Eating less meat and dairy products won’t have major impact on global warming

March 24th, 2010  |  Published in Stumpblog  |  10 Comments

Some interesting assertions from the American Chemical Society about the purported effects of meat/dairy consumption on global warming. We’ve all heard that cow farts are the reason that Antarctica is bellyflopping into the ocean, and there are some excellent environmental critiques of the ecological and ethical horror that is industrial livestock production. I think we can all agree that imprisoning PCB-saturated cows that shit into our water supply is a bad idea, and we might need Antarctica in future, so let’s move on from there.

An interesting question, though, is what we can do about the environmental impact of eating animals if we choose to eat them. The ACS offers a somewhat ambivalent solution with lots of intriguing — and undoubtedly contentious — complexities. For example, I’m not quite convinced that spreading the wonders of Western animal husbandry is really the solution. After all, our petrol-based nitrogen fertilizers sure can grow a lot of Monsanto corn, but do we really want to?

(Also, in the context of cow toots, please pause to snicker at “bum rap”. Yes, I am a 36-year old PhD.)

Cutting back on consumption of meat and dairy products will not have a major impact in combating global warming — despite repeated claims that link diets rich in animal products to production of greenhouse gases. That’s the conclusion of a report presented here today at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Air quality expert Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., who made the presentation, said that giving cows and pigs a bum rap is not only scientifically inaccurate, but also distracts society from embracing effective solutions to global climate change. He noted that the notion is becoming deeply rooted in efforts to curb global warming, citing campaigns for “meatless Mondays” and a European campaign, called “Less Meat = Less Heat,” launched late last year.

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  1. dionzimic says:

    March 24th, 2010at 11:18 am(#)

    Very informative post, thanks..

  2. Bret B says:

    March 24th, 2010at 12:45 pm(#)

    Clearly, not eating animals is not a panacea for global warming, but who says it is? It’s one step towards helping curb global warming, and that’s it. From what I’ve seen, that’s how “environmental vegetarians” also frame it.

    That seems to be the claim that Mitloehner is making as well. Though, as a member of American Chemical Society, we might question his emphasis on creating efficient methods of raising animals, as I’m sure they would include bringing in more chemicals to underdeveloped nations, and hence more money for his backers.

  3. Dean J says:

    March 24th, 2010at 4:41 pm(#)

    He seemed to, ah, miss the point.

    We can grow 100 lbs of corn, feed it to a cow over three years, and get 1 lb of beef outta that. Or we can grow a pound of corn and eat that instead, and use 1/100th the farmland. It really is a partial solution for global warming; “use less”.

    The other problem is that our industry – plastics, petroleum, cars, and consumption – are what really crank things up, not so much our overuse of farmland to make corn.

  4. Chris says:

    March 25th, 2010at 12:13 pm(#)

    I choose to make grass-fed beef a part of my solution. Corn fed beef isn’t as efficient and has a poorer fat profile (and flavour profile IMO).

    Expensive as a one off buy, if you can find the freezer space, meat-share programs offer grass fed beef a lot more affordably.

  5. Braidwood says:

    March 25th, 2010at 6:47 pm(#)

    eez reediculous!

    Of COURSE eating less meat and dairy products will have an impact on global warming. But I don’t care to bother going into all the reasons why right now.

  6. Sarah says:

    March 25th, 2010at 8:23 pm(#)

    While it’s true that it’s cheaper economically and calorically to eat grain yourself rather than pass it through an animal, it’s also true that cows are much better at sucking nutrients out of grains and grass than we are and their mineral and vitamin uptake out of these things is far superior. (Cows do much better with grass than straight grains, though.) Humans, on the other hand, are very good at sucking nutrients out of meat sources – what we call “bioavailability” of nutrients is far better in animal sources than vegetable. It makes more sense nutritionally to run grass-type things through a cow before we eat them – you would have to eat more grain products than is physically possible to get the same amount of non-caloric nutrition out of 100 lbs of corn than whatever 100 lbs of corn would produce in beef.

