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Just sayin'


As Congress begins to tackle the causes and cures of global warming, the action focuses on gas-guzzling vehicles and coal-fired power plants, not on lowly bovines.

Yet livestock are a major emitter of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. And as meat becomes a growing mainstay of human diet around the world, changing what we eat may prove as hard as changing what we drive.

It's not just the well-known and frequently joked-about flatulence and manure of grass-chewing cattle that's the problem, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Land-use changes, especially deforestation to expand pastures and to create arable land for feed crops, is a big part. So is the use of energy to produce fertilizers, to run the slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants, and to pump water.

"Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems," Henning Steinfeld, senior author of the report, said when the FAO findings were released in November.

Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, reports the FAO. This includes 9 percent of all CO2 emissions, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide. Altogether, that's more than the emissions caused by transportation.

The latter two gases are particularly troubling – even though they represent far smaller concentrations in atmosphere than CO2, which remains the main global warming culprit. But methane has 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 and nitrous oxide has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Methane could become a greater problem if the permafrost in northern latitudes thaws with increasing temperatures, releasing the gas now trapped below decaying vegetation. What's more certain is that emissions of these gases can spike as humans consume more livestock products.

As prosperity increased around the world in recent decades, the number of people eating meat (and the amount one eats every year) has risen steadily. Between 1970 and 2002, annual per capita meat consumption in developing countries rose from 11 kilograms (24 lbs.) to 29 kilograms (64 lbs.), according to the FAO. (In developed countries, the comparable figures were 65 kilos and 80 kilos.) As population increased, total meat consumption in the developing world grew nearly five-fold over that period.

Beyond that, annual global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons at the beginning of the decade to 465 million tons in 2050. This makes livestock the fastest growing sector of global agriculture.

Animal-rights activists and those advocating vegetarianism have been quick to pick up on the implications of the FAO report.

"Arguably the best way to reduce global warming in our lifetimes is to reduce or eliminate our consumption of animal products," writes Noam Mohr in a report for EarthSave International.

Changing one's diet can lower greenhouse gas emissions quicker than shifts away from fossil fuel burning technologies, Mr. Mohr writes, because the turnover rate for farm animals is shorter than that for cars and power plants.

"Even if cheap, zero-emission fuel sources were available today, they would take many years to build and slowly replace the massive infrastructure our economy depends upon today," he writes. "Similarly, unlike carbon dioxide which can remain in the air for more than a century, methane cycles out of the atmosphere in just eight years, so that lower methane emissions quickly translate to cooling of the earth."

Researchers at the University of Chicago compared the global warming impact of meat eaters with that of vegetarians and found that the average American diet - including all food processing steps - results in the annual production of an extra 1.5 tons of CO2-equivalent (in the form of all greenhouse gases) compared to a no-meat diet. Researchers Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin concluded that dietary changes could make more difference than trading in a standard sedan for a more efficient hybrid car, which reduces annual CO2 emissions by roughly one ton a year.

"It doesn't have to be all the way to the extreme end of vegan," says Dr. Eshel, whose family raised beef cattle in Israel. "If you simply cut down from two burgers a week to one, you've already made a substantial difference."

By fnord12 | February 21, 2007, 2:39 PM | Liberal Outrage


No, no, no, no, no! You've got it all backwards! This isn't something we want to eliminate!

This is a natural, renewable resource that we should explore as an alternative to oil.

Think about it: methane is a flammable gas that delivers more heat per mass than any other complex hydrocarbon, and is relatively clean burning, producing one molecule of Carbon Dioxide and two molecules of Water.

According to Wikipedia, researchers are currently working on ways to effectively create methanol from methane, which could then be used to power automobiles. This method would simultaneously reduce emissions from cars and the backsides of cows.

The nitrous oxide could likewise be harvested and sent to dentists around the country.

What is it with these scientists? Does no one want to get their hands dirty and figure out a way to utilize this immense pile of resources that we have at our disposal? When are they going to just roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work to free our country from our dependence on foreign oil while simultaneously protecting the environment? I think that the president should make an example, by personally leading the way in the field, hunting for new renewable sources of energy.

In fact, I feel that we should not only look to cows, but to other animals as well as potential sources of alternative fuel. I have no doubt that many creatures, whether they walk on 2, 4, or 6 legs are great producers of methane. Are we all not, at least a little bit, full of it?

This said, I will now turn my attention to the meatloaf I have neglected in the pursuit of bringing this potential life saving gas to you, the captive American public. Let us hope that this wake up call, this revelry, loudly trumpets in a new age of clean burning fuels.

There are not many times when I can say I totally called something and it went down exactly as I predicted. But just like the end of Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness, I totally called this one!