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Diet for a Warming Planet

I read two different studies this week that are connected but were not related in the media.

The first is record warmth across the country. Denver recorded 80 degrees in mid-November. And 29 states had the warmest December ever recorded. Instead of a white Christmas, it was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve in Vermont!

Such freakish weather might be written off as the normal variation, except that an analysis by NOAA found the last five years were the warmest recorded in the past 122 years.

With the Arctic sea ice melting and glaciers disappearing, along with record high temperatures across the planet, it is getting increasingly difficult to deny that the planet is heating up.

The second paper I read explains part of the reason. Research by Boone Kauffman and colleagues, at Oregon State University and the Center for International Forestry Research, provides part of the answer.

Kauffman and his associates set out to calculate how much CO2 was released when native tropical vegetation was removed to facilitate shrimp and beef production.

But they went further than other researchers to put the answer into something that every person could easily understand.

What they found is that eating one meal of steak and shrimp cocktail releases as much CO2 into the atmosphere as driving a fuel-efficient car from New York to Los Angeles!

The seven-year study looked at the ecological, as well as climatic cost, of conversion of mangroves into shrimp farms and cattle pastures. Conversion of native vegetation to agricultural uses resulted in a land-use carbon footprint of 1,440 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere to produce every pound of beef, and 1,603 pounds of released carbon dioxide for every pound of shrimp.

Kauffman and his colleagues developed a measure of land-use carbon footprint. First, they measured the amount of carbon in intact mangroves. Then they calculated the GHG emissions that result when these mangrove forests are converted to shrimp farms or cattle pasture. Though only occupying 0.6% of the Earth’s tropical forest, the continued removal of these trees accounts for 12% of all carbon emissions resulting from tropical vegetation conversion.

Finally, they measured the amount of shrimp or beef produced from this conversion over the life of the operation to arrive at the land-use carbon footprint.

Though some might suggest the findings do not apply to other ecosystems, the fact is that any number of studies have shown that livestock production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock accounted for 14.5 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, more GHG emissions than all the world’s transportation combined.

A World Watch Study that included more associated impacts from animal agriculture estimated that as much as 51% of the GHG emissions resulted from livestock production, primarily beef, and dairy cows, though chickens and pigs were also included in their analysis.

What these studies suggest is consuming beef and dairy products is one of the worse things any individual can do in terms of its global warming effects. And unlike other necessary, but more difficult to implement reductions of our society CO2 emissions through structural changes like better insulation of buildings, fewer cars, and ultimately population reduction, the one thing that most of us can easily do for the planet is reduce our consumption of meat and dairy.

Of course, there are other good reasons to reduce meat and dairy as well. When forests and native grasslands are converted to pasture and/or crops like soybean or corn to feed domestic livestock the loss of wildlife habitat is huge, and it is now a major factor driving many species extinct.

And there are good health reasons to eat less red meat and dairy which have been implicated in many diseases from cancer to heart disease.

All in all, the connection between diet and a warming planet are clear. If one is concerned about the long-term impacts of global warming, the most immediate and easiest change in behavior that all of us can implement immediately is change our diet.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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