    It should also be pointed out that humans cannot digest grass. Properly managed pasture (ie, grass) is a stellar way to quickly sequester carbon and reduce global warming. Cows and other grazers are a great way to manage pasture and encourage dense root growth. Eating cows and sheep and whatever else is a great way to fund carbon sequestration while benefiting from a food source we couldn’t otherwise use, I think.

    It’s also worth pointing out that corn is a awful crop, environmentally, requiring more caloric input in terms of oil-derived fertilizer than you get out of it, and the cost differential between grass-fed beef and feedlot beef would be reversed if corn subsidies (wheat subsidies too) were removed in Canada & the US.

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    March 26th, 2010at 4:15 am(#)

    Braidwood: If you’re gonna throw that down, you have to argue for it. In this house, we support our hypotheses, young lady! *stern face* :) :)

  8. Trishy says:

    March 26th, 2010at 4:17 pm(#)

    Thanks for posting this. I saw it on the ACS website a little while ago, but the article required a subscription, so I couldn’t figure out how to share it. A small handful of vegetarians (like some that I encounter on the Sierra Club’s Facebook page) seem to think that being a vegetarian is required if you consider yourself environmentally conscious, but I always thought this was a bit short-sighted, and one should be paying attention to where your food came from and how it got to your plate, not just whether it is animal-based or not.

  9. Trishy says:

    March 27th, 2010at 10:29 am(#)

    I would also like to point out to Bret B that the American Chemical Society is not an association of people who make their money from selling chemicals. It is the largest scientific organization in the world, and it is composed of chemists and engineers from universities, industry, government, non-profits, and high schools. Frank Mitloehner is a professor of animal science at UC Davis, and as far as I can tell from his list of grants, he has no industry support, the funding for his research comes from federal grants. Therefore I can’t imagine why we would be biased in favor of industry. The ACS should not be confused with the American Chemistry Council, which is an organization of large and powerful chemical companies (think Dow and Monsanto) that is constantly defending the unquestionable benevolence of the products manufactured by their member companies, such as products that contain bisphenol A and polybrominated flame retardants.

  10. Simma says:

    April 1st, 2010at 1:35 pm(#)

    “We can grow 100 lbs of corn, feed it to a cow over three years, and get 1 lb of beef outta that. Or we can grow a pound of corn and eat that instead, and use 1/100th the farmland. It really is a partial solution for global warming; ‘use less’.”

    Dean J, this really oversimplifies the matter.

    The problems with hunger in the developed world (and I think Mitloehner is either naive in his assessment of the cause or the way he’s quoted makes him seem as though he is) are almost always due to political, economic, and social injustice, not world scarcity of food. The overproduction of corn in the US, for example, undermines food prices in the developing world and is a major cause of both poverty and therefore hunger in the developing world.

    Not to mention that excess corn is most likely the biggest driver of obesity and disease in the US (and by extension through the globalized economy, probably a major contributor to rising obesity and related health issues in the entire developed world).

    Also, corn has thousands of industrial for corn in addition to the many evil uses Big Food has found for it. Excess corn contributes to Production of Stuff, and to all the industrial processes that make that stuff.

    Less consumption of goods, more investment in public transport, phasing out fossil fuels, investing in converting suburban sprawl to more European like models of population distribution (dense cities and towns which are walkable and/or served by good public transport) these are all things that are certain to make a huge and real difference. Phasing out meat eating… that’s not such a sure thing.

    I do agree that Mitloehner’s suggestion that our current farming methods are bad because they are not efficient enough is kind of silly. There may very well be ways to raise essentially carbon-neutral (or close to it) meat. These methods would be better for the environment (even good for it in some places) and humane for the animals, and they would produce meat that is healthier for human consumption.

    I know meat eating is a loaded issue with heated beliefs on all sides. I’m a meat eater who believes that eating meat is actively beneficial to health, but I totally respect an individual’s decision to refrain from meat on ethical grounds. But I don’t respect efforts to distort or oversimplify facts (“Meat eating will kill you!” “There’s nothing wrong with the way we raise meat today, and changing it will result in world starvation!”) in support of either side.

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