How Cow Farts Cause Global Warming

19 Jul

Since I spend so much time here talking about how I’m no longer a vegetarian, some people might be surprised to learn that I’m still a big advocate of eating less meat overall. But there’s an important case to be made for significantly reducing our (and by our, I mean Americans, who eat the vast majority of the world’s meat) meat intake. That case is front and center in the food world this week as the Environmental Working Group — the watchdog organization who also brings you that handy annual sunscreen guide, and GMO watch — released their first Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health.

Not everyone is aware of the link between meat production and climate change, so let’s break it down. Here are the highlights of the issue — more detail can be found by following the links embedded, or by reading the great EWG report, which is very accessible.

Food production contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.

A recent study from Carnegie Mellon put it into these concrete terms. 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.

Meat is the primary culprit of this.

The ways in which food production contributes to global warming can be both direct & indirect. Direct contributions include the burning of fossil fuels to fertilize and grow the massive quantities of corn required to feed livestock animals and methane gas emissions from cattle (yup, cow farts). Indirect contributions stem from what factory farms do to the land. Desertification, water pollution, deforestation, topsoil erosion, etc. All of these make our planet  less resilient to rising temperatures. And these animals require a LOT of land. About 30% 0f Earth’s ice-free land.

That is, industrial meat.

Since most of those negative consequences of meat production stem from grain feed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel for transporting all those things, this is a problem unique to factory-farmed meat. Take away those features, and sure, you’ve still got the cow farts to deal with, but they become a miniscule, if stinky, problem. But combined with a ravenous desire for meat growing globally, industrialized meat production is a huge problem.

Sustainable meat is a different beast.

If we changed our farming methods,  much of those  problems would be dramatically reduced — and some would even be reversed. If cattle were allowed to roam, they wouldn’t need grain-based feed, as they would eat their natural grass diet. This would also reduce their impact on the land. There’s a much longer chain reaction here, but the point is that raising livestock in a biodynamic cycle is better for them and better for the planet. The hitch? Meat doesn’t “grow” as quickly or in as great a number with those methods. Because it’s not supposed to.

Meat should be a minimal part of our diet.

Lisa Frack of EWG said it most concisely:

Eating meat in moderation can be a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6, and niacin. That said, we eat far more protein than we need: Kids get three to four times the recommended amount and adult men get twice the amount they need. And, of course, the nutritional benefits of meats can be reaped from other, less environmentally damaging food sources.

Because it’s better for our health that way, too.

This one I can say briefly: over-eating red meat and/or industrially-processed meat significantly increases your risk of dying prematurely. Not to mention your risks for certain types of cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. Conversely, eating more vegetables is universally agreed upon by nutritionists to be the best dietary choice ever. No exaggeration here, and no surprise, I’m sure.

We don’t have to do without.

People! Bacon is my header. So before you think I’ve gone and jumped back on the vegetarian bandwagon, let me share with you a little environmental agriculture secret: livestock meat can actually, if done right, be a more efficient use of land. Scale is everything here. This sustainable system works great for everyone — if we do it small enough, and with the basic principles of a natural food cycle in mind.

We just have to do less & better.

Yes, buying local, grass-fed, antibiotic-free organic meat is more expensive (for now). But if you’re buying less of it, you can balance that impact. And over time, you’ll be contributing to a better, healthier system for your body and for the planet.

Any questions? (No, really, ask away! Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the global warming/meat connection. How do you reduce your meat consumption? Share your meatless stories, recipes or conversions!)

If  you’re sold on all this but need ideas, check out my advice post on How to Eat Your Veggies, or these past We*Meat*Again vegetarian recipes:


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10 Responses to “How Cow Farts Cause Global Warming”

  1. Cristina @ An Organic Wife July 19, 2011 at 10:11 AM #

    For those who think local, grass-fed meat is too expensive – buy less of it. You’ll be eating less meat as Marissa suggested and you’ll be paying the same. If you’ve never had grass-fed meat, you should also know that it tastes about 10 times better!

  2. Smokey July 19, 2011 at 7:35 PM #

    Well, will wonders never cease(?)!…I “linked” over from your comment at Civil Eats…This article is well thought out and written with COMMON SENSE…KUDOS!

