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Reducing GHG emissions, one bite at a time

11/16/09

“Challenged to name the human factors that contribute to global climate change, we typically picture industrial smokestacks or oil-thirsty planes and automobiles, not Pop Tarts or pork chops,” exclaimed Anna Lappe, who’s first book is entitled Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. Yet the global system for producing and distributing food accounts for roughly one-third of the human caused global warming effect. Additionally, one-third of the world’s arable land is dedicated to feed crop production.

According to a recently published United Nation’s seminal report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, the livestock sector alone is responsible for eighteen percent of the world’s total global warming effect – more than the emissions produced by every plane, train, car, truck and mode of mechanical transportation on the planet, which accounts for 13% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Besides the familiar carbon dioxide (CO2) gas which accounts for 77% of the total human caused global warming effect, methane and nitrous oxide make up the rest (13.5%) of the main green house gases emitted from human activities. Thirty-seven percent of the methane (CH4) emitted anthropogenically is due to livestock production. With 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, methane is much more harmful to the atmosphere and contributes more to climate change. Furthermore, sixty-five percent of the anthropogenic nitrous oxide is emitted from the livestock sector, which has a GWP 296 times that of CO2. Cumulatively, this shows the large impact that our livestock and food have upon the ecosystem in which we live. For livestock, like automobiles, are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of carbon dioxide or methane emitted by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe.

However, asked what we can do as individuals to help solve the climate change crisis, most of us could recite these eco-mantras from memory: Change our light bulbs! Drive less! Chose energy-efficient appliances! Recycle! Asked what we can do as a nation, most of us would probably mention promoting renewable energy and ending our addiction on fossil fuels. Few among us would mention changing the way we produce our food or the dietary choices we make. Unfortunately, the dominant storyline about climate change – its biggest drivers and the key solution – diverts us from understanding how other sectors, particularly the food sector, are critical parts of the problem, but even more importantly can be vital strategies for solutions.

When asked as to what the problems of the food industry might be, most might give you a puzzled look and become curious as to what problems someone would be talking about. My food doesn’t cause harm, does it? Specifically, a recent study done by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Tsukuba, Japan showed that a kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

Despite the veil, many drawbacks come from our plate such as: water pollution, eutrophication, coral reef degradation, antibiotic resistance, wastes resulting from antibiotics, hormones, fertilizers and tanneries, deforestation, land degradation, desertification, air pollution, water shortages, contamination, biodiversity loss, and climate change.

While a long list, such reasons emanate from the very food we eat and thus should be caused for concern. Furthermore, renowned author and professor at California Berkeley, Michael Pollan has suggestions in regards to altering the food we eat such as eating seasonally, locally produced fruits, vegetables, and berries as well as not buying bottled water. Although the above problems may seem large scale, by changing our eating habits, we can reduce GHG emissions one bite at a time.

Tyler Hess. Louisville, KY. USA.

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