Monday, January 28, 2008

The Energy Impacts of Meat

If you put the ethical issues aside (not an easy thing to do, because the ethical issues are monumental), the subsidized production of a commodity that Americans consume two or three times a day has far-reaching impacts. Meat, a commodity that contributes to a large number of environmental and health problems, is becoming increasingly popular outside the U.S. as well, a fact that is multiplying livestock production problems.

In an article written for the New York Times, Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler, Mark Bittman (who strenuously reminds readers that he is not a vegetarian) outlines the problem from a number of perspectives.

Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests.

Just this week, the president of Brazil announced emergency measures to halt the burning and cutting of the country’s rain forests for crop and grazing land. In the last five months alone, the government says, 1,250 square miles were lost.

So how much energy does meat production require? The answer is eye opening.

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.

Grain, meat and even energy are roped together in a way that could have dire results. More meat means a corresponding increase in demand for feed, especially corn and soy, which some experts say will contribute to higher prices.

Averting global warming is going to take more than switching light bulbs and driving a hybrid. It's going to require re-examining some of our most cherished habits--including the kind of food we put in our mouths.