Magazine article USA TODAY

An Inconvenient Food: The Connection between Meat and Global Warming

Magazine article USA TODAY

An Inconvenient Food: The Connection between Meat and Global Warming

Article excerpt

OVER THE PAST several months, Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," garnered a windstorm of media attention that likely sent people scurrying for fluorescent light bulbs to curb their carbon dioxide emissions, but some scientists have argued that the film does not paint a complete picture of the real causes of climate change, and it leaves out the most inconvenient truth of all: the connection between global warming and the steak knife.

Just four months before former Vice Pres. Gore gave his Academy Award acceptance speech, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a report that identified the number-one contributor to global warming. It was not transportation or power plants; it was livestock. Entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow," the report barely made a blip on the media's radar, perhaps because it uncovered a truth that was too inconvenient for most Americans, even Gore, to swallow. As a result, the American public missed out on one very effective strategy to combat climate change.

The livestock-global warming connection is nothing new to the scientific community. As "An Inconvenient Truth" was nearing its theatrical release in the spring of 2006, an issue of the journal Earth Interactions published a piece by Gidon Eschel and Pamela A. Martin from the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. The assistant professors had conducted a study of the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production. In their report, they point out that production of food in the U.S. requires increasingly more energy. In 2002, for example, 17% of all the fossil fuel used in the U.S. went into food production, and that percentage rises by an average of one percent per year. Burning these fossil fuels emits more than three-quarters of a ton of carbon dioxide per person.

To find out which types of foods require the most fossil fuels and, as a result, release the most C[O.sub.2], they considered five different diets. Each equaled 3,774 calories a day, and ranged from the average American diet to red meat, fish, poultry, and vegetarian diets. It came as no surprise to the researchers that the vegetarian diet ranked number one as the most energy-efficient, followed by poultry and the average American diet. It did come as a surprise, however, that fish almost was on a par with red meat as the least efficient--a large amount of fossil fuel is necessary for long-distance voyages to catch large predatory fishes such as tuna and swordfish. Moreover, salmon farming is not energy efficient.

To translate these results into everyday action, it would mean that, in order to curb the use of fossil fuels and the subsequent emission of C[O.sub.2] that results from their combustion, one need only adopt a vegan diet.

"Livestock's Long Shadow," meanwhile, outlines livestock's "enormous" contribution to climate change. Most people who have read the report were shocked to learn that 18% of the current global warming effect can be attributed to livestock--an even larger contribution than the transportation sector worldwide. Only nine percent of total carbon dioxide emissions are generated by livestock, but 37% of methane emissions and 65% of nitrous oxide--two powerful greenhouse gases--come from livestock. Moreover, some scientists would argue that it actually is the more potent non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases that are responsible for most of the global warming the world has experienced thus far.

In his report, "A New Global Warming Strategy" published by Earth Save International, physicist Noam Mohr refers to data by James Hansen, the "grandfather of the global warming theory." As director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Hansen has been quoted by Gore as well as other environmentalists, and is known as a man of sound science by global warming gurus such as James McCarthy, co-chair of the International Panel on Climate Change's Working Group II. …

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