Pop Quiz: 50% of Global Warming is Due to … What?

grass-fed cow

This particular, grass-fed animal is part of the solution, not the problem

When I started digging into the climate change problem in earnest to start learning what we need to do to make the greatest immediate impact possible, I was worried about what I’d have to give up. Did I need to stop driving, something that’s very problematic in an area like mine, where there’s no public transportation for miles and even bicycling isn’t safe for at least a third of the year? Did I need to give up buying most manufactured goods? Was technology and all of the energy going into it the biggest problem?

Put Down the Hamburger … and Back Away Slowly
I still don’t know how far I’ll need to go in those areas, but I have learned that the biggest problem isn’t with the electricity I’m using or even with the gas my car uses (even if I didn’t drive a Prius). The biggest problem is food–specifically, meat, dairy and eggs.

Get this: in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben says “By some estimates, as much as half of global warming gases can be tied to the livestock industry, with its huge demands on our grain crops.”

Certainly there are some qualifiers in there: “by some estimates,” “as much as,” “can be tied to” … but even if 50% isn’t our number, and livestock only account for, say, 30% of global warming gases, that’s still an enormous slice of the problem that we can really do something about–and pretty easily!

Not the Cow, but the Corn
I’ll clarify, as well as I can from my limited knowledge, why the deli turkey or eggs or hamburgers (especially the hamburgers) on our plates are such a huge part of the problem. Of course there’s the obvious impact of all the equipment and energy that go into raising, housing, and slaughtering livestock, and there’s all of the energy and materials that go into preparing, packaging, storing, refrigerating, shipping, and selling the result. What really tips the scales, though, is what we feed livestock in big, factory farms, where the cheap meat, eggs, and dairy products come from: that’s mainly corn.

The corn is subsidized by the U.S. government, so that farmers are pushed toward cultivating huge, corn-only farms, which deplete the soil and require huge amounts of petroleum-based fertilizers, not to mention being extremely susceptible pests so that they require huge amounts of petroleum-based pesticides. Of course there’s a lot of mechanization at these huge factory farms, too, so oil is substituted for people (and jobs) with small numbers of farm workers operating huge, expensive, and polluting machines to raise and harvest the crops.

Then all that corn needs to be processed, packed, and shipped to factory livestock farms where it’s fed along with antibiotics and additives to chicken and cattle–and cattle don’t naturally eat corn or even digest it well, so then there’s all the trouble and waste brought up by that.

I don’t know if this sounds like good news yet, but it is, because that means that if we manage how we eat differently, we can make an immediate and proportionately huge difference in our families’ carbon footprints. What it comes down to is this: we can stop eating so many processed foods and especially cheap meats.

But … Cheap Meat!
I know, cheap meat is tempting. It seems wasteful and stupid to spend, say, twice as much on organic, local meat and dairy products just because they’re somehow “better.” However, products like local, grass-fed beef don’t have the transportation, illness, or corn-growing impacts that cheap meat have. The grass that feeds those cattle doesn’t require huge amounts of oil to grow, and even if the quality of life of the animals, the more healthful product, and the flavor factor don’t sway us, the climate change impact makes the math stupid-simple.

If you’re like me, then your next reaction was “And where am I going to come up with the money to pay for this swanky sustainable meat?” OK, maybe you wouldn’t use the word “swanky,” but regardless, there are several good answers. Here they are:

How to save money while eating more sustainably

  1. Eat lower on the food chain: more vegetables and legumes and maybe fruits and grains, less meat and dairy.
  2. Eat fewer processed foods. They take more energy to make and deliver, and unprocessed foods are much cheaper.
  3. Connect with local food producers: join a CSA and/or go to farmers’ markets. Again according to McKibben, by some estimates 75% of the cost of food in a supermarket goes to middlemen. Buying directly from the farmer saves money.
  4. Grow a garden.

There’s some more information on the oil-food connection in my recent post We’re Eating Oil–Literally.

How Much Meat Do We Need?
We can get by with a lot less meat. Check out this eye-opening chart from the Earth Policy Institute:

meat consumption

First, notice that average meat consumption per person nearly doubled in a hundred years. Even more interestingly, look at the recent trend: we’re finally turning this around!

I was actually a vegetarian for 23 years, after which I started having some health concerns and added back in seafood and poultry (but not red meat). It’s not so hard to eat less (or no) meat: at first it’s a pain in the neck because you’re not used it, but once you’ve found some good alternatives that you like, it’s pretty easy to stay on track.

You may have noticed that these approaches may take more time from us than convenience foods (hence the term “convenience,” I guess). That’s just how it’s going to be. If we’re going to really roll up our sleeves and try to prevent this catastrophe, it’s not going to be free: it’s definitely going to cost us time, even if it doesn’t cost money (it actually is likely to save us money, and may even eventually save us time, but that’s a topic for another day).

One of the most amazing things about changing food buying habits is that we can start making a big impact on our personal carbon footprint this week. The next time I go shopping, I’m going to be buying different things. It’s going to be a pain in the neck, at least for a little while, but I’m not just going to be eating better: I’m going to be sleeping better, too.

Photo by go thunk yourself