    In reviewing “The Meat Eaters Guide to Climate Change + Health” I found that, as with any research, the interpretation of the data was such, that it proved the premise in order to quantify the hypothesis…In layman terms, the data was manipulated to write a book in order to profit from the scare tactic of Global Warming (Which, is still unproven given the uncovering of false and made up data on the subject a couple of years back). If I was given the exact same data, I could prove the polar opposite of EWG’s conclusions given in this book.

    Until Global Warming can be proven, beyond a doubt…Leave MY GIRLS (my herd) out of IT!!

    Great Site, upon first impression. Looking forward to exploring you posts and info :)

    • We*Meat*Again July 20, 2011 at 11:37 AM #

      Thanks for checking out the blog and commenting. I’m glad you found this post useful. Now, I’ll try to keep the rest of this post short…

      First, I’d love to hear what scientific data in the EWG report you believe could be interpreted in a different way, and how. The data are pretty straightforward, as they were able to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the growing and producing of certain meat products. Are those numbers in dispute? Or do you simply dispute attributing greenhouse gas emission to global climate change? In addition, the report was peer-reviewed by non-partisan scientific experts in the fields of climate science, agriculture and geology. They had no problem with the data interpretation.

      Second, global warming has been proven, beyond any reasonable, scientific doubt. . The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report states that “scientific evidence for the warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” Here’s a great breakdown explanation of the evidence by NASA (a fully non-partisan organization): Here are just a few of the scientific organizations who have issued statements in support of global warming: the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the American Physics Society, the American Meterological Society, the World Health Organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Statistical Association.

      Nothing in science is ever, ever proven beyond any doubt. The basis of the scientific process is that everything remains test-able. Scientists would still never state that we have an unequivocal understanding of the fact that the Earth rotates around the sun. But we do. We know this to be true based on all reasonable, scientific evidence of the fact — even though we cannot see it.

      Now, all that being said, my third point is to reiterate that, in fact, the EWG report does leave ‘your girls’ out of it. Based on the reading I did on your blog, you raise grass-fed cattle in a ranging system, and the EWG report is clear in that it is an assesment only of industrially-raised meat. So they are simply not asserting that only methane emissions from any and all cattle are causing global temperature increases. They are asserting that a confluence of factors from the production of factory-farmed meat., including chemical fertilizers, topsoil runoff, manure lagoons and land use for grain feed, are causing part of the proven global climate crisis. And I agree.

      • Smokey July 21, 2011 at 7:39 PM #

        Sorry…I’m not ignoring you. It’s that I am at the ranch where we only have access to spotty “dial-up” connection…..Will respond within a few days when I return to the “metropolis” :)

  3. Smokey July 21, 2011 at 11:35 PM #

    I was so “riled up”, I couldn’t wait to respond. So, I drove 16 miles into town to get a reliable web connection. I am so passionate about this, that I am sitting in a McDonalds (for Christ Sake!) because they have WiFi…ugh!…I do enjoy a good debate :)

    My interests and passion lie in protecting and promoting the “small producers” in agriculture…if you browse my writings, you see that I have tried to communicate the major disadvantages “we little guys/gals” face in the current food production model(s). I advocate, vociferously, for “buy local”, family farms/ranches, and farmers markets, etc, etc.

    In the interest of “full disclosure”, I have not read the book.

    What I did read was an article, about the message in the book, on “Civil Eats” that slants the material to give the reader the impression that beef production is not only bad for the environment, but a bad food choice as well…read the article again, carefully because there is a “negative tone” towards beef (the word is beef, not grain fed or grass fed) in the opening paragraph:

    “Yes, I buy meat. I’d rather not”

    Now, as a trained Journalist you know, that an author “sets the message and tone” in the first paragraph…because a high percentage of readers “skim” the first few sentences of an article…so, this authors message, in the opening, is negative toward BEEF in general.

    (as an average consumer skimming the article, I would read that first paragraph, and possibly move on thinking I need to quit buying beef)(have I already said that?)

    Later in the article, the author, does attempt to differentiate between production styles with a tepid endorsement of grass fed beef…I say tepid because they then close the article with: “Start today by taking EWG’s pledge to eat less meat. (and hey, it’s Monday, why not make today your first Meatless Monday?).” It doesn’t say less grain fed or CAFO beef…just beef.

