Killer cow emissions : LA Times Editorial Powerfully Connects Meat to Global Warming
- Editor, Los Angeles Times
*L.A. Times Editorial Powerfully Connects Meat to Global Warming
From the Los Angeles Times
*Killer cow emissions
*Livestock are a leading source of greenhouse gases. Why isn't anyone
raising a stink?
October 15, 2007
It's a silent but deadly source of greenhouse gases that contributes
more to global warming than the entire world transportation sector, yet
politicians almost never discuss it, and environmental lobbyists and
other green activist groups seem unaware of its existence.
That may be because it's tough to take cow flatulence seriously. But
livestock emissions are no joke.
Most of the national debate about global warming centers on carbon
dioxide, the world's most abundant greenhouse gas, and its major sources
-- fossil fuels. Seldom mentioned is that cows and other ruminants, such
as sheep and goats, are walking gas factories that take in fodder and
put out methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases that are far
more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Methane, with 21
times the warming potential of CO2, comes from both ends of a cow, but
mostly the front. Frat boys have nothing on bovines, as it's estimated
that a single cow can belch out anywhere from 25 to 130 gallons of
methane a day.
It isn't just the gas they pass that makes livestock troublesome. A
report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
identified livestock as one of the two or three top contributors to the
world's most serious environmental problems, including water pollution
and species loss. In terms of climate change, livestock are a threat not
only because of the gases coming from their stomachs and manure but
because of deforestation, as land is cleared to make way for pastures,
and the amount of energy needed to produce the crops that feed the animals.
All told, livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions
worldwide, according to the U.N. -- more than all the planes, trains and
automobiles on the planet. And it's going to get a lot worse. As living
standards rise in the developing world, so does its fondness for meat
and dairy. Annual per-capita meat consumption in developing countries
doubled from 31 pounds in 1980 to 62 pounds in 2002, according to the
Food and Agriculture Organization, which expects global meat production
to more than double by 2050. That means the environmental damage of
ranching would have to be cut in half just to keep emissions at their
current, dangerous level.
It isn't enough to improve mileage standards or crack down on diesel
truck emissions, as politicians at both the state and national levels
are working to do. Eventually, the United States and other countries are
going to have to clean up their agricultural practices, while consumers
can do their part by cutting back on red meat.
Manure, methane and McGovern
In a Web forum for presidential candidates in September, TV talk-show
host Bill Maher asked former Sen. John Edwards a snarky question:
Because Edwards had suggested that people trade in their SUVs to benefit
the environment, and cattle generate more greenhouse gases than SUVs,
"You want to take a shot at meat?" Maher asked.
Edwards wisely dodged the question. It is extremely hazardous for
politicians to take on the U.S. beef industry, a lesson learned by Sen.
George McGovern in the late 1970s when his Select Committee on Nutrition
dared to recommend that Americans cut down on red meat and fatty dairy
products for health reasons. After a ferocious lobbying blitz from meat
and dairy interests, the committee rewrote its guidelines to suggest
diners simply choose lean meats that "will reduce saturated fat intake."
McGovern was voted out of office in 1980, in part because of opposition
from cattlemen in his home state of South Dakota.
Beyond the dangers of taking on the beef bloc, legislating food choices
is an unpopular and nearly impossible task, so it's unlikely any
candidate will endorse a national vegetarian movement to fight global
warming any time soon. There are other approaches, though.
Cows and other ruminants have four stomachs, the first of which, called
the rumen, is where the trouble lies; bacteria in the rumen produce
methane. Scientists -- mostly in Australia, New Zealand and Britain,
where the problem is taken a lot more seriously than it is here -- are
working on a variety of technical solutions, including a kind of bovine
Alka-Seltzer. Scientists are also trying to develop new varieties of
feed grasses that are more energy efficient and thus generate less
methane, and they are experimenting with targeted breeding to produce a
less-gassy strain of cattle.
