The meat of the carbon issue

For those interested in sources of growing carbon emissions, the N.Y. Times ran an important article today, “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.” Here’s a startling factoid:

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

And the indirect effect of growing meat consumption on the climate is equally large:

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

Food and energy have begun colliding in unprecedented ways that we must rethink if we are going to stave off catastrophe.

12 Responses to The meat of the carbon issue

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Yup. Grow more food and also more bioenergy biomass. It can be done.

  2. Paul says:

    This is really a no brainer, since in addition to the fact that meat takes so many resources to produce, it’s also bad for your health.

  3. Peter Foley says:

    Do cows eat oil or coal?–no, so they’re not adding to the carbon levels of the atmosphere. The carbon they emit is just CO2 that plants extracted from the air temporarily. Has the green movement no integrity? continuously spouting falsehoods will lead the rest of the world to rightly ignore all of the statements of the group whether honest or not. The idea meat production uses large amounts of energy is laughable–did you observe the huge nuclear power plant co-located with the feed-lot in the NYT misinformation. How did those millions of bison roam the prairie before we invented high voltage power lines? Through the intervention of the bovine’s stomach I can eat grass and field corn–we’re born and breed omnivores, get over it.
    Again I ask, How does meat in the USA cause deforestation in Brazil?
    The attempts to prove every thing is related to the alleged AGW will backfire- either completely disrupting all rational conservation that was linked to the mania. Or partially by slowing necessary steps by the smearing of the actual problem issues by the phony concerns of the dis-honest fear mongers. Don’t invite the charlatans, snake oil salesmen, and cranks into your political tent. Al Gore’s blatant lying in his movie has only encouraged further intellectual prostitution for ‘green’ goals. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions backed by weak ethics.

  4. Peter, the simple answer to the question about how meat requires fossil fuels is that most meat production is not based on animals that graze freely. They are fed imported soy, fish (yes, large quantities in many countries), etc, all of which requires production and transport. Moreover, even if the animals ate ONLY grass, the metabolism happening in the animal guarantees that a huge percentage of calories is lost before it reaches your dinner table. Eating meat is, in terms of energy efficiency, like using electric power to run a generator. It´s an unneccesary extra step and must lead to energy waste.

  5. Sorghum Crow says:

    Peter, please dust off your copy of Diet for a Small Planet. It explains the energy considerations of meat eating, among other things. Grow food for people not for cows.

  6. Ben says:

    “Do cows eat oil or coal?” That is a ridiculous argument (Do cars run on crude oil? – No. I guess they don’t emit CO2 then).

    The more transitions the energy stored in the oil takes before it is used by you, the less efficient the total energy transfer will be. Through the intervention of a vegetable, you can get energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil.

  7. Jay Alt says:

    Concerns about livestock aren’t because of the CO2 they exhale. They aren’t confined strictly to climate change and they are genuine. Industrialized farming feeds cattle grains and soy, which they didn’t evolved to eat. Digestive problems gives them gas and they burp and pass methane (CH4).

    Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas whose atmospheric concentration has gone up 2.5X since 1750, much more than the 40% rise in CO2. Methane concentrations are low, measured in parts per billion versus parts per million for CO2. But unfortunately methane is very powerful, about 20X stronger in greenhouse effect than CO2. As a result it is responsible for nearly 25% of the current ‘extra’ greenhouse effect that drives global warming. Not all methane comes from cattle but their contribution is very significant.

    The good news is that unlike carbon dioxide, whose concentrations will linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane has a lifetime of around 8 years. So reductions now will have a nearly immediate effect. That is why countries with more stock than people like NZ and AU have studied how to modify livestock diet, breeds and supplements to reduce methane emissions.

    Increase in atmospheric conc of greenhouse gases, 1750 – 2000.

    Ice cores show that like CO2 levels, increases in CH4 and NOx are unprecedented in at least the last 650,000 years.

    Increases in human and natural forcings (CH4 is green contribution on leftmost bar, ~25%)

    report: Livestock’s Long Shadow

    click on report summary icon
    note paragraph: ‘ Atmosphere and Climate’

