Al Gore left something out

There are a lot of reasons eating meat is far worse for the environment than eating vegetarian or vegan, including the destruction of waterways from the concentrated animal waste of factory farms, pesticide pollution from all the extra crops needed to feed livestock, and the huge amount of land and water needed to sustain meat production. Now we can add global warming to that list.

A recent report by two University of Chicago scientists found that meat eating is a significant contributor to global warming (see also this article, which is a little more accessible for the layman). Using conservative numbers, they calculated that switching from the average American meat-based diet to a vegetarian diet reduces your greenhouse gas footprint by as much as an average American driver does in switching from a normal car to a hybrid.

The major impact of the meat industry on global warming is partly due to its energy inefficiency. To raise animals you have to use far more energy growing crops to feed the animals than if you just ate the crops directly. Interestingly, eating fish is also far less energy efficient because of the long distances that wild fish catches have to be transported and because fish farming is relatively energy inefficient.

The paper compares the average American diet, which gets 15 percent of its calories from meat, with three separate diets drawing that 15 percent exclusively from red meat, fish, and poultry, as well as a vegetarian diet. The red meat and fish diets tied for most wasteful and were considerably less efficient than even the average American meat diet. The poultry and vegetarian diets were most efficient, with the vegetarian diet being even more efficient depending on how low the level of animal products is in it. A vegan diet, of course, is more efficient than any of the others.

Meat and fish add a lot of carbon dioxide by wasting so much energy, but meat (and dairy) make global warming worse in another way - by producing methane and nitrous oxide.
While methane and nitrous oxide are relatively rare compared with carbon dioxide, they are—molecule for molecule—far more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. A single pound of methane, for example, has the same greenhouse effect as approximately 25 pounds of carbon dioxide.
So all those cows farting and the manure lagoons used in pig farming have a big impact.

Do we really need another reason to stop eating meat? The damage that the meat industry does to humans, other animals, and the environment is so massive that even if it had no effect on global warming, the arguments for ending meat production would be overwhelming. But as the dangers of global warming finally begin to penetrate popular consciousness, that fun fact about eliminating meat from your diet being as helpful as switching to the best car out there could be effective in illustrating how urgent it is to reduce or eliminate animal products from our diets.


naureen said...

the methane argument has always struck me as a little sinister...its ultimate implication is that if there were less cows (if we consumed less of them, there'd be less demand for them, so there'd be less of them), we'd be better off. Thinking about cows in terms of the negative environmental impact of their bodily discharges seems to feed (no pun intended!) into our notion of animals as a utility, rather than as beings with dignity.
or something...

Jake said...

i totally agree, but human supremacy is so ingrained that animal rights/liberation arguments just don't work most of the time. i still make those the focus of my argument and only resort to the "human self-interest" arguments if i don't make any headway.

it's definitely kind of gross since it's like saying you shouldn't have slaves because they might revolt or because they're economically inefficient. but i think the less people are invested in eating meat, the easier it is to eventually convince them of the rights/liberation arguments.

Kyle said...

There's a new article on this topic out in today's NewStandard. Here's the link:

Chris said...

although in this case kyle's contribution is well taken (i.e. cow farts aren't the problem so much as the way the shit is stored) i have been challenged before on similar issues.

this usually comes up when i say that i'm against the domestication of animals and their being used as expendable resources. the response is "well then, i guess you want to make cows extinct, cause they can't live independently in the wild anymore."

the quality of this reasoning as an argument against veganism notwithstanding, there is sort of a point here. although it is still very hard to imagine, if factory farming no longer existed, what would become of the cows that now exist?

i don't think that we have a framework for addressing this. i'm not sure that ascribing something like "dignity" to animals will help (not trying to pick on you naureen, i like your overall point.)

dignity sometimes seems to be a back handed way of complimenting the oppressed on bearing their suffering nobly, and quietly, or at least not calling out their oppressors too forcefully.

so i don't know about insisting on the dignity of animals that have been made into "resources," i suspect that would be a continuation of their oppression by other means, and under other names.

what if we recognized that they are now a part of society, and should be viewed as such? are they capable of contributing to human society without being exploited by it at the same time? and how do we know when they are being exploited? (it seems as though the [presumed] impossibility of communication with cows [and other non-human animals] is the biggest issue here.)

can society even exist without exploitation?

i'd like to learn more about the position of animals (esp. cows) in India, because they seem to be included in society in a way that they aren't in the us. i don't mean to suggest that this is a possible solution, or that cows are better off in India (although it really seems like they are from my limited observations) but that it could open up a new way of looking at the issue.

or perhaps cows could still live in the wild. seems like that would be the best option.