Looking for a Solution to Cows' Climate Problem

Thursday, December 10, 2009
at 6:11 PM

With the approach of the U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen next month, the livestock industry is coming under renewed scrutiny for its contribution to greenhouse gases.

But a more recent report for the World Watch Institute, by Robert Goodland, former environmental adviser to the World Bank, and Jeff Anhang, environmental specialist at the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corp., estimates this figure to be much higher: 51 percent, when the entire life cycle and supply chain of the livestock industry is taken into consideration.

Their report — “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change are ... cows, pigs and chickens?” — factors in emissions from the tens of billions of animals exhaling CO2 annually, as well as deforestation for feed production and grazing, which prevents the reduction in greenhouse gases that would normally result from photosynthesis.

As things stand, global meat and dairy consumption is projected by the F.A.O. to more than double by 2050. Reversing the role of livestock in climate change is “even more important than the urgent transition to renewable energy,” Dr. Goodland wrote in an e-mail message.

In the World Watch report released last month, Dr. Goodland and Mr. Anhang wrote that “livestock (like automobiles) are a human invention and convenience, not part of pre-human times, and a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock is no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe.”

Their solution to livestock’s global warming effect is simple: eat less animal products, or better still, none at all.

The researchers propose revenue-neutral carbon taxes on products that are greenhouse gas intensive, so that foods like pork and beef would pay for their high environmental cost.

But their wider proposal, however, is to find “better alternatives to livestock products,” like foods made with soy, seitan and mycoprotein, the ingredient in Quorn products made by the British company Marlow Foods.

“Meat and dairy analog companies have been working on continuous improvement of their products, and further improvement can be expected,” Dr. Goodland said. “This contrasts with meat and dairy companies, which sell products whose quality is practically impossible to improve, and which many believe has deteriorated in recent years with decreased regulation and increases in zoonotic diseases.”

Another meat substitute under development is cultured meat — meat produced in vitro, from a cell culture, rather than in vivo, from an animal.

“We think that within 10 years, a cultured meat product should be feasible,” Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research organization working to develop meat substitutes, wrote in an e-mail message this month.

Cultured meat would also have a significantly reduced environmental impact, according to Mr. Matheny. “Recent research at Oxford University suggests that cultured meat would reduce meat’s greenhouse gas emissions by around 90 percent. It would do more for the climate than would replacing all of our cars with bicycles.”

Mr. Matheny believes that the stigma surrounding cultured meat will change, “in part because of food-borne illnesses from regular meat, like avian and swine flu, that originated in factory farms.”

“What we’re talking about is hydroponic meat that would be the cleanest meat ever produced,” said Mr. Matheny. “That’s far preferable to how our meat is produced now: 10,000 animals crammed into a metal shed, pumped full of drugs and living in their own waste.”

Instead of looking to science and the future for a solution to the world’s livestock woes, many others are looking back at an old-world approach to agriculture in the form of small-scale, sustainable family farms.

From : New York Times


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