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Just like the old Iron Curtain that squelched any critical discussion of Communism’s failures, we in the West live behind a “Bovine Curtain.” The Bovine Curtain is-like the Iron Curtain-operated by the state, using taxpayer dollars to continuously broadcast propaganda about the virtues of ranching in the West and suppressing any negative or critical information. The mantra “cows are good” is repeated so often that it has attained cult status, even among many conservation groups-who should know better.
Eating meat (domestic livestock), particularly beef, has one of the biggest environmental impacts on the planet. In many ways making a change from a livestock based diet to plants (or wild game) is one of the easiest things that most of us can modify in our personal behavior to lessen our collective burden upon the planet. Producing one calorie of animal protein requires more than 10 times as much fossil fuel input-releasing more than 10 times as much carbon dioxide-than does a calorie of plant protein.
In the summer 2007 report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, UN researchers concluded that livestock production is one of the most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” According to the UN, livestock contributes to “problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” But few environmental groups mention this report or its findings, particularly if they are located in the cowboy West behind the Bovine Curtain. They would have to admit that the findings conclusions apply equally as well to the western U.S.
In particular the report singled out livestock production as a major contributor to global warming emissions, yet even Al Gore ignored livestock’s role in global warming during his Live Earth Concert. I don’t want to denigrate Gore’s efforts for he has brought much needed attention to global climate change. Nevertheless, while it’s well and good to ask people to screw in florescent light bulbs to reduce energy demands, the single biggest change that anyone could do to immediately reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases is to eat less meat.
Eating less meat has a surprisingly big bang for effort. Ranch and farm raised livestock produce millions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane annually. These two gases account for 90 percent of US greenhouse emissions. For instance, all the trucks, SUVs, cars, airplanes, trains and other transportation combined accounts for 13 percent of global warming emissions, while livestock production is responsible for an astounding 18 percent of all US greenhouse gases.
Not only are there the carbon dioxide emissions from livestock production, but livestock, particularly cattle, are responsible for the majority of emissions of several other greenhouse causing gases. According to the U.N., animal agriculture is responsible for an whopping 65 percent of worldwide nitrous oxide emissions. Bear in mind that nitrous oxide is about 300 times more effective as a global warming gas than carbon dioxide.
Methane is another gas produced by livestock. Methane traps 20 times more heat than carbon dioxide. The EPA reports that livestock production is the single greatest source of methane emissions in the US.
But when you live behind the Bovine Curtain most people are afraid to speak the truth or have internalized group think so completely that it does not even occur to people to ponder livestock’s central role in a host of environmental and health problems. Given their role as obsequious hand maidens to the livestock industry, it’s not surprising that federal and state governments hide the connection between meat production and global warming. But it’s totally unacceptable for environmental organizations to ignore this inconvenient truth.
For instance I recently checked the Sierra Club’s global climate change web site. They list ten things one can do to reduce global warming, from driving a more energy efficient auto to supporting renewable energy sources-but eating less meat is not one of them. It’s hard to believe that the Sierra Club is not aware of the UN report or other recent research linking livestock production with global warming, but one must assume that saying anything about livestock production is off limits when you live behind the Bovine Curtain. Worse yet, some Sierra Club chapters even promote ranching, despite the obvious impacts on global climate. A recent article the Sierra Club’s California/Nevada desert newsletter extolled the virtues of livestock grazing in the Great Basin-a region that is likely to suffer greatly from global climate change.
Similarly I reviewed National Parks and Conservation Association’s new report, “Unnatural Disaster,” which describes the multiple ways that global warming will impact our national parks. The report suggests a host of solutions that range from more efficient energy use to adoption of renewable energy, but I could not locate any mention of eating less meat in the 48 page report. And the Wilderness Society, while advising members to support carbon sequestration, mileage efficiency for vehicles, and other common remedies, did not mention of the role of livestock production and a meat diet in contributing to global warming.
Given that these national groups do not appear to see or more likely wish to avoid talking about a connection between diet and environmental issues, it’s not surprising that many regional or local environmental groups seldom mention livestock production as a global warming issue. They may express great concern about the decline of whitebark pine or large wildfires due to higher global temperatures, but they don’t go the next step to tie these issues to ranching and livestock production. Try to raise any linkage to ranching and livestock and the Bovine Curtain slams down. In the West, we don’t talk about cows except to laud the ranchers for being “good stewards of the land” or some other fawning palaver.
Global warming is only one reason to end livestock production, particularly western ranching. Production of livestock is the single greatest source of non-point pollution in the West. Livestock are among the prime reasons for the spread of invasive plants like cheatgrass. Producing hay and other irrigated forage for livestock is the reason our rivers are dewatered each summer. Livestock are the reason bison and wolves are killed outside of national parks. Livestock spread disease to wildlife. Livestock are the reason native wildlife like prairie dogs are being slaughtered. The list goes on, but few groups are willing to even list these impacts, much less tackle the source of the problem-cows.
The obvious omission of diet preferences among the proposed solutions to global warming is particularly noteworthy, especially when it involves no new technologies, no major policy changes in government, and no significant investment in new infrastructure. Eating less meat won’t cure global warming, but it’s the easiest and more cost effective mechanism available to ordinary citizens to start us on a new pathway towards global sustainability.
If you can’t afford a Prius, you can afford to eat less meat. Even if you can’t switch to solar energy, you can switch to a reduced meat diet. While most of us can’t design a wind mill, we can design a better diet. Eating less meat is not only good for the planet’s health, it’s good for your health. It’s time for all of us to begin to view eating and our choice of diet as more than a culinary decision, but as an environmental act.
GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer. His latest book is Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. He is the author of 32 books including Wildfire.