Posts Tagged ‘Greenhouse gas’

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Are you being manipulated into buying things you don’t want or need? In my book Meatonomics, I show that animal food producers control our everyday food-buying choices with misleading messaging, artificially low prices, and heavy control over legislation and regulation. This producer behavior is simply shocking. The result is that in many respects, we have lost the ability to decide for ourselves what – and how much – to eat. 

By learning just 10 quick facts about this industry and its highly coordinated messaging and manipulation, you can empower yourself to make better-informed choices immediately. You’ll see benefits to your health, your waistline, your ecological footprint, and more.

1. In a creepy, Big-Brotherish tactic straight out of a sci-fi movie, the federal government uses catchy slogans to get people to buy more meat and dairy.

beef_1Beef. It’s what’s for dinner. 
Milk. It does a body good. 

Each year, USDA-managed programs spend $550 million to bombard Americans with slogans like these urging us to buy more animal foods. Although people in every age group already eat more animal protein than recommended, and far more than our forebears did, these promotional programs are shockingly effective at making us buy even more. Each marketing buck spent boosts sales by an average of $8, for an annual total of an extra $4.6 billion in government-backed sales of meat, dairy, and eggs.

2. Americans eat more meat per person than any other people on earth, and we’re paying the price in doctor bills.

At 200 pounds of meat per person per year, our high meat consumption is hurting our national health. Hundreds of clinical studies in the past several decades show that consumption of meat and dairy, especially at the high levels seen in this country, can cause cancerdiabetesheart disease, and a host of other diseases. Thus, Americans have twice the obesity rate, twice the diabetes rate, and nearly three times the cancer rate as the rest of the world. Eating loads of meat isn’t the only reason people develop these diseases, but it’s a major factor.

3. Animal food production is the world’s leading cause of climate change.

That’s right. Forget carbon-belching buses or power plants. Animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest source of greenhouse gases. Yet amazingly, if Americans could just cut back on animal foods by half, the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be like garaging all U.S. motor vehicles and vessels for as long as we keep our consumption down.

4. There’s no sustainable way to raise animal foods to meet the world’s growing demand.

Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. We’re watching a real-time, head-on collision between the world’s huge demand for animal foods and the reality of scarce resources. It takes dozens of times more water and five times more land to produce animal protein than equal amounts of plant protein. Unfortunately, even “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, or on pastures can’t overcome the basic math: the resources just don’t exist to keep feeding the world animal foods at the level it wants.

5. A $5 Big Mac would cost $13 if the retail price included hidden expenses that meat producers offload onto society.

mcdonalds-Big-MacAnimal food producers impose $414 billion in hidden costs on American society yearly. These are the bills for healthcare, subsidies, environmental damage, and other items related to producing and consuming meat and dairy. That means that each time McDonald’s sells a Big Mac, the rest of us pay $8 in hidden costs.

6. American governments spend $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy, but only 0.04% of that ($17 million) to subsidize fruits and vegetables.

The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines urge us to eat more fruits and vegetables and less cholesterol-rich food (that is, meat and dairy). Yet like a misguided parent giving a kid cotton candy for dinner, state and federal governments get it backwards by giving buckets of cash to animal agriculture while providing almost no help to those raising fruits and vegetables.

7. Big businesses love farm subsidies. Small farmers and rural Americans hate them.

In the last 15 years, two-thirds of American farmers didn’t receive a single penny from direct subsidies worth over $100 billion – the funds mainly went to big corporations. The subsidy money spurs the growth of factory farms, which are surprisingly bad for local economies (they employ fewer workers per animal than regular farms, and they buy most of their supplies outside the local area). That’s why when pollsters asked Iowans how they feel about farm subsidies, a large majority preferred ending the handouts.

8. Factory fishing ships are exploiting the world’s oceans so aggressively that scientists fear the extinction of all commercially fished species within several decades.

Like an armada bent on victory at any cost, the 23,000 factory ships that patrol the world’s oceans have decimated one-third of the planet’s commercially fished species. They also indiscriminately kill and discard 200 million pounds of non-target species, or bycatch, every day. Because of such colossal destruction and waste, the United Nations says fishing operations are “a net economic loss to society.”

9. Fish farming isn’t the answer.

fishfarm1Sometimes hailed as the future of sustainable food production, fish farming is actually just another form of factory farming. Farmed fish live in the same stressful, tight conditions as land animals, and concentrated waste and chemicals from aquaculture damage local ecosystems. Escapes lead to further problems, as in the North Atlantic region where 20% of supposedly wild salmon are actually of farmed origin. When genes from wild and farmed fish mix, it degrades the wild population.

10. If they treated a dog or cat like that, they’d go to jail.

Industry-backed laws passed in the last 30 years make it legal to do almost anything to a farmed animal. Connecticut, for example, in 1996 legalized “maliciously and intentionally maiming, mutilating, torturing, wounding, or killing an animal” – provided it’s done “while following generally accepted agricultural practices.” Since most states have similar exemptions, farmed animals have almost no protection from inhumane treatment.

What’s a person to do?

Hann_lambVote with your pocketbook. If you’re concerned about the creepy marketing, environmental damage, health risks, economic problems, or ethical issues that plague the meat industry, you can take action immediately. Make a choice to buy less meat, fish, eggs, and dairy – or better yet, give them up completely. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do.

For more information and additional solutions, get the book Meatonomics.

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Two acres of rain forest are cleared each minute to raise cattle or crops to feed them. 35,000 miles of American rivers are polluted with animal waste. In the mad race to the dinner plate, the scarce resources needed to produce meat, eggs, fish and dairy simply can’t keep pace with the demand for these foods. Some commentators propose “green” alternatives like raising animals locally, organically, on pastures, or in fish farms. But it’s unclear whether these proposals are really viable or are just so much hot, greenhouse gas wafting into the sky.

