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Food for Thought

November 2, 2009

If you’re pondering whether to read this because it seems like another loaded post (after the slew of heavyweight articles over the last week), well, don’t worry, because as this is really more of a snack than what the title may suggest. I recently chanced upon this article published by the Guardian, which discusses the impact of meat production on climate change.

Indeed, given the need to slash greenhouse gas emission across the board, the significance of the meat trade cannot be overlooked. The fact that meat is an inefficient source of energy has been discussed to the death – given that they are higher up in the food chain than vegetables, which are primary producers, consumption of meat requires that the energy from the sun go through levels of energy transfer, during which a significant amount of that energy is lost.

Furthermore, livestock is infamous for the amount of methane that is further emitted over the life cycle of the animals, primarily in the form of eructation and flatulence (that’s burps and farts).

On the whole, as the article points out, worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission, while transport accounts for only (that’s relative!) 13%. This is against a backdrop of surging demand for meat as increasing wealth and prosperity in developing nations leads to greater demand for meat products.

As we look towards the governments for greater political will in addressing the pressing problem of climate change, perhaps it is also wise to examine our lifestyle habits and to act more responsibly in our capacity as citizens of a developed nation.

One does not have to give up meat completely, of course, but cutting down on consumption would surely help. Not to mention that this is only one aspect of our embarrassingly extravagant lifestyles that could use some work.

And if that doesn’t move you, then let me appeal to your vanity: Paris Hilton never got her waistline stuffing her face with meat (not that anyone should aspire to be like her).

Meanwhile, you might like to read more about how noisy emission of gases from various bovine orifices is an important contributor to global warming in the following article:


The Methane Makers

Dan Bell
BBC News

The man behind one of the most influential reports on climate change, Lord Stern, has highlighted the impact meat production has on greenhouse gas emissions. Part of it comes through methane made by the animals as they digest food. So which farm animals expel the most methane?


A diet that relies heavily on meat production results in higher emissions than a typical vegetarian diet, says Lord Stern.

The author of the 2006 Stern Review into the cost of climate change attacked the “enormous pressure” meat production puts on the world’s resources and said people were becoming increasingly aware about “low carbon consumption”.

He told the BBC that cutting greenhouse gas emissions was important across the board, in areas such as electricity, transport and food.

In a 2006 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. By comparison, it said, all the world’s cars, trains, planes and boats accounted for a combined 13% of greenhouse gas emissions.


The greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat consumption has many components, the largest of which is land use change – the clearing of forests for pasture or for the production of soya for animal feed. Other elements that have an impact on emissions include the rearing and slaughter of livestock, and the transport, refrigeration and cooking of meat.

There is also the nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, in the manure of animals reared for meat and the methane, another greenhouse gas, in their flatulence. Molecule for molecule, methane has a much larger warming effect than carbon dioxide.

As the diagram above shows, methane emission is dramatically higher in cows (primarily from belching) than other animals. But cutting back on eating meat is not the simple answer, say scientists.

For a start, many of the cows responsible for producing methane are not reared to be eaten, according to Elaine Matthews, a methane expert at Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The breeds favoured in non-western countries are often bred for other uses, such as work, and these non-western cows are far more numerous than the larger dairy varieties reared in North America and Europe.

The larger western cows actually produce more methane per cow than their smaller non-western breeds, but because there are fewer of them, they only account for about 15% of all the methane produced by cows in general.

Meat output ‘doubling’

Ms Matthews also says the quantity of methane they produce depends on the quality of food they are given. Cows that eat grain, she says, produce less methane than cows grazing on wild grass.

And methane is not the most important consideration in relation to livestock, says Friends of the Earth – it’s the intensity with which they are reared.

According to the environmental pressure group, methane from livestock accounts for about 6% of greenhouse gas emissions, with 6% from CO2 released when forests are cleared for pasture and to produce soy for feeds.

What is clear is that people are eating more meat and dairy products every year.

Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

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