Memo from MFJ

Meat & Heat

September 2011

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It felt like an oven outside. In July, a massive heat wave baked half of the United States. Other recent extreme weather events include severe droughts in Africa, Russia, France, China, and Texas and epic floods in Pakistan, Australia, Colombia, and the Mississippi River Valley. It’s precisely the kind of extreme weather that climate scientists predicted.

Greenhouse gas graph from animal foods and other sources of protein..

"And all this is happening with just 1.4 degrees of warming," noted Manish Bapna and Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute in The Washington Post.

Scientists predict that "the planet's average temperature could rise as much as 11.5 degrees by the end of the century, "they added. "The consequences are hard to imagine."

What does food have to do with climate?

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published an eye-opening report, "Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health." The report includes a detailed accounting of the greenhouse gas emissions due to common protein foods and vegetables.

Meat and other animal foods-except milk-generate far more greenhouse gases than commonly eaten plant foods. Going vegetarian would reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 4.5 percent. That’s modest, but every bit helps.

After lamb (which isn’t widely consumed here), beef accounts for the next-highest emissions. That’s largely because cattle emit copious amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Also, most cattle are fed large amounts of corn and other feedstuffs that are grown with huge amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Producing that fertilizer generates enormous quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. And when the fertilizer breaks down in the soil, nitrous oxide is created. Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. Decaying manure leads to yet more methane and nitrous oxide.

Growing, transporting, storing, and eating any food results in some greenhouse gases. However, eating a more plant-based diet would curb emissions. EWG calculates that if a four-person family skipped steak one day a week for a year, the impact would be equivalent to taking their car off the road for nearly three months.

I stopped eating beef 25 years ago for health reasons. (I never ate much pork.) And I stopped eating poultry 15 years ago out of concern for the animals’ welfare. I’d like to think that my decision has lowered my blood cholesterol levels and spared a few cows and many chickens the ignominy of being raised in miserable confinement and then killed (sometimes not as painlessly as the meat industry would like us to believe)

I didn’t think much about meat’s environmental damage until I wrote Six Arguments for a Greener Diet in 2006. Now that weather extremes are multiplying, it’s hard not to think about that.

"Scientists have been warning us for quite some time-in increasingly urgent tones- that things will get much, much worse if we continue the reckless dumping of more and more heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere,” former vice president Al Gore wrote recently in Rolling Stone."

"What hangs in the balance is the future of civilization as we know it."

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

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Look for Michael Jacobson's column on the Huffington Post.

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is the nonprofit health-advocacy group that publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI mounts educational programs and presses for changes in government and corporate policies.

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