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By Emily Gertz on GlobalWarming.Change.org
From UN climate panel head Rajendra Pachauri to our own Animal Rights blogger Stephanie Ernst, voices have been raised in recent months urging people to help curb global warming by eating less meat -- particularly by consuming less beef.
The truth of the matter may not be that simple and direct.
This movement-within-a-movement was spurred by a 2006 report by the UNís Food and Agriculture Organization, "Livestockís Long Shadow." The report claimed that animal husbandry is responsible for almost 20 percent of greenhouse gas pollution. In large part it's because forests, which store carbon, are being razed and burned for pasturage. So cutting demand on meat could help preserve those forests, and slow down the pace of climate change.
Carbon emissions from transportation, raising animal feed, decomposing manure, and even cow farts also contribute to meat's climate-destabilizing burden on the atmosphere. I wrote here last year that "if every American had one day's eats per week free of meat, the reduction in carbon emissions would equate to taking eight million cars off the road."
But not all meats are created equally. Writing last week on Grist about "the meat/climate change myth," famed small-scale farmer Eliot Coleman says that it's industrial-scale animal farming that's at fault here. The cows he raises on grass on his Maine farm, he says, are not only not a burden on the climate; they're helping to maintain and diversify the plants growing on open grasslands, which themselves sequester carbon.
If I butcher a steer for my food, and that steer has been raised on grass on my farm, I am not responsible for any increased CO2. The pasture-raised animal eating grass in my field is not producing CO2, merely recycling it (short term carbon cycle) as grazing animals (and human beings) have since they evolved. It is not meat eating that is responsible for increased greenhouse gasses; it is the corn/ soybean/ chemical fertilizer/ feedlot/ transportation system under which industrial animals are raised.
"By comparison with my grass fed steer," writes Coleman, "the soybeans cultivated for a vegetarianís dinner, if done with motorized equipment, are responsible for increased CO2." Even the mass methane emissions from bovine flatulence are a side effect of an unnaturally grain-heavy diet, Coleman asserts. Else the 70 million buffalo living on the North American plans a millennium ago would have turned the planet into an unnaturally warm greenhouse world centuries before an industrial engine burned coal.
Coleman's perspective strikes me as accurate in the essentials, based on what I've learned about healthy grasslands ecologies as well as the ills of industrialized cattle ranching. But given the somewhat pricey nature of a climate-friendly steak or burger, practicality may still mean that if you want to change your diet to help stop global warming, you'll eat less beef.
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