wilderness Society, while advising members to support carbon sequestration, mileage efficiency for vehicles, and other common remedies, did not mention of the role of livestock production and a meat diet in contributing to global warming.

Given that these national groups do not appear to see or more likely wish to avoid talking about a connection between diet and environmental issues, it’s not surprising that many regional or local environmental groups seldom mention livestock production as a global warming issue. They may express great concern about the decline of whitebark pine or large wildfires due to higher global temperatures, but they don’t go the next step to tie these issues to ranching and livestock production.

Try to raise any linkage to ranching and livestock and the Bovine Curtain slams down. In the West, we don’t talk about cows except to laud the ranchers for being “good stewards of the land” or some other fawning palaver.

Global warming is only one reason to end livestock production, particularly western ranching. Production of livestock is the single greatest source of non-point pollution in the West. Livestock are among the prime reasons for the spread of invasive plants like cheatgrass. Producing hay and other irrigated forage for livestock is the reason our rivers are dewatered each summer. Livestock are the reason bison and wolves are killed outside of national parks. Livestock spread disease to wildlife. Livestock are the reason native wildlife like prairie dogs are being slaughtered. The list goes on, but few groups are willing to even list these impacts, much less tackle the source of the problem—cows.

The obvious omission of diet preferences among the proposed solutions to global warming is particularly noteworthy, especially when it involves no new technologies, no major policy changes in government, and no significant investment in new infrastructure. Eating less meat won’t cure global warming, but it’s the easiest and more cost effective mechanism available to ordinary citizens to start us on a new pathway towards global sustainability.

If you can’t afford a Prius, you can afford to eat less meat. Even if you can’t switch to solar energy, you can switch to a reduced meat diet. While most of us can’t design a wind mill, we can design a better diet. Eating less meat is not only good for the planet’s health, it‘s good for your health. It’s time for all of us to begin to view eating and our choice of diet as more than a culinary decision, but as an environmental act.

3 comments:

gail jenner said...

It would be really great if some of the statistics you have cited here were accurate. Instead they are the uneducated response of people who have looked at only one part of the picture and have discarded the rest. Reasonable management of animals is indeed a WORTHWHILE, important, and healthy component of a sound environmental policy.

The FACTS are:

A second study, which counters the UN report, was released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but it didn't receive much media attention, though it should have.

The EPA report titled "U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks" crunched the numbers to determine that 80 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels and only 2.3 percent from food animal production!!

The EPA data clearly show the FAO statistics are irrelevant in the United States, but mainstream media and environmental extremists have called for Americans to reduce meat consumption to save the planet. There are far more effective ways to address this problem....

In TRUTH:
Cattle are ABSOLUTELY "environmentally friendly" and are efficient recyclers. Most of the feed they consume is forage and grass/hay or byproducts, but not grain. And only 15% of all feed grains produced in the U.S. are fed to beef cattle.

Cattle, or bovine, are ruminants, with four stomachs, just like the buffalo, thus they have the ability to convert forage and roughage, including discarded agricultural byproducts, eg: almond hulls, potato remnants, sugar beet pulp, corn stalks, grain screenings, oil seed residues, brewers’ grain and millers’ residues, then convert them into human food. They can use wheat and other grains that have been discarded because of early sprouting or as a result of adverse weather conditions. What better way to recycle what would otherwise by waste products? Harmless, natural, then converted into a sound and wonderful food. God made a miracle when He created the Cow.

Cattle can also take dry matter in rangelands or on hillsides that are actually FIRE HAZARDS and convert them into muscle/meat. Grass-fed cattle live in regions NOT conducive to crop production, whether because of elevation, water-accessiblity, or climate/topography.

In fact, of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the total U.S., about 470 million are listed as cropland; approximately 19% of that is used for feed grain production, thus there is NO LARGE DISPLACEMENT of acreage from production of human food into production of feed fo animals. More than 85% of all grazing lands in the U.S. are actually not suited to crop cultivation. Again, rather than consuming HUMAN food stuffs, almost 85% of the nutrients they consume comes from unusable (inedible) sources or from regions not suitable for farming.

As far as water "consumption" and production of beef:
It takes 200 gallons of water to produce a pound of hamburger, but it takes 39,090 gallons to manufacture a car; 11.6 gallons to process one chicken; 1,500 gallons to process a barrel of beer; 1,851 gallons to refine a barrel of crude oil; 28,100 gallons to process a ton of cane sugar; and it takes 9.3 gallons to process one CAN OF VEGETABLES. It takes 137 gallons of water to produce a pound of irrigated wheat.

In addition, cattle, grazers are efficient environmentally and allow for "Carbon sequestration."

Carbon sequestration is not a new idea. It figures prominently in the popular carbon off-setting programs in which people pay a firm to plant trees—which absorb atmospheric carbon in their trunks, branches and roots—to compensate for their carbon emissions from air or auto travel. initiatives to sequester carbon in soil through growing crops and grazing animals are less common, but perhaps more promising than planting trees since croplands and grasslands cover more of the earth’s surface than forests and they grow at a faster rate. The sequestration process works like this: The grass takes in carbon from the atmosphere; the animals trample the grass into the soil, where the carbon is absorbed; new grass sprouts and the process is repeated over and over again, absorbing more and more carbon.

Soil Science Professor Chuck Rice of Kansas State University, a member of the IPCC panel who directs a joint project of nine American universities and the U.S. Department of Energy studying the potential for reducing greenhouse gases through agricultural practices, states, "There is more carbon stored in the soil than in the atmosphere. If we can make a small change in managing that carbon in the soil, it would make a big difference in the atmosphere."
Since the release of a United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report in 2006, we've heard more and more about the carbon footprints and the green house gases generated in livestock production. That report claims that, on a global basis, raising livestock generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent than use of fossil fuels in driving cars and trucks. This story has appeared over and over again in the media.

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beccaWA said...

Well, I was reading along with your stats until the God thing came into it. That sort of negated your credibility with me.

First off, "god" did not create a cow, people did by selective breeding of wild bovine to domesticate them.

Also, while cows CAN convert grains into meat, it is not their natural diet. Grasses are. One reason cows emit so much methane is that we are feeding them an unnatural diet (grains) that they cannot properly digest: hence, the methane.

I do not have too much problem with grass-fed beef. However, our "food system" is very, very broken. Animals are treated horrifically in factory farming situations, and that is what creates a lot of the pollution problems as well. Eating less factory meat, growing a lot of my own (gardens, chickens). These are some of the things I do.

There are simply too many humans for the earth to sustain. That is really the root of all the resource problems, although nobody wants to talk about that either!