An Inconvenient Lunch

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An Inconvenient Lunch

By Brenda Shoss, President, Kinship Circle
February 2009

Seriously fat. That describes one in four adults in 2008 [1]. Americans average 3,700 calories everyday. Most come from meat and dairy foods [2].

But the bloated nation faces more than heart disease and diabetes. It turns out the last thing on Al Gore's mind is the first thing to warm the planet.

The way animals become food -- from feed crops to confinement and slaughter -- churns out 18% of the world's greenhouse gasses, according to a United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, "Livestock's Long Shadow [3]." At nearly 6.5 billion tons of CO2-equivalent gasses per year, meat production yields more heat-sucking vapors than every car, truck, plane
and ship combined [3, 4].

Al Gore's book and film, "An Inconvenient Truth," preached wind turbines, biofuels, and the like. He even won the 2007 Nobel Peace Price for his environmental advocacy [5]. Meanwhile Gidon Eshel, a Bard Center geophysicist, and Pamela A. Martin, a University of Chicago assistant professor of geophysics, disclosed another startling truth: If all Americans gave up meat in just 20% of meals, it would be as if each swapped a sedan for a mega-efficient Prius.

Brainy types stayed with the meat thing. The National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan figured 2.2 pounds of beef equals the sum of carbon dioxide a typical European car spews every 155 miles. On U.S. turf, livestock plants "emit as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles," Nathan Fiala writes in Scientific American (2/09) [4].

Meat scores higher than light bulbs too. A beef, lamb or pork cut expends enough energy on animal growth and transport to burn a 100-watt bulb for 20 days, asserts Rajendra Pachauri, UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chief [6]. FAO scientists hold animal agriculture accountable for "the world's most pressing environmental problems...global warming, land
degradation, air/water pollution, and loss of biodiversity [3, 7]."

Where's The Beef?

It's in America's belly -- a walloping 50.2 billion pounds of beef, poultry and pork, as per USDA's 2008 National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Livestock Report [8]. Nearly 63 billion land animals are butchered internationally, reports USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) in 2007 [9]. In America, some 10 billion land animals, plus about 17 billion fish, die for human consumption each year.

The environmentally correct crowd recycles, dims lights, conserves water, drives less and plants more. Green goodwill, however, stops at the fork.

Meat eaters in industrialized nations each down 176 pounds a year. While individuals in developing countries ingest 66 pounds year-round, that gap is closing [10]. China, relatively new to the global meat market, beefed up exports 900% in the first quarter of 2008. Intercontinental meat intake may double from 280 million tonnes in 2008 to more than 500 million tonnes by 2050, predicts FAO's "Livestock's Long Shadow [3]."

Meat is one of "today's most serious environmental problems," says Henning Steinfeld, "Shadow's" senior author and FAO's Chief of Livestock Information and Policy Branch. "Urgent action is required to remedy the situation [11]."

Just how urgent? That's up for grabs. Most agree that combustible fossil fuels (carbon-heavy coal, petroleum, natural gas, oil) trap atmospheric heat and cause a "greenhouse effect." We know fossil-fuel energy is a non-renewable power source.

Scientists widely accept the basic principles of global warming: Climate has changed more in recent decades than in 1000 years [12]. Human activity accelerates carbon dioxide emissions, with a 25% jump over the past 150 years [13]. CO2 rates will double by 2100, unless greenhouse gasses are drastically cut [14]. Warmer land and water temperatures will advance dramatic weather events -- drought, flood, fire, hurricane. Ecosystems will lose biodiversity, leading to the extinction of entire species [14].

Despite this eco-mess, few want to view lunch as a weapon of mass pollution.

Gas, Burps And Poop

FAO analysts speculate that over 8% of water and 30% of ice-free land are involved in livestock production [7]. Some goes to ruminants (cows, goats, sheep) in massive fenced feedlots. Other areas support meat, dairy or egg CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).

Cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, sheep and others are processed assembly-line style. For instance, half of all hogs live in industrial barns with 5,000 or more hogs, maintains USDA's Census of Agriculture [15]. Monster farms deny pigs space, sunlight, straw, mud or anything fundamental to being a pig. Giant breeding sows are immobilized in two-feet wide gestation crates. Piglets suckle through metal bars, but otherwise cannot touch their mother. Animals are tail-docked, castrated and teeth-clipped
without anesthesia. In 2008, 10.14 million pigs went to slaughter, some insufficiently stunned and alert on the kill floor [8].

Animal cruelty is a hallmark of factory farms. So are belches, gas, and poop. To grasp how much stressed animals poop, imagine one dairy cow. She defecates a usual 14.475 gallons per day. Her waste equals that of 20 to 40 people, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states. There are 9.1 million American dairy cows [16]. In fact, you'd need to multiply the U.S. population's waste 130 times to match the output of agri-animals [17].

Every year close to 3 trillion pounds of animal excrement is dumped in football-field length lagoons teeming with dusts, molds, bacteria, heavy metals, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and hundreds more vaporizable elements. These cesspools seep into ground water and local aquifers, leading the EPA to dub CAFOs America's chief source of water contamination. Farmers
commonly fertilize fields with a manure mist that scatters even more toxins.

The FAO cites agribusiness as the world's top water polluter, contributing "animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures [7]."

Anal emissions also pack major Global Warming Potential (GWP). The FAO says ruminant digestive systems emit 65% of human-caused nitrous oxide, with 296 times more force to lock-in heat than CO2. Animal waste supplies 37% of human-caused methane, a gas with 23 times more heat capture than CO2. Add another 64% of human-related ammonia (a main player in acid rain), and
livestock jump to the front seat of climate crisis [11] .

