EDITOR’S NOTE: This is going to be one of our ongoing series on climate change and how we can all make a personal impact. Since today is World Vegetarian Day, I think this is an appropriate way to kick things off.
With various climate change proposals circulating on Capitol Hill, and the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen right around the corner, we are all reminded that legislative action and global cooperation are needed in order to protect our planet. While it is the responsibility of our leaders to work out an effective agreement, we must not forget that normal people like us can also make a big difference in reducing greenhouse gases. The Green-up your life! blog series will discuss the many ways in which we can all make a difference, just by making small changes in the way we live. Today, it is about what’s for dinner.
Many discussions about climate change are full of scientific jargon and are political in nature, making them hard to follow. We hear about increasing wind and solar power, implementing cap and trade, and reducing industrial carbon emissions. For those of us who want to personally contribute to the effort, we might switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, or install solar panels on our homes. In addition to these large (and sometimes expensive) personal changes, there are many little things we can all do on a daily basis to make our planet healthier. One thing we can all do to decrease global warming is not always on the top of the list: eat less meat and dairy.
So, does the agricultural industry really contribute that much to climate change? Yup. Meat production accounts for a whopping 18% of total global greenhouse emissions–more than all forms of transportation put together. About 9% of anthropogenic (read: derived from human activity) carbon dioxide emissions are attributed to agriculture. In addition, methane, the smelly heat-trapping gas emitted from both ends of livestock, warms the world 20% faster than carbon dioxide. Almost 40% of methane in the U.S. is generated from enteric fermentation (which takes place during a ruminant animal’s digestion process) related to animal husbandry. Beyond carbon dioxide and methane, agriculture is responsible for 65 % of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide only accounts for 5% of total greenhouse gases, but has heat trapping effects 310 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. More than 37% of the earth’s land is used for agricultural purposes, and as the global demand for meat increases, the creation of more grazing land is a major contributor to deforestation, especially in Latin America, where 70 % of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, with the remaining 30% largely used for growing feed crops.
Beef is the largest culprit, but there are similar stories for all farm animals, including seafood. There is no doubt that agricultural practices contribute to global warming, both directly through emissions created from all levels of production, and indirectly through deforestation. Beyond this, it is just plain inefficient (as tasty as it might be) to get our calories this way. While most grains, fruits, or veggies require 2 calories of fossil fuel energy to create 1 calorie of food, this ratio grows up to 80:1 for beef!
When breaking bad news, honesty is the best policy. Nobody really wants to hear it, (and the agricultural industry most certainly doesn’t want to tell it), but as responsible stewards of our planet, and as daily consumers of food, one of the best things we can do is to eat less meat and dairy products. (Cutting down just on meat, but not dairy, will not make a big difference, because dairy cows burp and produce manure too). The silver lining is that what is better for the earth is also better for our health. Studies show that veggie-based diets decrease the chance of suffering from numerous types of cancers, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. When we do choose to eat meat, buying from local ranchers who raise pasture grazing livestock will ensure that we are limiting our impact on the earth. It appears more expensive to buy meat this way – but not when all the hidden costs are accounted for.
Nobody is asking that we all take up a diet of strictly brussels sprouts and brown rice, but if we all spend a little more time learning about the impact that our food systems have on the planet, a greener diet may just start to look more appealing. Stay tuned for next time, when, sticking to the topic of food, the importance of purchasing organic products will be discussed.
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