Less Meat = Less Heat. Not So Fast.

One case being made for reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere has much to do with the increasing global demands for meat consumption. It seems that attribution can be given to Sir Paul McCartney who popularized the phrase: less meat = less heat (Global warming: less meat = less heat).

Yet, in a recent article appearing in the Global Mail by Asa Wahlquist: The Carnivore’s (Ongoing) Dilemma, the debate is far from settled.

“Saving the planet is not as simple as ‘less meat = less heat’. Indeed, the conscientious eater — particularly in Australia — might be better off with a steak than a slab of tofu.”

In the Global Warming hearing (2009), several important issues substantiated the claim for consuming less meat.

  1. Livestock account for 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions, which is double the share of transport, according to the 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”.
  2. Livestock’s share of greenhouse gas emissions is not just an environmental problem, but also an agricultural and development one. This share will grown, because developing countries consume more meat as their income rises.
  3. Farmers’ representatives pointed out that 80% of European Union livestock is raised on land that is unsuitable for growing grain or vegetables. [However,] it is estimated that by 2050 about 1.45 billion tonnes of cereals a year will be used for animal feed – enough to meet the calorie needs of about 4.5 billion people.
  4. Livestock is just one factor in climate change but it accounts for 9% of CO2, 37% of methane and 35% of NOx emissions – which makes it the second or third most significant polluter.

McCartney was correct when saying that “meat production contributes not only to greenhouse gas emissions but also to deforestation, increased water consumption and water pollution.”

Those points were made in 2009, a time close to the emotional charges generated by Al Gore’s 2006 film – An Inconvenient Truth. The Carnivore’s Dilemma is more current and looks at the realities of the rise in global population and its increasing demand for more food.

“…red meat comes from cattle and sheep, which play a vital role in utilising grasslands, the 60 per cent of the world’s farmland unfit for any other agriculture. When the world’s population of hungry people is rapidly growing, you have to ask whether we can ethically refuse to produce food from so much land.”

Wahlquist writes that the current debate over greenhouse gas emissions is changing. She points to two often quoted contributions to the debate supporting of the theory are simply wrong:

  1. First was the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow, which claimed 18 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from livestock. More recently, the International Panel for Climate Change put livestock greenhouse-gas emissions at 5.4 per cent of global emissions.
  2. The other highly quotable early entrant was US researcher David Pimentel’s claim that it takes 100,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef.

The article looks deeply into the issues around methane and nitrogen production and overall grassland sustainability.

“The steak-versus-lentils argument is further complicated by the fact that grasslands have been found to play another important role in keeping our atmosphere in balance: that is, they sequester, or fix, carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere.

There is a lot of research that [indicates] if areas [of grassland] are not grazed, or are not managed, they actually take up less carbon, so grazing animals play a very active role in the carbon cycle. Well-managed grass-fed beef is a totally different proposition to growing grains to feed animals or growing grains for consumption.”

The battle between lentils and red meat will continue. This is not an exact science. The climate change debate will also continue in spite of the fact that global climate is changing whether we have a steak on the grill or lentils in the pot.

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