It is not often that meat-and-potatoes issues are actually about meat or potatoes, but, if we would like to live more sustainably and reverse the effects of climate change, the choice between meat and potatoes, to put it simply, should be just as important as the choice between a Hummer and a Prius. That is to say, meat and potatoes should become a meat-and-potatoes issue.

A variety of recent studies has concluded that livestock is a major contributor to climate change and environmental degradation. In fact, livestock and the various processes that contribute to their production account for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a greater percentage than transportation. While removing beef from our diets immediately and completely would be unreasonable, the scope and severity of the environmental effects of livestock should give us pause before we order our next tenderloin.

One of the biggest problems with beef – don’t laugh – is what could be called “emissions” from the cattle themselves. Emissions from the animals and their manure contain carbon dioxide as well as methane and nitrous oxide, which are much more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. A pound of methane is equivalent in terms of global warming potential as 50 pounds of carbon dioxide, which makes cow farts very potent indeed.

However, the production of beef is wasteful and detrimental to the environment for many other reasons, which, although we could afford to ignore them before, cannot be allowed to escape scrutiny as we begin to understand the broader effects of our lifestyles. In order to feed cattle and other livestock, massive amounts of grain or other feed crops must be produced. These crops must be irrigated, which requires electricity to move water, and must be nourished using fertilizers, which also emit nitrous oxide. The feed crop must then be transferred to the livestock yards, adding another leg of transportation into the cycle. All of these steps create emissions and environmental damage that doesn’t actually allow us to feed more people or eat more healthily.

After all that, energy and emissions is put into feed crops, 90 percent of it is then wasted. When cattle or other livestock eat feed crop, only 10 percent of its calories are transferred into calories as beef, as dictated by the concept of trophic levels. Imagine if we made 10 cars, then took them apart, took a few pieces from each one to make a single car and discarded the rest. It’d be ridiculous. It may not seem like it, but eating beef entails essentially the same amount of waste.

Unsustainable land management is also exacerbating livestock’s environmental damage. According to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, growing global demand for meat is also encouraging deforestation, which is doubly damaging to the environment. Rainforests act as carbon sinks that remove and sequester carbon from the environment, so clearing them to make room for livestock is doubly bad. The report estimates that 70 percent of cleared former rainforest land in the Amazon is now used for grazing. Overly intensive grazing practices are also degrading 20 percent of global pastureland, while a third of all arable land is used to grow feed crops. Livestock production creates a system of land use that is both environmentally unsustainable and inefficient.

All of this ignores the negative health effects of red meat and the flawed government subsidies that support the industry, but there is still a silver lining to the environmental effects of livestock. While constructing a national renewable energy grid or transitioning the automobile industry from electric motors will require massive investment in infrastructure and development before significant results are achieved, reducing emissions from livestock is as simple as eating less meat, because turnover time for livestock is much shorter than the energy or transportation sectors.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore, said, “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, [giving up meat] is clearly the most attractive opportunity.”

Still, we don’t have to stop eating meat completely. According to geophysicists Gidon Eschel and Pamela Martin, reducing your meat consumption by just 20 percent is environmentally the same as trading your normal sedan in for a hybrid. That means every fifth time you feel like beef, just order something else, and then you can claim just as much green street cred as those people who drive a Prius. Skip it every third time, and you can claim more.

Somerset Perry is a senior in the College. He can be reached at perrythehoya.com. BIODEGRADABLE appears every other Friday.

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