Michaela Schiessl and Christian Schwägerl
A cow being measured for emissions. Cattle may be gentle creatures but farming them is contributing to climate change, says consumer group Foodwatch
Whether cattle are reared organically or with conventional farming
methods, the end effect is bad for the environment, according to a new
German consumer report. The agricultural lobby, however, is preventing
politicians from tackling this massive source of greenhouse gas emissions.
For most people, it's the very picture of rural bliss, of a life in tune with nature and the wholesome world of farming: the happy cow standing on a lush meadow, calmly chewing its cud, a calf at its side.
But for Thilo Bode, the sight of this gentle-eyed creature is everything but reassuring. Bode, the head of German consumer protection organization Foodwatch, warns: "The cow is a climate bomb."
Whether they are raised conventionally or organically, one thing cows have in common is that they burp and fart to their hearts' content. Like all ruminants, cows are constantly emitting methane — a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide — from both ends. As malodorous as pigs may be, it is the gaseous emissions of billions of cattle, goats and sheep that are contributing to global warming.
Bode wanted to find out just how strong the effects of the greenhouse gases methane, nitrous oxide and CO2 are. On Monday Foodwatch published a comprehensive study of the effects of agriculture on the climate, the first study of its kind that differentiates between conventional and organic farming. The scientists who conducted the study, with Germany's Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IOeW), accounted for both the CO2 emissions resulting from the production of feed and fertilizers, as well as the land requirements and productivity of various production methods.
The results are enough to send diehard fans of steaks and burgers into a panic. Even if all farms and methods, organic or otherwise, were optimized to reduce their effects on the climate, Foodwatch concludes that the principal approach to making agriculture more climate-friendly would require a drastic reduction in beef production. This would mean a radical increase in the price of steaks and the like. "It's time we went back to the days of the Sunday roast," says Bode.
A Blind Spot in Climate Protection Policy
But when it comes time to break the bad news to the average citizen, politicians are suddenly thin on the ground. Agriculture is the blind spot in the German government's climate protection policy. Farmers are for the most part exempt from an ambitious national program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels by the year 2020, through methods such as better home insulation, energy conservation and the use of gasoline substitutes. Ironically, German agriculture is responsible for 133 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions, bringing it close to the level of emissions attributable to road traffic (152 million tons).
Officials at the German Agriculture Ministry headed by Horst Seehofer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), offer a disarmingly simple explanation: It is "too difficult, from a methodological point of view," to measure the greenhouse gases that are emitted in connection with fertilizer application, the spraying of pesticides and herbicides, cattle digestion and the draining of wetlands. Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry has a completely different take on the matter: "We have exempted agriculture from the climate protection strategy in order to limit the number of potential sources of conflict," says a senior member of the staff of Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the Social Democrat Party (SPD).
Hans-Joachim Koch, who, until recently, advised the government in his former capacity as chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment, is even more direct when he says: "The lobby is well-organized." His successor, Martin Faulstich, agrees. "No one dares to say that we ought to eat less meat and more plant-based protein," says Faulstich, who has announced plans to commission a special report on agriculture.
The council is especially concerned about the loosening of environmental protection standards in the context of the planned Environmental Code. The Agriculture Ministry has managed to avert rules that relate to agriculture, such as a ban on draining wetlands. Now the draft legislation will be submitted to the German parliament, the Bundestag, after the summer break — but without such proposals.
The results of the Foodwatch study clearly illustrate how important it is to include the farming sector.
The worst source of agricultural emissions, making up 30 percent of the total, is the draining of wetlands. The large amounts of CO2 trapped in the soil of wetlands are released when the land is used for farming. According to the IOeW study, the only way to stop these adverse effects on the climate would be to restore the wetlands. The resulting loss of land would have to be offset by doing away completely with the farming of crops for biofuels, a practice that is already considered questionable in terms of CO2 emissions, because of the large amounts of fertilizer it consumes.
But, in Foodwatch's assessment of the results of the IOEW study, organic agriculture is also not nearly as climate-friendly as many consumers believe. A complete conversion to climate-optimized organic farming, which requires more land, would reduce emissions by about 20 percent. However, this would be principally the result of not using nitrogen fertilizer, with its energy-intensive production and release of nitrous oxide in the fields. Nitrous oxide is 300 times as harmful as carbon dioxide.
Low Marks for Organic Farming
If the amount of land being farmed stays at current levels, the result would be high productivity losses. There would have to be a 70-percent decline in the production of meat and milk. The beneficial effect on the climate would be achieved primarily by eliminating the number of cattle, rather than through the use of organic methods.
Organic farming also scores less favorably when it comes to fattening cattle. The organically raised bull has a less beneficial impact on the climate than his highly cultivated fellow cattle, even when feed production is taken into account. The organically raised bull needs more room and also requires traditional litter. This produces emissions, unlike the perforated floors on which highly cultivated turbo-cattle spend their short lives.
According to Foodwatch's analysis, this is where a conflict with animal rights groups is likely to arise. But one thing is clear: Anyone who believes that by buying a rib eye steak from an organic store they are automatically contributing to climate protection is mistaken.
The difference can be illustrated by drawing a comparison with automobile emissions. The production of one kilo of grass-fed beef causes the same amount of emissions as driving 113.4 kilometers (70.4 miles) in a compact car. Because of more intensive production methods, producing one kilo of conventional beef is the equivalent of driving only 70.6 kilometers (43.9 miles).
A kilo of cheese, produced conventionally, comes to 71.4 kilometers (44.3
miles) of driving, while organic cheese is somewhat more favorable, at 65.5
kilometers (40.7 miles). Producing a kilo of pork causes the equivalent of
only 25.8 kilometers (16 miles) of driving, and only 17.4 kilometers (10.8
miles) for organic pork.
Image from Der Spiegel Online
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