The Meat and Bones Of Climate Change

The livestock sector is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and contributes to ofter forms of environmental degredation. Photo: Jennifer Dickert/Flickr. greenhouse-gas-emissions climate-change environment eco-living meat vegetarian vegan meatless food water freshwater carbon-dioxide co2 methaneAmericans may love meat, but their love is taking a toll on the planet.

Americans eat about 200 pounds of meat per capita each year, and a survey conducted by Cultivate Research shows that while red meat consumption is down in the U.S., 61 percent of those surveyed said they eat meat at every meal or most meals, and only 13 percent said they eat meat in less than half of their meals.

An estimated 1 percent of Americans are vegetarians or vegan—and in spite of the many things Americans are doing to cmbat climate change, their dietary choices may have the greatest impact.

According to a 2007 article in New Scientist, one kilogram of beef produces more greenhouse gas emissions and pollution than if you took a three-hour drive and left on all your lights at home while you were out. Ouch.

The environmental impact of raising animals for food was the focus of a 2006 United Nations report titled Livestock's Long Shadow. The report revealed the worldwide livestock sector "is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution."

Livestock is responsible for almost 80 percent of all agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions include carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and nitrous oxide. Just the manure from livestock emits 18 million tons of methane each year, while the digestive process leads to an additional 86 million tons of methane released by way of the mouth—and methane, which has 23 times the Global Warming Potential of carbon dioxide, stays in the atmosphere for nine to 15 years. Livestock farming and land use also produces 65 percent of all human-related nitrous oxide emissions, and nitrous oxide's Global Warming Potential is a staggering 296 times that of carbon dioxide.

Translation: Livestock rearing is a big factor in global warming.

The US EPA has developed a set of management measures to reduce methane emissions in livestock operations. Some of these measures include better grazing management, balancing the soil, sustainable water management, and carefully managed herd health.

But even if farmers were to find solutions to greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental impact of the livestock industry is much more complex.

According to the UN report, almost one-third of the planet's land area is being used for livestock pastures and feed production. Pasturelands also play a key role in deforestation. In the Amazon, about 70 percent of cleared forests have been turned into grazing land.

Freshwater resources are also at risk. The livestock sector's water use tops 8 percent of all freshwater consumed by humans, the vast majority of which is used to grow feed. Water contamination is another problem. Livestock manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, and viruses and bacteria, and manure and chemical pesticides applied to feed crops are easily carried to waterways or groundwater by rainfall. Slaughterhouses and meat processing plant wastewater yields another source of contamination, as it can include anything from blood and fat to horns and hair, particularly in developing countries.

So what's the solution? Developing strict guidelines for storage of waste is a step in the right direction—if they are enforced, and if countries around the world commit to protecting water and reducing emissions. But a greater and more immediate benefit may be seen if people reduce overall meat consumption, particularly in developed countries where people often eat excessive amount of meats.

Eating some vegetarian or vegan meals is a simple way for your family to eat healthier and live greener. Consider joining in the Meatless Monday movement, eating only vegetarian meals on Mondays. Or perhaps you can reduce your meat portions at each meal, consuming less meat overall. Another option is to eat meat only a one meal per day, supplementing your dietary needs with other proteins, such as legumes or wild fish.

With global warming driving air and water temperatures higher, there's no time like the present to start considering the environmental impact of the foods you eat—whether it's fruits, vegetables, seafood, or meat.

More on Eco-Friendly Eating:

Top 10 Reasons to Eat Organic

Genetically Modified Organisms and Foods

Go Meatless for the Planet (At Least Part-Time)

By Cara Smusiak| June 21, 2009
Categories:  Live

About the Author

Cara Smusiak

Cara Smusiak

Cara believes using natural products and eliminating harsh or synthetic chemicals leads to a healthier, happier lifestyle. She grew up in a family that recycled just about everything, avoided harsh cleaners and heavily-scented products, and often turned to holistic medicine. Cara has degrees in art history and journalism, and has taken classes in environmental toxicology and environmental geology. She is passionate about healthy and natural living, environmental awareness and policy, and holistic health care.

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