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Climate Change on the Dinner Plate

Posted by at 3:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)


woman-on-bikeSeems like everyone has gotten the message about climate change. Human-generated greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are the major culprit, and the effects include rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes, droughts, and loss of biodiversity. People want to know what they can personally do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Everywhere you look, there’s another list of “Ten Easy Things You Can Do to Save the Earth.”

My husband and I got serious about reducing our own contribution to climate change a few years ago. We started by signing up for a sustainable-living class and taking a hard look at our lifestyle. It was easy to make the first changes. We installed compact fluorescent light bulbs, turned down the thermostat, and made more trips by bicycle. These changes weren’t hard at all, and we ended up saving money too.

But once we had done the simple stuff, we were faced with some difficult tradeoffs. In order to make big reductions in our carbon emissions, we would need to spend some big money. Should we buy a new refrigerator or upgrade the house with double-paned windows? What about installing solar panels or buying a more fuel-efficient car? Since so much money was on the line, we wanted to get the maximum reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions for every dollar we spent. Those “Ten Easy Things” lists didn’t help, since they didn’t tell us how big a reduction we’d get from each checklist item.

But one of the biggest contributors to climate change didn’t even appear on the checklists. We found out what it was in late 2006, when the U.N. released a report called Livestock’s Long Shadow. The report states that the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the emissions from the entire transportation sector–planes, trains, cars, and boats–combined. We realized that we were already having a big impact by putting vegan food on our plates every day. We also learned from the report that the livestock sector is a top contributor to the world’s most serious environmental problems, such as water pollution, air pollution, and land degradation. Demand for meat is rising quickly as the world gets more affluent, which makes the problems even worse.

We found some more connections between diet and climate change in a University of Chicago study. If you replace your Camry with a hybrid Prius, you’ll save about 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Good stuff, but the study goes on to say that changing from a meat-based diet to a vegan diet saves the equivalent of 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year! If all Americans cut back on meat consumption by just 20 percent, it would yield the same reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as if everyone in the country switched from driving a Camry to driving a Prius! And vegetables cost a lot less than a new car.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the world’s foremost authorities on climate change, has recommended that people have at least one meat-free day per week. Sadly, this recommendation received little media coverage. Even though we now have scientific evidence that meat consumption is a major contributor to climate change, the “eat less meat” message isn’t on many “Top 10″ lists. And despite the devastating environmental impacts of the livestock industry, not one of America’s environmental nonprofits has launched a major campaign to promote reductions in meat consumption.

My husband and I are still turning off the lights and washing the clothes in cold water, but now we know that one of the best things we can do is to spread the word about the connection between climate change and what’s on people’s dinner plates. Talk about an inconvenient truth.

For more information, see “Fight Climate Change With Diet Change.”

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    kerry says...

    November 19th, 2008, 10:58 am

    The meat-eating big carbon footprint connection seems to be one that people dont want to face. Ironic because giving up meat is the simplest ,most healthy, and most cost effective change that we can make to reduce our carbon footprint.

    Karmen says...

    November 21st, 2008, 5:18 pm

    This was very informative… Makes me happy to be a vegetarian!! I will print and share this info in my community!!

    Vasu Murti says...

    November 21st, 2008, 10:18 pm

    The following quotes, facts, figures and statistics are excerpted from the finest introductory book on vegetarianism in the 21st century (thus far)…Please Don’t Eat the Animals, by Jennifer Horsman and Jaime Flowers (2007):

    “A reduction in beef and other meat consumption is the most potent single act you can take to halt the destruction of our environment and preserve our natural resources. Our choices do matter: What’s healthiest for each of us personally is also healthiest for the life support system of our precious, but wounded planet.”

    —John Robbins, author, Diet for a New America, and President, EarthSave Foundation

    One study puts animal waste in the United States to between 2.4 trillion to 3.9 trillion pounds per year. The United states produces 15,000 pounds of manure per person. This is 130 times the amount of waste produced by the entire human population of the United States.

    A 1,000-cow dairy can produce approximately 120,000 pounds of waste per day. This is the functional equivalent of the amount of sanitary waste produced by a city of 20,000 people.

    A 20,000-chicken factory produces about 2.4 million pounds of manure a year. Poultry factories are one of the fastest growing industries throughout Asia.

    One pig excretes nearly three gallons of waste per day, or 2.5 times the average human’s daily total. One hog farm with 50,000 pigs in France produces more waste than the entire city of Los Angeles, and some pig farms are much larger.

    Factory farm pollution is the primary source of damage to coastal waters in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Scientists report that over sixty percent of the coastal waters in the United States are moderately to severely degraded from factory farm nutrient pollution. This pollution creates oxygen-depleted dead zones, which are huge areas of ocean devoid of aquatic life.

