by Marion Nestle
Aug 29 2007

Livestock and Climate Change?

Today’s New York Times business section is worth reading for an article about advertisements run by PETA and the Humane Society stating that eating meat has a worse effect on climate change than cars do. The ads are based on a report from FAO (the Food and Agriculture of the United Nations) arguing that the “livestock sector” is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases and water pollution.  This sector, says the report, accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.  This seems like a lot but the report adds it up from three sources: deforestation, digestive gases, and manure. Livestock, the FAO report says, should be a leading focus for environmental policies.

Somehow, this report got by me and I’m glad to know about it.  It links diets that are good for people with those that are good for the planet and gives more good reasons for the value of eating a largely plant-based diet.

  • Professor:

    Does it matter whether the livestock is raised industrially in small areas and fed corn/soy/grain versus grass-fed or pastured livestock raised with traditional methods?

    Thank you.

  • I’ve had a lot of trouble putting all the data I have in my head regarding livestock and the environment together into a coherent whole. On the one hand, CAFO’s and their ilk seem to me to be irredeemably vile, with nothing to offer either humanity or the environment. But…

    Step away from CAFOs for a minute, and things get murky. I once saw a claim that there are, in fact, the same number of ruminant animals alive in North America as there were during the settler days–just now they’re cows rather than bison/buffalo. So, in a 1-for-1 analysis, there shouldn’t be a net impact on the environment. Or at least, if there is it must be directly attributed to the conditions in which the animals live (and so we’re back to CAFOs).

    Furthermore, I’m persuaded that pastured animals can be very environmentally sound, especially in areas where the land is untillable anyway. Pasture land tends to be some of the most ecologically diverse in our country, and having something occupying the land helps protect it from development. But it’s not a cheap way to raise animals for meat, and switching to this system would necessitate both a drastic increase in cost and a radical reduction in meat consumption. I’m actually just fine with both of those things, but the economy sure ain’t.

    I guess for these, and other reasons, I buy local pastured meat, and not too much of that, either. But I think the vegetarians are loosing some of the moral high ground these days in the face of saner animal keeping practices. I am definitely moving towards a heavily plant-based diet, but I do not think that excluding the small amount of meat we eat would really help the environment, either immediately or in the long run.

  • I am pretty much in agreement with Robyn comments. Read about Joel Salatin’s biodynamic multi-species farm Polyface in VA. He uses very little energy or supply from outside the farm. The cost of energy could triple and he could still sustain his farm because it is a balanced eco system. The problem isn’t the number of animals it, is the manner in which they are raised. The bonus is that animals raised Joel Salatin’s way (on well-managed pasture in symbiosis with other animals) are healthier for us to consume than unsustainable, polluting feedlots.

    Interestingly enough, I learned a lot more about the US prairies, buffalo, and a healthy ecosystem when I read the non-fiction book, The Worst Hard Time, about the dust storms of the “dirty 30s”. While the book is primarily about the humans and the hard times they faced, I also found it a fascinating, well researched historical perspective on how not to ruin (by human intervention) a perfectly balanced ecosystem with grass-based, solar energy-to-protein converting ruminants (buffalo) to a wealth building, unsustainable, soil destroying, plant crop (in this case wheat). The dust storms of the 30s are a perfect example of where ill-suited mono-cropping of plant materials creates ecological and human havoc, primarily in the name of greed. Not nearly enough of this lesson has been retained in the public consciousness. I highly recommend the book for anyone who would like some historical perspective, because we know “history repeats itself”.

  • elfling

    Another agreement with Robyn M – pasture raised animals do not have to be hard on the environment. They eat grass that otherwise would be mowed or cultivated with fossil fuels. Pastureland creates habitat for birds and other animals, and responsible grazing is beneficial for the health of the grasses. Our local pastures support hawks and deer and foxes and Great Blue Herons.

    Hay and feedlot raised animals are definitely using a lot more energy.

    Some animals are good for a farm, and the sad fact is that a field of broccoli as far as the eye can see generally is incompatible with wildlife.

  • In fact, you could look at properly-grazed animals as the perfect solar energy converters. The sun energy is converted via chlorophyll, and the grazing animal converts the grasses (indigestible to humans) to protein.

    I’m currently reading Joel Salatin’s brand new book, Everything I Want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. Joel has a uniquely frank way of focusing on the huge disconnect between our centralized industrial food supply and sustainable family farming, particularly regulations.

  • Shari L.

    Doesn’t this sound like a brilliant idea?

    Crossing a cow with a kangaroo stomach so that it can better digest modern, industrial, grain-based diets! Think of the money that “farmers” could spend on feed!

    Wouldn’t it just be simpler — and less costly in the long run — to let cows graze on grass like they’re built to do?

  • The authors of Nourishing Traditions estimate that there is three times more land in China that is suitable for grazing than land that is suitable for plant farming.

    I wonder what the PETA people would think if they knew how many little critters are killed every year plowing and harvesting agricultural lands so vegans can eat soy products.

    What Robyn said makes a great deal of sense, but of course, if we killed the farm subsidies on corn, wheat, and soy, pastured meat would start to look like a bargain in comparison.

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