When you think about ways in which human beings contribute to climate change, milk and hamburgers would probably not be the first things that come to mind.
You may be more inclined to point your fingers at the SUV in your neighbor’s driveway than the barbeque on his patio. At least, I know I was. But according to the 2006 United Nations report Livestock’s Long Shadow, livestock production is a huge contributor to global warming than all forms of transportation combined. This includes cars, trucks, trains and even planes.
Livestock production doesn’t just include caring for animals. It’s important to factor in the ways we’ve changed our environment to provide for them. The same report states that 26 percent of the ice-free land on the planet is used for livestock in some way. Large creatures take up a lot of room even if they are simply standing in one space, as with concentrated animal feeding operations.
That does not even count all the land needed to produce food for them.
The desire to create new pastureland is a common motivation for cutting down forests. In doing so, we destroy trees that would otherwise use carbon dioxide for the sake of animals that produce methane. The result? Nine percent of all CO2 emissions come from livestock, and most of this is due to deforestation. It’s a rather poor equation.
This is particularly worrisome in South America. The Amazon rainforest is sometimes called the “Lungs of the World,” as it produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Deforestation of this highly productive, bio-diverse region is even more problematic than elsewhere because of its role in regulating the global climate.
What reason could lead us to treat it carelessly? Is it for natural rubber? For teak furniture? These are certainly side-benefits, if they could be called that. But the economic outcomes of destroying the Amazon do not end in exotic products: they end with a moo. More than 70 percent of this land ends up being used for cattle production.
Now, what about the animals themselves? Remarkably, they emit 37 percent of all methane released into the atmosphere by human activities. Given that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2, this is a serious problem. Factor in that they also produce 64 percent of all human ammonia emissions, which can cause acid rain, and you can see that milk and beef are awful for the environment. We may benefit, in other words, from taking a closer look at what we have in our glasses and on our plates than at the size of our neighbor’s car.
Zach Wilson is a senior studying philosophy. How menacing do you find mooing? You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org