Livestock farming produces more greenhouse gasses than all forms of transport combined. Reduce those harmful emissions: Eat less meat!
What’s the biggest cause of climate change? Cars? Planes? Factories? No. The meat we eat. Producing chicken, lamb, pork and beef takes up one-quarter of the Earth’s surface. Nearly a third of the world’s fertile agricultural land is used to grow feed grains. And to serve the burgeoning meat industry, tropical forests—which are very useful in compensating for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions—are cut down to make room for vast grasslands.
But CO2 is not the main byproduct of livestock farming, though it is responsible for 9 percent of it. Nitrous oxide and methane respectively contribute 300 and 23 times more to the greenhouse effect than CO2—and livestock is responsible for 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions and 37 percent of methane emissions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculated these figures for a report published last year called Livestock’s Long Shadow. The FAO concluded that the livestock industry accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than is produced by every form of transportation combined. In addition, 1,000 litres (265 gallons) of fossil fuel is needed to produce the meat consumed annually by the average family of four. When this fuel is burned, according to Jeremy Rifkin, author of Beyond Beef, more than 2.5 tons of extra CO2 enters the atmosphere—as much as the average car emits in six months.
Consumers are told to conserve by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, to take public transportation more often, to turn off the TV when they’re not watching. Why aren’t environmental organizations telling them to eat less meat?
It’s a sensitive issue, says Liz O’Neill, head of communications at the UK’s Vegetarian Society. “Environmental organizations do not want to scare off their meat-eating members and funders. The issue of vegetarianism makes them a little nervous. But these numbers are really shocking!”
The Vegetarian Society recently launched a campaign stressing the environmental reasons for adopting a vegetarian diet. It did this once before, in the 1990s, but now the time seems ripe. “You don’t have to explain climate change or deforestation anymore,” says O’Neill. “Perhaps people disagree with the data, but it would be hard to find a living person who’s never heard of global warming.”
In the United States this year, animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) put up billboards featuring a cartoon of former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore gnawing on a chicken leg, alongside the words: “Too Chicken to Go Vegetarian? Meat is the No. 1 Cause of Global Warming.” The Humane Society of the United States has also taken up the subject in an ad showing a car key and a fork. “Which one of these contributes more to global warming?” it reads. Down the page is a hint: “It’s not the one that starts a car.”
A plant-based diet does lead to enormous energy savings. An acre of grain yields five times as much protein as an acre used for meat production. Legumes provide 10 times as much; leafy vegetables, 15.
“Vegetarianism is the quiet issue in the environmental movement,” says O’Neill. “But now that the problem of global warming is high on everybody’s agenda, more attention will get drawn to an effective way to contribute to the solution.”
Find out more: vegsoc.org/environment
Is organic meat any better?
Liz O’Neill, Vegetarian Society: “There is no easy answer, but the animal feed, the water use, the fuel needed for transport: The impact of these factors will still exist for producing organic meat. In fact, when you focus on long-term environmental impacts, particularly climate change via greenhouse gasses, organic farming can actually be more damaging due to the diets of the animals and the less intensive rearing practises. However, we also know organic meat production has significant environmental advantages over conventional livestock farming when you are considering immediate impacts such as toxic pollution.”
Find out more: soilassociation.org