    Meat production causes deforestation, which then contributes to global warming. Trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and the destruction of forests around the globe to make room for grazing cattle furthers the greenhouse effect. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that the annual rate of tropical deforestation has increased from 9 million hectares in 1980 to 16.8 million hectares in 1990, and unfortunately, this destruction has accelerated since then. By 1994, a staggering 200 million hectares of rainforest had been destroyed in South America just for cattle.

    “The impact of countless hooves and mouths over the years has done more to alter the type of vegetation and land forms of the West than all the water projects, strip mines, power plants, freeways, and sub-division developments combined.”

    —Philip Fradkin, in Audubon, National Audubon Society, New York

    Agricultural meat production generates air pollution. As manure decomposes, it releases over 400 volatile organic compounds, many of which are extremely harmful to human health. Nitrogen, a major by-product of animal wastes, changes to ammonia as it escapes into the air, and this is a major source of acid rain. Worldwide, livestock produce over 30 million tons of ammonia. Hydrogen sulfide, another chemical released from animal waste, can cause irreversible neurological damage, even at low levels.

    The world Conservation Union lists over 1,000 different fish species that are threatened or endangered. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate, over 60 percent of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Commercial fish populations of cod, hake, haddock, and flounder have fallen by as much as 95 percent in the north Atlantic.

    The United States and Europe lose several billion tons of topsoil each year from cropland and grazing land, and 84 percent of this erosion is caused by livestock agriculture. While this soil is theoretically a renewable resource, we are losing soil at a much faster rate than we are able to replace it. It takes 100 to 500 years to produce one inch of topsoil, but due to livestock grazing and feeding, farming areas can lose up to six inches of topsoil a year.

    Livestock production affects a startling 70 to 85 percent of the land area of the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union. That includes the public and private rangeland used for grazing, as well as the land used to produce the crops that feed the animals. By comparison, urbanization only affects 3 percent of the United States land area, slightly larger for the European Union and the United Kingdom. Meat production consumes the world’s land resources.

    Half of all fresh water worldwide is used for thirsty livestock. Producing eight ounces of beef requires an unimaginable 25,000 liters of water, or the water necessary for one pound of steak equals the water consumption of the average household for a year.

    The United States government spends $10 million each year to kill an estimated 100,000 wild animals, including coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, bears, and mountain lions just to placate ranchers who don’t want these animals killing their livestock. The cost far outweighs the damage to livestock that these predators cause.

    The Worldwatch Institute estimates one pound of steak from a steer raised in a feedlot costs: five pounds of grain, a whopping 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 34 pounds of topsoil.

    33 percent of our nation’s raw materials and fossil fuels go into livestock destined for slaughter. In a vegan economy, only 2 percent of our resources will go to the production of food.

    “It seems disingenuous for the intellectual elite of the first world to dwell on the subject of too many babies being born in the second- and third-world nations while virtually ignoring the overpopulation of cattle and the realities of a food chain that robs the poor of sustenance to feed the rich a steady diet of grain-fed meat.”

    —Jeremy Rifkin, author, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, and president of the Greenhouse Crisis Foundation

    Lester Brown of the Overseas Development Council calculates that if Americans reduced their meat consumption by only 10 percent per year, it would free at least 12 million tons of grain for human consumption–or enough to feed 60 million people.

    ambika shukla says...

    November 21st, 2008, 10:47 pm

    Did bring this up at an environmental conference. Pity how environmental experts only want to think in terms of expensive futuristic technological solutions when the simplest way is quite literally beneath our nose!
    Veganism is no longer just a health or moral choice , it is an environmental imperative.

    Yuki says...

    November 22nd, 2008, 12:48 am

    OMG!! THANK YOUU SOOOO MUCH FOR THIS INFO!! I tried to be a vegetarian…but I just could not resist the meat or the seafoods. When I read this article, it had said, ” Cutting back on meat for 20% can help”, I was thrilled!! Now I don’t have to lose meat in my life forever but I can just cut back on some. I know I can cut back on meat and seafood so I’m veryyyy exciteddd! Again, THANK YOU SOO MUCH!

    Stephen says...

    November 22nd, 2008, 3:47 pm

    Al Gore who travels the world lecturing the world on global warming conveniently forgets to mention the fact he owns a cattle ranch.

    Mick says...

    December 1st, 2008, 7:34 pm

    This is total nonsense cattle only cause 3.5% of so called global warming. Eating vegatables instead means more land ploughed which we are told also causes global warming. Cattle have been around a long time why are they causing global warming now? Lisa if you want to stop manmade global warming the only way to do it is to get rid of people.

    Veggie Post Coitus: PETA Reasons to Go Veg Video Omits Climate Change, Includes Impotence | Susty says...

    February 13th, 2009, 10:48 am

    […] video? Here’s some info on climate change and meat consumption from another PETA site PETA Prime; the author notes that the various “10 Easy Things to Do to Prevent Climate Change” […]

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