Only recently have prominent scientists been raising the alarm on the major role of animal agriculture on climate change. One of the first breakthrough reports on this subject, the United Nation’s “Livestock’s Longshadow”, estimated that livestock production accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than transportation. Further research has demonstrated that the figure is likely overestimated1; however, a June 2010 report, by the United Nations Environment Program, declared that a global shift toward a plant-based diet is necessary to prevent runaway climate change.
Of all the greenhouse gasses attributed to agriculture, the most important is methane. Globally, livestock produces 80 million tons of methane annually, about 28% of global methane emissions. As a gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a hundred years, it is primarily passed from livestock through belching, an average of five hundred liters each day2, due to its enteric fermentation digestive process and daily diet. While the atmosphere is currently 18% methane3, compared to 72% CO2, reducing methane in our atmosphere will have a greater cooling impact on our atmosphere than reducing the same amount of CO2, since methane is a gas seventy-two times more potent than CO2 over twenty years.
Dr. Kirk Smith4, from the University of California Berkeley, said: “If you want to make an impact on climate in the next 20 years, the place to do it is with the shorter-lived greenhouse gases, most important of which is methane. Of the emissions in the next 20 years, the CO2 in this year’s emissions will only be 40% of the total warming. The other 60% or more will be from the shorter-lived gases, most important of which is methane.
Since methane’s impact on our atmosphere will be extremely significant, civil society and government must take immediate action to create a strategy to reduce methane emissions. According to Dr. Archer5, a hydrate reservoir in Eastern Siberia containing 1.5 trillion tons of methane could be naturally released due to global warming: “The hydrate reservoir is so large, that if 10% of the methane were released to the atmosphere within a few years, it would have an impact on the Earth’s radiation budget equivalent to a factor of 10 increase in CO2.”
Methane levels can be immediately reduced through the development of technologies for farmers to capture, monitor and reduce methane emitted from livestock. There is significant progress in New Zealand, where in April 2010, all livestock will be outfitted with manure catchers and gas masks to harvest up to 80% of methane emitted, thanks to generous grants6. A New Zealand study has suggested methane output could be reduced by up to 50 percent through changes to livestock feed7 More significantly, the New Zealand legislature voted to include methane in its emissions trading scheme. However, methane emissions are not legislated to enter the scheme until January 2015, due to difficulties in measuring and monitoring agricultural emissions8, according to an independent regulatory impact assessment.
Years of research from farmers and scientists have already led to some decrease in livestock emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization,“greenhouse gas emissions per liter of milk of African milk producers (cattle) is 6-7 times higher than from intensive dairy systems in the US or the EU”9 Recent improvements have also allowed US farmers to save on energy, through the recovery of biogas from liquid waste, and carbon sequestration from degraded lands. Through the increased transfer of research and technology, US or EU farmers can significantly lower dangerously high methane levels while also help farmers around the world save on energy costs and offset emissions.
However, to stop methane at it’s source, civil society and government must assess its choice of a daily diet. Assuming current consumption levels are maintained, and with global population set to rise to 9.1 billion by 2050, annual global meat production is projected to double from 229 million tons in 2000 to 465 million tons in 205010. The impact of doubling in livestock production could be disastrous. It would result in a surge of greenhouse gasses, and could be a catalyst for releasing the 1.5 trillion tons of methane stored in Eastern Siberia, and naturally stored methane elsewhere. Campaigns such as the “Meat Free Monday campaign” led by Paul McCartney, encourages vegetarian meals and pledges backed by celebrities, to give up meat every Monday. According to research from the documentary “Meat the Truth11”, if every American (300 million) gave up meat once a week, this would have the same effect on reducing greenhouse gases as saving ninety million plane tickets from New York to Los Angeles. Baltimore City Public schools has increased access to vegetarian options by having “Meatless Mondays” for their 82,000 students, despite opposition from meat industry lobbyists. In Taiwan, at least 86% of primary and secondary schools provide vegetarian options12. Healthcare Without Harm, a coalition of 500 hospitals, healthcare professionals, and environmental groups, has reduced meat purchasing by 28 %.
The US government has a significant role to play in increasing access to meatless food options, though it is less explicit. While the new US House majority and recent disbandment of the US House Committee on Climate Change indicates that little action on the federal level will be taken towards climate change, there actually might be direct reform, though not explicitly, through agriculture. The 2012 farm bill might be the first farm bill in decades to reform farm subsidies; $10 to $30 billion dollars is paid to farmers each year. Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation shows ¾ of subsidy money, goes to 10% of recipients, encouraging larger farms to grow and buy out smaller farms13. By reducing subsidies, the costs of meat production increase as well, opening the way for greater consumption of meatless food options.
The increasingly imminent dangers of a spike in methane levels, and the strong evidence and research confirming the link between animal agriculture and the climate, requires that individuals, businesses, schools, farmers, scientists, the media and governments act swiftly, and fully explore every option available to lower methane. Ultimately, animal agriculture production will be determined by our everyday diets. Without changing out diets, farmers will continue to produce ever-increasing quantities of animal products. However, without an adequate fair farm or agriculture bill, farmers might not grow more vegetables or products not derived from animals when such products do not earn a profit. Without the initiative of businesses and schools to provide vegetarian meal options, individuals may not ever make the choice to consume less meat products. Civil society and government, must collaborate in order to create a space and culture where eating less meat is recognized as necessary not only for our health, but humanity’s long term survival on this planet. g