But it's not just about the belching. Livestock manure also emits
methane (especially when it's stored in lagoons) and nitrous oxide,
better known as laughing gas. There's nothing funny about this gas: It
has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and livestock are
its leading anthropogenic (human-caused) source. The best way to reduce
these gases is to better manage the manure; storage methods and
temperature can make a big difference. The California Air Resources
Board is studying manure-management practices as part of a sweeping
effort to identify ways of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, work that
by the end of next year might lead to regulation of the state's ranches
and dairies. Other states should do the same.
There are also smart ways of treating or converting animal waste. Manure
lagoons can be covered, capturing gases that can be used to generate
power or simply be burned away (burning the gases converts most of the
emissions to CO2, which is far less destructive than methane). That's
the strategy being pursued by American Electric Power Co., a gigantic
utility based in Columbus, Ohio, whose coal-fired power plants make it
the nation's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. This summer, the company
began putting tarps on waste lagoons at farms and ranches and sending
the gases they capture to flares.
American Electric is under heavy regulatory pressure. Last week, it was
on the wrong end of the biggest environmental settlement in U.S. history
and agreed to spend up to $4.6 billion to clean up its smokestacks. Its
work on manure is part of an experiment in carbon offsets; the company
anticipates that someday Congress will cap the amount of carbon dioxide
that can be emitted and allow polluters to trade pollution credits. As a
previous installment of this series noted, that's a less effective way
to combat global warming than carbon taxes, but the American Electric
example shows that it would also direct the economic might of industrial
polluters toward solving off-the-beaten-path problems such as livestock
Other possible solutions include providing more aid to ranchers in
places like Brazil, where forests are rapidly disappearing, to make
cattle operations more efficient and thus decrease the need to cut down
trees. Changes in farming practices on fields used to grow livestock
feed could help capture more carbon. And U.S. agricultural policy is
overdue for changes. Subsidies on crops such as corn and soybeans have
traditionally kept the price of meat artificially low because these are
Broccoli: It's what's for dinner
Such policy shifts and new technologies would help, but probably not
enough. A recent report in the Lancet led by Australian National
University professor Anthony J. McMichael posits that available
technologies applied universally could reduce non-carbon dioxide
emissions from livestock by less than 20%. The authors advocate another,
fringe approach that has long been embraced by dietitians and vegans but
is a long way from going mainstream in the United States: eating less meat.
Americans love beef. According to the 2000 census, the U.S. ranks No. 3
in the world in per-capita consumption of beef and veal (after Argentina
and Uruguay), gorging on 100 pounds per year. We're also among the
leaders in obesity, heart disease and colorectal cancer, and there is a
connection -- fatty red meat has been linked to all of these conditions.
McMichael's idea isn't likely to gain much traction outside Australia;
he proposes that developed countries lower their daily intake of meat
from about 250 grams to 90 grams, with no more than 50 grams coming from
ruminant animals -- that's less than 2 ounces, or half a McDonald's
Still, as evidence mounts that cutting back on beef would both improve
our health and help stave off global warming, a campaign urging people
to do so is clearly in order. It's understandable why political
candidates are wary of bashing beef, but less understandable why
environmental leaders with nothing to lose are reluctant to raise the
issue. They would be more credible in targeting polluters if they were
equally assertive in pointing out what all Americans can do to fight
global warming, and at the very top of that list -- way ahead of more
commonly mentioned approaches such as buying fluorescent lightbulbs or
energy-efficient appliances -- would be eating less red meat.
A University of Chicago study examined the average American diet and
found that all the various energy inputs and livestock emissions
involved in its production pump an extra 1.5 tons of CO2 into the air
over the course of a year, which would be avoided by a vegetarian diet.
Thus, the researchers found, cutting out meat would do more to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions than trading in a gas guzzler for a hybrid car.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture assesses ranchers, dairymen and
producers of other commodities to pay for marketing campaigns to promote
their products, raising millions of dollars a year and turning such
slogans as "Got Milk?" and "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" into national
catchphrases. This isn't quite tantamount to a government-mandated
campaign to promote cigarette smoking, but it's close. The government
should not only get out of the business of promoting unhealthful and
environmentally destructive foods, it should be actively discouraging them.
For more information on this vital subject,
Meat Eating & Global Warming
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