Debunking the meat/climate change myth
Editor’s note: Eliot Coleman is one of the most revered and influential small-scale farmers in the United States, famous for growing delicious vegetables through the Maine winter with little use of fossil fuel. Eliot sent me the following letter as a response to my recent piece on the greenhouse-gas foorprint of industrial meat. At question is a 2007 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which claimed that 18 percent of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions stem from meat production.
— Tom Philpott
I am dismayed that so many people have been so easily fooled on the meat eating and climate change issue following the UN report. The culprit is not meat eating but rather the excesses of corporate/industrial agriculture. The UN report shows either great ignorance or possibly the influence of the fossil fuel lobby with the intent of confusing the public. It is obviously to someone’s benefit to make meat eating and livestock raising an easily attacked straw man (with the enthusiastic help of vegetarian groups) in order to cover up the singular contribution of the only new sources of carbon — burning the stored carbon in fossil fuels and to a small extent making cement (both of which release carbon from long term storage) — as the reason for increased greenhouse gasses in the modern era. (Just for ridiculous comparison, human beings, each exhaling about 1kg of CO2 per day, are responsible for 33% more CO2 per year than fossil fuel transportation. Maybe we should get rid of us.)
If I butcher a steer for my food, and that steer has been raised on grass on my farm, I am not responsible for any increased CO2. The pasture-raised animal eating grass in my field is not producing CO2, merely recycling it (short term carbon cycle) as grazing animals (and human beings) have since they evolved. It is not meat eating that is responsible for increased greenhouse gasses; it is the corn/ soybean/ chemical fertilizer/ feedlot/ transportation system under which industrial animals are raised. When I think about the challenge of feeding northern New England, where I live, from our own resources, I cannot imagine being able to do that successfully without ruminant livestock able to convert the pasture grasses into food. It would not be either easy or wise to grow arable crops on the stony and/or hilly land that has served us for so long as productive pasture. By comparison with my grass fed steer, the soybeans cultivated for a vegetarian’s dinner, if done with motorized equipment, are responsible for increased CO2.
But, what about the methane in all that cattle flatulence? Excess flatulence is also a function of an unnatural diet. If cattle flatulence on a natural grazing diet were a problem, heat would have been trapped a 1000 years ago when, for example, there were 70 million buffalo in North America not to mention innumerable deer, antelope, moose, elk, caribou, and so on all eating vegetation and in turn being eaten by native Americans, wolves, mountain lions, etc. Did the methane from their digestion and the nitrous oxide from their manure cause temperatures to rise then? Or could there be other contributing factors today resulting from industrial agriculture, factors that change natural processes, which are not being taken into account? It has long been known that when grasslands are chemically fertilized their productivity is increased but their plant diversity is diminished. A recent study in the journal Rangelands (Vol. 31, #1, pp. 45 – 49) documents how that the diminished diversity from sowing only two or three grasses and legumes in modern pastures results in diminished availability of numerous secondary nutritional compounds, for example tannins from the minor pasture forbs, which are known to greatly reduce methane emissions. Could not the artificial fertilization of pastures greatly increase the NO2 from manure? Might not the increased phosphorus, nowhere near as abundant in natural systems, have modified digestibility? I am sure that future research will document other contributing factors of industrial agricultural practices on animal emissions. The fact is clear. It is not the livestock; it is the way they are raised. But what about clearing the Brazilian rain forest? Well, the bulk of that is for soybeans and if we stopped feeding grain to cattle much of the acreage presently growing grain in the Midwest could become pasture again and we wouldn’t need Brazilian land. (US livestock presently consume 5 times as much grain as the US population does directly.) And long term pasture, like the Great Plains once was, stores an enormous amount of carbon in the soil.
My interest in this subject comes not just because I am a farmer and a meat eater, but also because something seems not to make sense here as if the data from the research has failed to take some other human mediated influence into account. But even more significantly, if we humans were not burning fossil fuels and thus not releasing long-term carbon from storage and if we were not using some 90 megatons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, would we even be discussing this issue?
If those people concerned about rising levels of greenhouse gasses, instead of condemning meat eating, were condemning the enormous output of greenhouse gasses due to fossil fuel and fertilizer use by a greedy and biologically irresponsible agriculture, I would cheer that as a truthful statement even if they weren’t perceptive enough to continue on and mention that the only “new” carbon, the carbon that is responsible for rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, is not biogenic from livestock but rather anthropogenic from our releasing the carbon in long term storage (coal, oil, natural gas.) Targeting livestock as a smoke screen in the climate change controversy is a very mistaken path to take since it results in hiding our inability to deal with the real causes. When people are fooled into ignorantly condemning the straw man of meat eating, who I suspect has been set up for them by the fossil fuel industry, I am appalled by how easily human beings allow themselves to be deluded by their corporate masters.