This week, as I sorted through my inbox and overflowing number of “google alerts,” one particular story from Fox News caught my attention. In a decidedly personal yet informative piece, Andy Kroll of Fox News outlined the reasons why he was going to reduce his meat consumption by 75 percent in the upcoming months. The tipping point for him? The significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal production globally.
What is so inviting and simultaneously exciting about Andy’s article is the realistic and informative approach he takes to a very complicated issue. He notes the United Nations figure regarding animal production — 18 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions are associated from animal production [PDF]. This includes all of the myriad emissions linked to animal production: pesticides and fertilizers required to grow feed crops, methane emissions from cows burping, and all of the stuff that comes out their back end, plus the energy required to transport, slaughter, package, and distribute animal products.
To put that 18 percent figure in context — 14 percent of emissions come from transportation. And, as Andy thoughtfully notes — many of us find it difficult to cut back on driving, but we do have significant control over our diets every day. Research published in the journal Earth Interactions in 2006 found that a meat-eater consuming the average American caloric diet produced 700 kg of CO2 more than a plant-eater in a year. In context, this is the difference between driving a Prius and a midsize sedan like a Toyota Camry. So if you think you have to spend a bunch of money to upgrade your car to be climate-friendly, try looking to your plate first.
What the article does so well is take an issue that, to date, has actually drawn considerable sensationalist criticism, and put it on a level that people can actually understand and use. When the U.N. released the report Livestock’s Long Shadow back in 2006, from which the 18 percent figure came, vegetarian organizations rejoiced, but sadly few others really thought about the implications of the U.N. report.
Attempts to suggest that meat consumption be reduced in the United States as a means to fight climate change and greenhouse gas emissions were dismissed as left-wing propaganda and vegetarian agendas. But the reality of the U.N.’s report, along with dozens of subsequent peer-reviewed scientific articles, is that reducing meat consumption is one of the greatest things individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprint.
Andy presents a realistic option for making a difference — calculating your own meat consumption currently (for him about 20 meals a week containing meat) and reducing that figure by 75 percent. He is ambitious with such reductions, but even reducing your meat consumption by 25 percent can and will make a difference. While the article focuses on climate change environmental impacts in particular, there are also numerous other reasons to cut back on meat consumption.
In the United States, the EPA estimates that animals produce three times as much waste as humans, and that waste goes untreated before it is sprayed on our fields and washed into our streams. Downstream the added nutrients of animal wastes choke out oxygen from waterways and create eutrophic conditions, much like the ones that create the seasonal “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
Meat production, especially at large scale factory farms throughout the country, has had a notable impact on rural communities. Significant odors, groundwater contamination, and farmworker health problems have plagued pockets of our country including eastern North Carolina, central California, and the upper Midwest for untold years, as factory farms have gotten bigger. And, since the average American eats more than 200 pounds of meat a year — far more than any other country in the world — there are certainly potential health benefits to cutting back on the meat. Clearly, meat consumption isn’t just an environmental issue.
Climate change legislation is coming down the pipeline quickly throughout the country, and to date most of the discussion has focused on cap-and-trade initiatives to regulate transportation, electricity, and manufacturing sectors. The Fox News article highlights the need to also consider the role of animal production and food-system emissions overall in our climate change policies. But for the moment, it makes clear that we don’t need to wait around for policymakers to tell us how to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in this country. We make decisions everyday about our own carbon footprint which can actually have a real impact. I hope we can all join Andy in looking no farther than our plates to start making real changes today.