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Posted on June 7, 2010

More Peas, Please?

We can’t feel guilty about all of our environmental impacts, or we’d never get through life. But how long can we afford continued denial about the effect of our meat consumption on global warming?

A report last week by the UN’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management on the “Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” served up a useful reminder that “Agricultural production accounts for a staggering 70% of the global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use, and 14% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

But not all food is created equal, the report noted: “Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives. . . . As total food consumption and the share of animal calories increase with wealth, nutrition for rich countries tends to cause higher environmental impacts than for poor countries.”

Said the report’s lead author, Professor Edgar Hertwich of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, “Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.”

Environmentalists have tiptoed around that fact for years, knowing that many American would rather deny the existence of climate change rather than deny themselves a juicy steak or burger. Americans rank behind only Argentina and Uruguay as the world’s leading consumers of beef and veal—nearly 200 pounds per person per year.

In an interview last year, Al Gore said that although he’s cut back sharply on the amount of meat that he eats, he’s been reluctant to address the issue in print.

“It’s absolutely correct that the growing meat intensity of diets around the world is one of the issues connected to this global crisis – not only because of the CO2 involved, but also because of the water consumed in the process,” Gore said. But he added, “I don’t go . . . saying everybody should become vegetarian—partly because it’s difficult enough to get agreement without adding that on top of it.”

Still, it’s an issue that won’t go away. An international team of scientists reported in March that worldwide meat production has tripled over the past 30 years and could double in the next 20. Counting feed production and transport, they concluded, livestock are responsible for more than one-sixth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Animals vary widely in their impact. Chickens, for example, use four times as much energy as an equivalent amount of plant protein, but beef cattle require 54 times as much, calculated David Pimentel, a Cornell University agricultural scientist.

But grass-fed cows have a much smaller carbon footprint than factory-raised beef. A recent study by USDA scientists concluded that grazing lands absorb large amounts of greenhouse gases.

And not all experts agree that meat is the enemy. “We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk,” said Frank Mitloehner of UC Davis, who presented a paper at the American Chemical Society meeting this March in San Francisco. “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

A number of countries, including Sweden and Japan, are beginning to mandate food labels listing carbon dioxide emissions associated with their production.  In Great Britain, many major food brands are voluntarily adopting the labels. In the absence of labels here, you can get a good idea of your dietary impact from the Low Carbon Diet Calculator.


Labeling is a great way, in theory, to appeal to voluntary consumer action to save the environment. Still, if you knew that your cheeseburger contributed the equivalent of 8 to 13 pounds of CO2 emissions, would you opt for a salad instead?

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