The Organic/Free-Range Myth

Global warming wise, "organic, free-range, home-grown" don't hold much clout. Whether a cow grows behind your house or on a Midwest farm, he still poops methane and farts nitrous oxide.

Drs. Adrian Williams, Eric Audsley and D.L. Sandars of Cranfield University in the U.K. argue "there is little difference in nitrous oxide emissions between conventional and organic systems." Organic poultry and eggs actually up energy use by 30 and 15% respectively, due to longer growth spans.

Free-range systems boost energy demands 15% for eggs and 20% for poultry.

Land coverage also increases 65% for organic meat and milk [18].

This presents a dilemma for eaters in search of guilt-free meat. On the one hand, free-range producers allegedly don't stuff six to nine hens in filing-drawer sized cages or cram turkeys by the thousands in dark grower houses. They assure consumers they won't slice off the bottom third of each bird's beak. On the other hand, cruelty-free claims are routinely false -- and free-range operations don't really lower environmental impacts.

Planet Earth: We Are What We Eat

Since 1961, a fourfold rise in world meat production has guzzled enormous chunks of land, water and energy. Livestock now outnumber people 3 to 1. An estimated 50% (World Resources Institute) to 80% (Harvard nutritionist Jean Mayer) of U.S. grain crops fatten animals rather than feed people.

While processors exhaust 16 pounds of wheat, soy and assorted grains, plus 2,500 gallons of water, on ONE pound of beef -- 963 million people go to bed hungry, a 2008 FAO article states [19]. Grains consumed by U.S. livestock alone could feed 800 million, concludes ecology professor David Pimentel of Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences [20].

Agricultural products occupy so much land, forests are stripped into pastures to make room for more. In Latin America, the FAO defines 70% of prior Amazon forestland as grazing fields or feed crops [11] . Deforestation speeds global warming by removing CO2-absorbing trees. Ultimately, livestock offset natural cycles and squeeze out native species. FAO findings reveal 15 of 24 key ecosystem functions in decline due to farmed animals [11].

Pass The Roast Beef Please

Sensory experience, not logic, shapes our love of meat. Dad's barbeque and Mom's special roast say, "I care." Meat symbolizes prosperity and celebration. In truth, we eat animals because we've always eaten animals. So the greenest of greenies orders steak, despite loads of protein-rich "mock meats" at supermarkets, health food stores and restaurants.

About 3% of adults don’t eat meat, fish, or fowl, a Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) poll tallies. An additional 6.7% answer they "never eat meat," without naming species [21]. In VRG's 2008 survey of restaurant diners, more than half sometimes, often or always order meatless meals [22]. On college campuses, students rate access to vegan dishes as "important to them." And girls, ages 13 to 15, are the fastest growing meat-free demographic [23].

Nowadays it is a no-brainer to eat less meat or no meat at all. Produce and dairy aisles stock plant-based matches of ham, bacon, ground beef, cheese, milk and ice cream. Frozen food shelves are lined with soy "chicken" nuggets, seitan (a beef-like wheat protein), veggie burgers and ribs.

Car or meat? No contest. Meat leaves the heavier carbon footprint. So maybe, while biking to work or buying compact fluorescent bulbs, you'll consider lunch -- and for today, it won't come from an animal.

References

1. 7/18/08, Centers For Disease Control (CDC), State-Specific Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults.

2. Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

3. 2006, United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. "Livestock's long shadow: environmental issues and options."  

4. Feb. 2009 Scientific American. “How Meat Contributes to Global Warming.” Nathan Fiala.

5. Al Gore, Support Solutions to the Climate Crisis. 

6. 1/15/08, "Lifestyle changes can curb climate change." Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chief. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

7. 2006, UN’s FAO Agriculture & Consumer Protection Department. “Livestock impacts on the environment.” 

8. 1/23/09, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA. Meat Slaughter. 

9. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.  

10. 8/31/05, Worldwatch Institute. "Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry." Danielle Nierenberg. 

11. 11/29/06, UN’s Food Agriculture Service. "Livestock a major threat to nvironment.”

12. 2004, Energy Information Administration. "Greenhouse gases, climate change, and energy."

13. Internat’l Panel on Climate Change. "Climate Change: Synthesis Report 16 October 2006." 

14. "The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change" 10/18/06. 

15. USDA The Census of Agriculture. 2002 Census Publications.

16. 10/29/02, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA Region 9: "Animal Waste."

17. 7/2/03, WorldWatch Institute.

18. 1/11/08, Research looks at footprint. Rod Smith. Feedstuffs FoodLink. "Life Cycle Assessment." Drs. Adrian Williams, Eric Audsley and D.L. Sandars. Cranfield University, UK. 

19. 12/9/08, Rome. UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "Number of hungry people rises to 963 million." 

20. 8/7/97, Cornell University Science News. David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

21. Vegetarian Journal 2006 Issue 4. "How Many Adults Are Vegetarian?” Vegetarian Resource Group. Charles Stahler.

22. 2008 Dining Poll: Vegetarian Resource Group.

23. Vegetarian Journal 2005 Issue 4. "How Many Youth Are Vegetarian?" Vegetarian Resource Group. Charles Stahler.


Brenda Shoss is founder and president of Kinship Circle, a nonprofit animal advocacy organization serving the global community. Brenda's animal-focused columns run in The Healthy Planet and she has written for The Animals Voice, Satya Magazine, VegNews, and other publications. She regularly speaks at national animal protection events and produces humane educational materials.

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