Researchers: Even "Organically Raised" Cows Are a "Climate Bomb"
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


Stephanie Ernest
March 2009

Okay, I wish the title of "The Cow Is a Climate Bomb" had been worded differently. Cattle themselves are not at fault here. Animal agriculture and humans are, for forcing into existence so very, very many of them, just so that we can then kill, eat, and wear them. But still, this study and article are saying what most people have been refusing to acknowledge: "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."

Read on for this important, first-of-its kind study. And this was not a study conducted by vegan animal rights activists or a study conducted haphazardly.

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.

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.

Or just stop eating animals altogether. If you're going to cut down to once a week, why not go all the way? You'll stop missing the experience of eating flesh so much after a while if you make an ethical decision not to eat it, whereas if you're still eating it (and looking forward to eating it) once a week, those cravings likely aren't going to cease. And I know that this article talks a lot about meat consumption, but livestock farming as a whole is the problem--and that means dairy too. Lots and lots of cattle are being raised (and ultimately killed) for dairy. (Check out the Foodwatch chart later in this post that shows how much vegetarianism still contributes to greenhouse gases versus veganism.)

The article continues, "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." Oh Germany, you're not alone.

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.

He's right, sort of--because basically what we're saying here is that if people want to keep selfishly eating the way they do (i.e., eating animals), there are only two choices: reduce consumption and keep treating animals even more terribly on industrial farms than they are treated on less-industrial farms, or stop eating animals. But ethically, the choice is obvious. If you care about animals and you care about the environment and the future of this planet, it's time to stop eating animals and what comes from them. "Vegans," the report confirms, "eat in a decidedly climate-friendly way"--and just as importantly, in the only truly animal-friendly way too.

And as's Global Warming blogger noted recently, we now know that climate change and its disastrous effects are coming at us even faster than previously thought, and the time to make real changes is now. No more twiddling our thumbs and pretending it's not happening (unless we're OK with, for example, famine and massive habitat loss, among other disasters).

A while back, I linked to the Audubon article "Low-Carbon Diet" and later regretted that I didn't discuss it more. I won't extend this post any longer to discuss it now either, but given what you've just read, this is a good time to check it out if you're still eating animals and think you can't stop. It begins,

Full disclosure: I love to eat meat. I was born in Memphis, the barbecue capital of the Milky Way Galaxy. I worship slow-cooked, hickory-smoked pig meat served on a bun with extra sauce and coleslaw spooned on top.

My carnivoreís lust goes beyond the DNA level. Itís in my soul. Even the cruelty of factory farming doesnít temper my desire, Iíll admit. Like most Americans, I can somehow keep at bay all thoughts of what happened to the meat prior to the plate.

So why in the world am I a dedicated vegetarian? Why is meat, including sumptuous pork, a complete stranger to my fork at home and away? The answer is simple: I have an 11-year-old son whose futureólike yours and mineóis rapidly unraveling due to global warming. And what we put on our plates can directly accelerate or decelerate the heating trend.

And here's another favorite--and important--part of the piece (emphasis is mine):

But with global warming, hereís the inconvenient truth about meat and dairy products: If you eat them, regardless of their origin and how they were produced, you significantly contribute to climate change. Period. If your beef is from New Zealand or your own backyard, if your lamb is organic free-range or factory farmed, it still has a negative impact on global warming.

Stephanie Ernest: Stephanie is a vegan, a tree hugger, a freelance editor and writer, and an animal rights advocate. She lives in St. Louis with a motley pack of three dogs and two cats as well as the world's most adorable foster pit bull.

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