Last week we discussed how eating less meat can benefit our pocketbook and our health. This week we’ll look at how eating less meat can help curb climate change, save the environment and lessen our dependence on foreign oil.
Curbs climate change
In 2006, a United Nations study reported that the livestock industry contributed 18 percent to greenhouse-gas emissions – more than emissions from every single car, train and plane on the planet. Livestock production contributes 9 percent of carbon dioxide, 37 percent of methane and 65 percent of nitrous oxide. The total food system contributes 33 percent of the total climate change effect with 12 percent from methane and nitrous oxide emissions, 18 percent from deforestation and land use changes, and 1.5 to 2 percent from fertilizer production and distribution. Information on transportation, waste and manufacturing were unavailable.
To sum up, emissions from factory farms – including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – contribute a great deal to climate change, so when you cut back on the amount of meat you eat, you are also cutting back on the emissions that contribute to global warming.
Want to learn more about the effect of meat production and agriculture on climate change? Check out Anna Lappe’s Take a Bite Out of Climate Change for more on the connection between global warming, the food on your plate, and the choices you make every day. And watch for Lappe’s book, Diet for a Hot Planet, to be released next spring.
Helps save the environment
Industrial meat production not only contributes to climate change but also pollutes our air, land and water. The huge amount of manure factory farms create cannot be absorbed by the land. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 335 million tons of manure is produced each year on U.S. farms. This waste sits in open air lagoons, emitting hundreds of kinds of gases, including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane. The North Carolina hog industry alone produces 300 tons of ammonia per day.
The manure is then often over applied to land or leaks from storage areas, polluting the land and water. One dairy farm with 2500 cows can produce as much waste as a city with around 411,000 people – and the manure does not have to be treated! In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency identified agricultural activity as a source of pollution for 48 percent of stream and river water.
Manure also contains high levels of disease-causing microorganisms, called pathogens, which can find their way into the soil and water. In every disease outbreak from water in the United States from 1986 to 1998 where the pathogen could be identified, the Centers for Disease Control concluded it most likely originated in livestock.
In addition, large amounts of water are needed to raise livestock, partly for the animals direct needs, such as drinking water, but mostly for cleaning out the sheds and irrigating the crops used as feed.
Another effect meat has on the environment is habitat destruction and deforestation. Vast amounts of land have been cleared and cultivated in order to raise animals or the feed they eat. Over the course of 40 years, 40 percent of all the rainforests in Central America have been cleared, often by burning, mainly to create cattle pasture. Most corn and soy grown in the world is fed to cows, pigs and chickens. And though figures vary, approximately 7 pounds of grain are needed to produce one pound of beef. Wouldn’t it be simpler, healthier, and better for the environment for us to eat the grain directly?
I could go on for pages about the environmental impact of factory farms and meat production on the environment, but I think you get the point. If you’d like to read more, please click on the links in this post. And be sure to check out the Meatless Monday video, which outlines the issues raised here.
Lessens our dependence on foreign oil
Industrial meat production uses large quantities of oil. Some is used for transporting food across the country – food travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach your dinner plate. More oil is used to fuel farm machinery. But the vast amount of fossil fuels is actually used in the production of fertilizers and pesticides. A University of Michigan report found that up to 40 percent of the energy used in the food system goes toward the production of artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides, used in industrial or conventional food production. In addition, approximately 23 percent of the energy used in food production is from processing and packaging food, mainly in order to ship it long distances.
Beef also uses large amounts of energy. A 2002 study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that our current system of food production needs 3 calories of energy to create 1 calorie of food. But those figures are an average. According to the Hopkins study, grain-fed beef requires 35 calories of energy for each calorie of beef produced.
So, if you worry about your health, the environment, climate change, energy consumption and also want to save money, don’t get overwhelmed. All you have to do is reduce your meat consumption, even one day a week, to make a difference. It’s that simple!
(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the 19th installment in her series Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)