This is the second installment in a three-part series which seeks to answer the question: can animal foods be produced sustainably? In the first segment, we learned that determining the carbon effects of local consumption can be about as complex as planning a seven-course meal. Simply put, locally raised animal foods can easily be less carbon-friendly than those from a distant continent, and local consumption thus does not make animal foods sustainable. In the third segment, we learn that fish farming may not be silver bullet of food production to feed the world sustainably.  In this piece, we look at another key issue: whether farmed animals’ carbon footprint can be improved by raising them organically.

Manic for Organic

Is organic food really as good for the environment as we’d like to think? Despite Prince Charles’s claim that organic farming provides “major benefits for wildlife and the wider environment,” a 2006 British government report found no evidence that the environmental impact of organic farming is better than that of conventional methods.[1] In fact, because of large differences in land needs and growth characteristics between organic and inorganic animals, it’s hard to draw conclusions about the environmental benefits of one production method over the other. As Table 1 below shows, considerably more land is required to produce organic animal foods than inorganic—in some cases more than double. This higher land use is associated with higher emissions of harmful substances like ammonia, phosphate equivalents, and carbon dioxide equivalents. Further, denied growth-promoting antibiotics, organic animals grow more slowly—which leads to higher energy use for organic poultry and eggs. Thus, as Table 2 shows, when the overall effects of organic and inorganic animal production are compared, the results are notably mixed.

Table 1
Land Use Needs of Organic and Inorganic Animal Food Production (in acres)[2]

Table 1

Table 2
Organic or Inorganic Production—Which Is Better for the Environment?[3]
table 2

Legend:
O = Organic is better (based on lower use or emission)
I = Inorganic is better (based on lower use or emission)
N = No significant difference

We can see that poultry and eggs are mostly more eco-friendly when raised inorganically, while it’s generally more eco-friendly to raise pigs organically. As for cattle, factors like methane emissions and water use make the comparison more complicated.

it_photo_93667Take methane. Besides figuring prominently in many a fart joke, it’s a highly potent greenhouse gas (although in its natural state, it’s actually odorless). A single pound of it has the same heat-trapping properties as 21 pounds of carbon dioxide.[4] Organic cattle must be grazed for part of their lives, which means that unlike feedlot cattle, they eat grass. However, cattle rely more on intestinal bacteria when digesting grass than grain, and this makes them more flatulent—and methane-productive—when eating grass. The result is that grass-fed, organic cattle generate four times the methane that grain-fed, inorganic cattle do.[5]

Then there are the water issues. On a planet where water is not only the origin of all life but is also the key to its survival, animal agriculture siphons off a hugely disproportionate share of this increasingly scarce resource. It can be hard to picture the quantities of water involved, so consider a few examples. The 4,000 gallons required to produce one hamburger is more than the average native of the Congo uses in a year.[6]

battleship_003And the 3 million gallons used to raise a single, half-ton beef steer would comfortably float a battleship.[7]

Pound for pound, it takes up to one hundred times more water to produce animal protein than grain protein.[8] Organic cattle require 10 percent less water than inorganic but still need 2.7 million gallons each during their lives, enough to fill 130 residential swimming pools. In light of the orders-of-magnitude difference in water needed to raise plant and animal protein, does a 10 percent savings for organic cattle really matter? Looked at another way, if Fred litters ten times a day while Mary litters only nine times, is Mary’s behavior really good for the environment? The value of such comparisons is dubious.

These factors lead to one conclusion: we must treat as highly suspect the claim that organic animal agriculture is sustainable. Organic methods are an environmentally-mixed bag—sometimes slightly better, sometimes a little worse, and often the same as inorganic. But since animal protein takes many times the energy, water, and land to produce as plant protein, any modest gains from raising animals organically are largely irrelevant.[9] Shocked that organic production isn’t the silver bullet of sustainability? Stay tuned. Next time, we’ll look at another favorite of those who advocate “green” animal agriculture: pasture farming. For more surprising information on this and other issues related to animal food production, check out my just-released book Meatonomics: How the Rigged Economics of Meat and Dairy Make You Consume Too Much – and How to Eat Better, Live Longer, and Spend Smarter (Conari Press, 2013).


[1] C. Foster et al., “Environmental Impacts of Food Production and Consumption: A Report to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs,” Eldis (2006).

[2] Data expressed in hectares converted to acres. A. G. Williams, E. Audsley, and D. L. Sandars, “Determining the Environmental Burdens and Resource Use in the Production of Agricultural and Horticultural Commodities” (2006), Main Report, UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Research Project IS0205.

[3]Williams, Audsley, and Sandars, “Environmental Burdens in Production of Agricultural Commodities”; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, Food, Energy, and Society, (Niwot, CO: Colorado University Press, 1996).

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Methane: Science” (2010).

[5] L. A. Harper et al., “Direct Measurements of Methane Emissions from Grazing and Feedlot Cattle,” Journal of Animal Science 77, no. 6 (1999): 1392–1401.

[6] ChartsBin, “Total Water Use per Capita by Country,” accessed December 23, 2012, http://chartsbin.com.

[7] Assuming the animal weighs 1,200 pounds; metric units converted to imperial. T. Oki et al., “Virtual Water Trade to Japan and in the World” (presentation, International Expert Meeting on Virtual Water Trade, Netherlands, 2003).

[8] Pimentel and Pimentel, Food, Energy and Society.

[9] David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment,” American Clinical Journal of Nutrition 78, no. (3) (2003): 6605–-35.