Livestock farting and the ozone

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Can Vegetarianism Save the World? Nitty-gritty

By Jess McNally (Stanford Alumni organization)

What is the impact of a person becoming a vegetarian on global warming?

At this point you may be thinking: "All right, I could eat a little less meat, but will it really make such a big difference?" I hope to add some meat to that claim here.

Livestock, does it really matter in the scheme of all greenhouse gas emissions?

In short, yes! Depending how the figure is calculated, livestock account for anywhere between 18 and 51 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measured in CO2 equivalent.  This number is reported in CO2 equivalent because many of the gases released by agriculture, such as methane, have 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2. Nitrous oxide, of which livestock is responsible for 65 percent of anthropogenic output, has 296 times the GWP of CO2. Raising farm animals is a huge part of our climate change problem, and cutting back on animal products is one of the biggest, most immediate things we all can do to help.

Changes in land use due to livestock are also a significant contributor to our global carbon footprint. We impact more land with livestock grazing than with any other use, including crops, roads and cities. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock are the single largest anthropogenic user of land. The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet—a full quarter of our livable Earth! Beyond the fact that much of this land was once forest before being converted to pasture, over 20 percent of the pastureland in the world are degraded to some extent by overgrazing, compaction and erosion.  All of these processes release carbon to the atmosphere, and reduce the potential for restoring this carbon in the future.

Why does meat produce more emissions than a vegetarian diet?

The simplest way to think about why meat produces more emissions is in terms of the efficiency of converting grain to edible meat. Or even more, plant protein to animal protein.  The U.S. livestock population consumes more than seven times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population (Pimentel 2003). All the fertilizer, tractor fumes, transportation, ground tilling, you name it, that go into producing a pound of grain are literally multiplied by 4.5 to produce a pound of chicken breasts, or by 20 to produce a pound of ground beef.  It takes 4.5 pounds of grain to make 1 pound of chicken meat and 7.3 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of pork. Approximately 700 calories worth of feed are needed to produce just one 100-calorie piece of beef.

 Up till now I thought of vegans as a bunch of nuts. (pun intended) but when I heard on NPR a piece similar to the one above, it spun my head around.  So last night a friend and I ate dinner at the Munch vegan restaurant in Oak Park.  The food was delicious. 


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Tom Holmes from Forest Park  

Posted: December 26th, 2014 5:35 PM

Thanks for the comments. Great discussion, and on top of that it is civil!

Brian Slowiak from Westchester  

Posted: December 9th, 2014 11:55 AM

Just asking. I thought vegans will not eat anything that comes from an animal. What is their position on breast feeding infants? Would infants survive on water in their world?

Lily White Liberal from Oak Park  

Posted: December 9th, 2014 10:36 AM

Does this mean I don't have to feel guilty anymore about other white people killing all the buffalo in the Great Plains 200 years ago?

Ag nerd  

Posted: December 9th, 2014 10:06 AM

I don't know that I'd use the word "engineering." That's part of it. But the primary driver--crops & livestock--needs to be diversification and holistic farm practices. There's definitely a future in both GPS data-driven farming, for instance, and cutting down on runoff by simply avoiding monoculture and planting cover crops. (Sorry, Tom, neither of those involves going vegan! )

Mr. Middle  

Posted: December 9th, 2014 8:20 AM

@AG Nerd. The point then is that agricultural engineering can reduce GHG in substantial amounts. Not just veggies or animal diets but the whole process of farming and raising livestock. The issue is that farmers and cattle people are voters in Illinois, Iowa and Colorado. Ds need those votes. However Gas and Oil people give money to Rs. So instead of an intelligent discussion on how to reduce GHG in total we get politically fights over $, votes and hybrid cars.

Ag nerd  

Posted: December 8th, 2014 9:05 AM

Nice article, Middle. Tom, I appreciate you discussing this, but I it's twisting some iffy facts towards the wrong conclusion. It's not the animals, per se, but the way we farm them. And you have to take into account that animals such as sheep and goats are far more sustainable than, for example, pork. Intensive rotational grazing is far, far different than concentrated, industrial operations. This is a far more nuanced topic than "let's eat veggies." Which have their own issues as cropland.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: December 8th, 2014 8:34 AM

So if you really care about GW then you will read the following article. If livestock produces 51% of GW gas and changing feed reduces this 30% there is a 15% reduction in GHG. No change in transportation can effectively achieve that. But its politically correct to attack oil...

Bill Dwyer from Forest Park  

Posted: December 7th, 2014 11:32 PM

A close read of this offers no explanation of what to do about cow farts, Tom. Or for that matter, pig flatulence, and the resultant, thank God to the Italians, proscuitto. And, do squid pass gas too? Because I really love calamari. Not giving that up.

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