  8. Peter Foley says:

    John Liungman, We feed local soy here in the American Mid-West,(transportation costs for grains are near historical lows) Meat animals provide a necessary source of high grade protein and minerals(and tastes great) My hamburger cost less than my cereal does pound for pound—the protein in the meat is cost effective. Ask yourself if you eat the corn do you emit less then the cow on a pound for pound basis? There is no energy shortage, so why worry about the use of a few pounds of oil, coal, or natural gas? How is producing needed food “waste?”
    Sorghum Crow, I don’t eat waste and I don’t read vegan propaganda. “Grow cows for food, not people.” Check out the teeth in your pie hole-why do they call some canines, and some incisors? We’re omnivores, get over it.
    Ben, I’m trying to communicate that the cow’s CO2 isn’t RAISING the total of CO2 in the atmosphere. The CO2 is just returning to the air after being captured in green plants. The stochiometry presented is bogus. You are so deep in the error-cows raising the PPM of CO2 any true statement is rejected. Any close examination of the stats presented lead one to reject it—The idea meat production support alone causes 18% of ALL global warming should set off your B.S. detectors. (Someone isn’t paying all of their income taxes if true). If you are supporting the Neo-Luddite meme of locavorism, just have some integrity and come out in the open and honestly represent the misguided idea.
    Jay Alt, What does this have to do with AGW? Wrong area to post. Call a Vet, and ask her if a cow can eat anything and not emit gases? (Hint you emit gases with any type of diet). The article claims to be about carbon not methane. One little balloon popper for the methane “issue” is how did the pre Columbus mega-fauna (bison) fit into this world view? There is roughly the same weight of bovines on the N American continent now as during the 1700s. This issue shows in a microcosm how various sects have piggybacked their various pet theories onto the supposed AGW issue. The scientific rigor goes from weak (AGW) to non existent (grain feed cows produce more gases per pound of meat than grass feed).
    Jay, How could meat production produce the amount of fossil carbon emissions claimed? Have a little intellectual integrity and run the numbers on a back of an envelope- you can’t even come close to the WorldVet’s claims. Evidently the NYT’s fact checker died. Bring some actual facts to the table, not the politically spun works of fiction.

  9. Peter,
    I don´t understand your point. How can you say there is no energy shortage? First, land can always be used for different purposes (unless the soil is so poor it is suitable only for grazing). It should be used in the most efficient manner. Second, the only reason modern farming is at all possible is thanks to vehicles, pumps, heating, etc, all of which uses power in some form. Today most of that is fossil fuel. Look at it the other way around. Without fossil fuels, how would you farm? Not at alla probably. So we agree that fossil fuel is used to some extent. The question is how much. I grant you, local soy is better than many alternatives, but this is not available in many parts of the world, such as here in Sweden. A great number of reports show that on averege across the world, CO2 emmissions due to meat production is huge. Why question that?

  10. One more thing, Peter. Consumer prices for cereals vs meat are quite irrelevant to this discussion. Consumer prices depend on a bunch of factors and only to a very small degree do they relate to energy use and CO2 emissions. Polluting is virtually free as of yet.

  11. Peter Foley says:

    I can purchase all the energy I need, thus no shortage. There is no energy shortage here in the US and there won’t be if the government allows businesses to build the needed coal and nuclear plants in a timely fashion. Oil can be readily replaced with several different products(Oil shale 200+years available on the North American continent, coal to liquid over 70 years worth of reserves, and bio to oil limited only by sunlight.)
    Read the reports, where is all this energy entering the system? 18% of the total world energy budget is pulled out of where? Our cows continue to grow without any outside energy. How could US ranchers sell cows that used that much oil and still make a profit? Don’t let some vegan spin doctor fool you. Post modern farming is using ever less energy per unit of output through the miracles of bioengineering and herbicides, similar gains in meat production have occur with antibiotics and breeding that have lowered the emissions per unit of meat, both plant and oil based carbon.
    The price of cereal to meat at the same market on the same day shows the input costs are similar– if meat had as many energy inputs as stated it would be much more expensive.
    Again animals converting plants to meat isn’t pollution. Is it pollution when a plankton eating whale farts? Spend a moment of time to think about what I said about Bison. How did 40-60 million buffalo roam without crude oil inputs? Try to remember when you came to believe that meat production is the cause of two elevenths of the World’s Fossil Based alleged global warming. Now check those fact for be true to reality please.
    The UN is either spouting some vegan or elitist(poor people shouldn’t eat meat) propaganda or just piling on the AGW bandwagon.

  12. Ed says:

    “How did 40-60 million buffalo roam without crude oil inputs?”

    I think those 40-60 million buffalo fed almost entirely on grass. That’s how they managed without the oil. They were not given corn that had been produced by mechanized agriculture, fertilized by petroleum products, and trucked to the feedlot. They buffalo were not housed in confinement systems, given piped in water, transported to slaughterhouses, or butchered on production lines. Their dismembered carcasses were not distributed across the country by road transport, or ground up into large hoppers to mix with other animal parts.

    You can’t perform that plethora of industrial processes without using oil. Any estimates that meat production is not a huge energy consumer must be leaving out most of those activities.

    There were, in fact, zero oil-using industrial processes required to support those 40-60 million buffalo. There are a heckuva lot of oil-using industrial processes required by the modern meat industry. Not to mention that the cows, hogs, chickes etc raised by the meat industry far outnumber those 40-60 million buffalo.