    NOW THEN…how many people read Civil Eats daily?…My response was harsh and inflammatory because I was (am) trying to get people to at least look at both sides of the issue…not make a snap judgement.

    I’m sure the EWG authors are very nice people :) BUT, they are trying to sell a book and bashing the meat industry is fashionable, right now…regardless of who gets caught in the web of negativity.

    Let’s look at “Peer Review”
    The book is putting forth a “Theory” that the authors have surmised based on their interpretation of the data gathered.

    VERY SIMPLY PUT: Peer review is the presenting of a study’s data (facts) with detailed information on methodology and interpretation, then published in an accepted journal for other scientists to review. Any scientific theory (hypothesis) must be based on a careful and rational examination of the facts.

    Facts may be interpreted in different ways by different individuals.

    Which is why I stated in my comment on Civil Eats (and your site) and article on my blog, that I could interpret the authors data to fit my theory…of just the opposite.

    You quoted and referenced a “peer reviewed”, non biased study by NASA.

    To prove my point , I give you a “peer reviewed”, non biased study by the Animal Production & Health Section Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications International Atomic Energy Agency.

    (By the way, they used NASA data among others)

    PARA-PHRASED from “Cattle Today”
    (article is based on the above referenced study)

    …Until recently, some claimed the level of atmospheric methane was related to the number of ruminants in the world (mostly cows, sheep and goats). It seemed as though for each additional billion large ruminants (where 8 sheep = 1 large ruminant), atmospheric methane increased by 1 ppb (parts per billion). Between 1979 and 1999, methane concentrations increased by 10.8 ppb per year, and large ruminant numbers increased by about 8.7 billion per year….

    …the increase in methane in the atmosphere has slowed. On November 17, 2003, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere was leveling off and it appears to have remained at about the same level as in 1999 (there has been a nonsignificant increase of 0.3 ppb/year). Now it seems the strong relationship between number of cows and methane that once existed has vanished. Since 1999, it seems as though for each additional billion ruminants, methane now increases by only 0.005 ppb….

    …a recent report, by an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Peace prize, said “If methane emissions grow in direct proportion to increases in livestock numbers, then global livestock-related methane production is expected to increase by 60 percent up to 2030 (FAO 2003),” The slow increase in methane now raises questions about the accuracy of this prediction by Nobel laureates….

    SO! Once more, with Gusto(!)…”Leave my GIRLS out of it!!” :)

    • Rob August 1, 2011 at 12:45 AM #

      You probably aren’t following up on this post anymore, so I’ll be brief.

      You aren’t using the most up-to-date numbers. Since 2007 methane levels are once again on the rise. Various explanations have been put forward to explain this (such as melting of permafrost, the impact of China, etc). It makes sense that you haven’t heard this when you get your news from Cattle Today and not from, you know, legitimate news sources.

      And counter to your claim, FAO study doesn’t say climate change doesn’t exist. The study finds the situation perplexing and encourages further study. The fine folks at Cattle Today neglected to include that fact.

      Check here more up to date methane levels.

    • Rob August 1, 2011 at 12:51 AM #

      I also question the merits of using a single study to cast doubt on decades of scientific consensus. No scientist in the world would support basing decisions on a single study. So please do beware of such claims (this warning counts as much against the EWG report, which certainly isn’t flawless!) you see in the media. You must balance reasonable doubt versus a preponderance of evidence.

      And as Marissa said, no one’s blaming your girls. As long you don’t blame me, a humble vegan, for every stupidass thing PETA says, I won’t blame your girls for global warming. Mmmkay?

      • We*Meat*Again August 2, 2011 at 7:46 PM #

        Thanks for your contributions on this post, Rob! I agree wholeheartedly about the significant scientific differences between one study and decades of consensus. Anyone could find a single article disputing anything — including such controversial scientific topics as evolution, for example, or gravity. One day we will look back on “science” disputing global warming in the same way we now shake our heads at the religious leaders who condemned Galileo’s findings. They just didn’t want to hear what science was saying, so they attempting to discredit the overwhelming data.

        All that being said, I also appreciate your larger point about making sure we don’t lump everyone into some category and stamp a label on them. Vegans can — and often should — disagree with PETA, and we should remember that small-scale, sustainable farmers do very different work for the environment than industrial corporations.


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