DON'T EAT A COW, MAN! How Animal Agriculture contributes to Global Warming
The tragic consequences of global warming are already apparent - from melting ice caps to extreme weather conditions, leading to the death of people, animals and plants. The spread of disease, the mass extinction of species and the inundation of coastal states are predicted.
A Hummer on a Plate
Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas (18%) than all of
transportation (13%) according to a 2006 report of the Food and Agricultural
Organization of the U.N. called "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental
Issues and Options".(1) The report also names animal agriculture as a
strong factor in:
air and water pollution
loss of biodiversity
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas produced by ruminant animals, such as dairy cows.
On Al Gore's website www.climatecrisis.org,
under "Actions You Can Take At Home", he notes:
"Eat less meat. Methane is the second most significant greenhouse gas, and cows are
one of the greatest methane emitters. Their grassy diet and multiple stomachs cause
them to produce methane, which they exhale with every breath."
A study by Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, published in the April, 2006 issue
of the journal Earth Interactions, indicates that the average U.S. diet
requires the production per year of an extra 1.5 tons of CO2 equivalent, in
the form of actual CO2 as well as methane and other greenhouse gasses,
compared to a vegan diet.(2)
A vegan diet eliminates animal flesh (whether mammal, bird or fish) and animal products
(dairy and eggs) and depends on vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and
seeds and the many products made from them.
Using Less Land to Feed More People
The greenhouse gas CO2 can be reduced, in part, by reducing animal agriculture and
increasing plant agriculture. When forest is cleared for pasture, the service which those
trees provided as "carbon sinks" is gone. In addition, it takes less
arable land and energy inputs to feed a vegan than to feed a non-vegan because
food energy (as calories), such as grain, eaten directly by a person is more
efficient than cycling that energy through an animal by feeding grain to
a "food" animal. Thus, even though both animal and plant agriculture
depend on fossil fuel inputs, less is needed for plant agriculture.
This is stated succinctly by Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy
Institute. In a Feb. 2008 letter to potential members, he says:
"A plant-based diet requires roughly one-fourth as much energy as a diet
rich in red meat. Shifting from a diet rich in red meat to a plant-based diet
cuts greenhouse gas emissions as much as shifting from a Suburban SUV to a Prius."
And Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told
the BBC: "I want to highlight the fact that among options for mitigating
climate change, changing diets is something one should consider."(3)
What If I Eat Grass-fed Beef Instead of Grain-fed Beef?
According to Nathan Pelletier, doctoral student at Dalhousie U., Halifax, Nova Scotia, cattle
raised solely on grass actually contribute more to greenhouse gases than cattle who
are "finished" on grain. Why? "It's related to the much higher
volumes of feed throughput and associated methane and nitrous oxide
emissions." Further, with grass-fed cattle "There is also a higher
(grass) trampling rate. So the overall land area that you need to maintain
magnifies that (greenhouse gas) difference."(4)
If I Buy Locally Produced Food, Isn't that Sufficient Action to Take?
Buying food locally produced is very important to support local farmers and reduce CO2
emissions from transporting food long distances. However, it shouldn't be the only
strategy for reducing the carbon footprint from the food industry. According to Chris Weber,
Professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon U., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,
buying locally produced food doesn't have as much impact as reducing beef and dairy.
He says that only 5% of the emissions related to food comes from transporting food to
market. "You can have a much bigger impact by shifting just one day a week from meat
and dairy to anything else than going local every day of the year." (5)
Recommendations and Resources
- You can choose to reduce or eliminate animal flesh and animal products from your
diet. Request a free vegetarian starter kit fom Physicians Committee for Responsible
Medicine at 202-686-2210 x306 or by email to literature_at-symbol_pcrm.org;
or download from pcrm.org.
Also available in SPANISH as "Guía de Iniciación una Dieta Vegetariana."
- Weekly free recipes online from F.A.R.M. are among many internet
resources. Sign up by email to info_at-symbol_meatoutmondays.org
- Environmental organizations should advocate for plant-based diet as
part of their educational work on global warming.
- Government policy should stop subsidizing animal agriculture and
instead encourage plant agriculture. For example, school lunch programs
should no longer be used as a dumping ground for unhealthy surplus animal
products but should provide healthy plant-based foods.
- You can download columns and recipes plus this paper and other resources
from the website of the Biodiversity/Vegetarian Outreach Committee of the
Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club at
(yes, "biodiversity" is repeated). Some items available in SPANISH.
Or you can get free hard copies of this and other resources by contacting the
Chair of the committee, Linda A. DeStefano at 315-488-2140 between 9 a.m. and
11 p.m. or by email to ldestefano3_at-symbol_twcny.rr.com
(1) "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options"
by H. Steinfield, et al in a 2006 report done for the Food and Agricultural
Organization of the U.N.
(created March, 2009)
(3) "Shun Meat, says U.N. Climate Chief," Richard Black,
Environmental correspondent, BBC News website, Sept. 7, 2008:
(4) Janet Raloff, Science News, Feb. 15, 2009:
(5) "Hamburgers are the Hummer of Food in Global Warming: Scientists"
by Agence France Presse, Feb. 16, 2009 posted on CommonDreams website at:
You can also read previous versions of this material:
July 2006, in English
July 2006, in Spanish
Up to Top