An inconvenient truth?

Lately, it has been hard to avoid celebrity chefs on television blabbering on about battery farmed chickens, and how evil the supermarkets are for offering such cheap meat. We have also been bombarded with adverts and special offers encouraging us to buy new energy (and apparently earth)-saving light bulbs, to cut down our ‘carbon footprint’.

Al Gore’s acclaimed film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, looks at the problems of carbon emissions, but fails to link the two zeitgeists: animal farming and climate change. There are many problems with current global agricultural production, such as overuse of fertilizers and extensive deforestation, not to mention the aforementioned animal cruelty resulting from battery farming. Even more alarming are the unnecessary global food shortages which see millions of people die each year. However, surely the most enduring consequence is the profound effect farming (more specifically, livestock) is having on global warming.

There are three main negative consequences of current levels of demand for meat. Firstly, farmed animals fart (methane) and excrete (nitrous oxide), which emits gases, which in turn increase the problem of global warming. Secondly, as demand increases, farmers in less developed areas are encouraged to cut down forest to create pasture for grazing animals. This has all sorts of knock on effects such as soil erosion, desertification and an increase in CO2 emissions. The third main problem is that meat production is inherently inefficient when compared to agrarian production; it is wasteful having to grow good food just to feed animals to make meat.

The most harmful greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Emissions of these have all increased dramatically in the past two centuries. The increase in carbon dioxide is due mostly to the use of fossil fuel, as Gore reminds us frequently in his film. However, increases of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily caused by agriculture.

Methane has twenty-three times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide. Of total methane emissions, thirty-seven percent are caused by ruminant mammals being farmed, mainly cows and sheep. This startling fact makes more sense when we remember that there are around 1.5 billion cattle and 1.7 billion sheep on the planet. Add to the picture research showing that a single cow can produce five-hundred litres of methane a day, and it is clear that we have a serious problem on our hands!

Furthermore, Nitrous oxide is almost three-hundred times as damaging to the climate as carbon dioxide, and sixty-five percent of the total quantity produced by human activity comes from livestock. Of this, most comes from livestock manure.

The problem is getting worse, as more people in developing countries can afford meat, and demand rises even higher. Global production of meat has risen from 130 million tonnes in the late 1970s, to 230 million tonnes in the year 2000. Demand for animal flesh is expected to more than double by the year 2050. In order to meet the world’s growing appetite, animals will no doubt be reared more intensively and cheaply, with factory farming causing further pollution and making greater demands on scarce water and land resources. If nothing is done, the environmental impact of meat production can only increase.

Putting this all into perspective, farmed animals produce more greenhouse gas emissions (eighteen percent) than the world’s entire transport system (13.5%). If we were to stop using all planes, trains and cars, this would help less than if everybody stopped eating meat. Of course we cannot just stop using transport, and it is unrealistic to expect everybody to stop eating meat. However, if people can reduce the amount of meat they eat this can be of great benefit.

As well as being polluting, producing meat is also highly inefficient. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, (USDA) growing crops for farm animals uses up almost half of the country’s water supply. This use seems profligate when considering claims by the Stockholm International Water Institute, saying that “about 840 million people are undernourished or lacking a secure food supply today, and another two billion or more people… by 2025.”

A stark illustration of the resources needed is provided in the book, Ecological Integrity, by Professor Peter Pimentel of Cornell University. Professor Pimentel calculated that a cow consumed one-hundred kilos of hay and four kilos of grain for every kilo of beef produced. Using the basic rule that it takes about one-thousand liters of water to produce a kilo of hay and grain, he calculated that about 100,000 litres were required to produce the kilo of beef. This is more than twice as much as a human consumes in an average lifetime.

So once we have installed our efficient light bulbs and recycled our newspapers, what else can we do? Well, cutting down the amount of meat-based meals would be a good start. We could even try going vegetarian (or dare I say it vegan) for a week. The popular stereotype of vegetarians as small, weedy creatures or bearded sandal-wearers can be dispelled when you consider that the likes of Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, Leona Lewis and even Dr Dre are all vegetarians. It doesn’t seem to harm the brain cells either, with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein both being former vegetarians.

Some argue that a meat-free diet cannot give enough protein or amino acids. In a recent interview, ten-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis said “my best performances were when I was a vegan”. He went on to say that he ate “Lentils, beans and juice to replace the tremendous amount of meat that most people eat.” Furthermore, Murray Rose, nicknamed “The Seaweed Streak”, rose to fame aged seventeen after winning three swimming gold at the Melbourne Olympics. He had never eaten meat.

Maybe cutting meat out from a diet altogether is too much. But it is easy to cut down on the meat that we eat each week. Heck, we might even discover some tasty new meals. So next time you are on your way home after a night out, avoid that dirty kebab, and instead try a falafel or a Margherita pizza. Or when you are next walking down that aisle in Costcutter, rather than buying the pack of sausages and the steak, just get the steak and get vegetarian sausages instead. Maybe we can stop the future being quite as Gorey as Al suggests.

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