The greenhouse gas produced by meat and cattle

Those of us in the developed world eat too much meat and eating less meat is good for you and good for the climate, according to Dr Rajendra Pachauri. Dr Pachauri is the person who brought the concept of sustainability into common vocabulary and he now chairs the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to United Nations calculations, meat production accounts for 18% of our greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation produce this estimate by accounting for every stage of meat production and they accordingly rate meat production as producing more greenhouse gas than transport.

The bare headline figure of 18% is almost certainly misleading. Is it a percentage of greenhouse gases by volume or by effect or by longevity? It can be very difficult to isolate any single greenhouse gas and its cause. If we suddenly cut our meat consumption by half does that meat that we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 9%? I somehow doubt it.

When someone wants to make a point they find that the news media (that needs to sell news in order to make money) simplifies the point and the simplification can become very mildly absurd; that is what makes the headlines because it sounds absurdly impressive, a bit like Riply’s “believe it or not” and we treat it exactly like that, we can believe it or not.

When it comes to news we are all a bit like school children; our attention can be grabbed by an astonishing sounding fact.

The trouble is that astonishing sounding facts which arise from over simplifications of complex processes can be held up to ridicule, and perhaps should be.

I suspect that Dr Pachauri’s message is one of moderation. In the west we are greedy; we are greedy for pleasures, greedy for food and drink and greedy of things that we perceive will make our lives happier.

Greed is harmful, both to us and to the environment. Driving around in a car with a huge engine if you are a single person regularly driving in a place where the roads are good is an example of greed. Feasting every day on large quantities of meat is another example of greed.

If Dr Pachauri issued a press release with the old adage of the ancient Greeks “everything in moderation” it would grab no headlines and would change no behaviour, so he has to angle his message to grab headlines in order to get some part of what he wants to say across.

Meat production does add to that most pernicious (but thankfully short lasting) green house gas – methane, which is produced from the grass diet of cattle as a by product of the cow’s digestive process. It is probably possible to breed a strain of cattle that produce less methane, or else genetically engineer such a strain, and it is certainly possible to eat the meat closer to where it is produced, rather than ship across the world carcasses of beef grown in places thousands of miles away.

It is also important to look at meat production as a whole. Producing meat on land that was formerly tropical forests provides a threefold contribution to greenhouse gas. First the forests are chopped down and much of the timber is burnt. That releases carbon dioxide into the air and we have unlocked the carbon store. Secondly the land is ploughed to plant grass, releasing even more carbon dioxide that was locked up in soils and sub soils. Then, and only then when the grass grows do the cows come along to add the third contribution of methane they pass into the atmosphere.

As more of us live on this finite planet it is obvious that we must all be more moderate in our behaviour and less selfish. This is a hard message to communicate and one that makes no headlines. But then again, common sense rarely does.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for your idea.

  2. Robert , I guess ‘everything n Moderation’ should also apply to those in the world eating excessive amounts of rice which also produces vaste amounts of methane because of the method of growing it also uses lots of water and this is contaminated ith fertilizers as well. The Philippine government imports rice costing 30 peso a kilo and sells for 20 peso because the country cannot provide enough, despite being fortunate to have a climate with sufficient sun and rain, the government is now also subsidizing fertilizer because it otherise ould not be profitable farmers to grow rice! The government should really be encouraging people to cut rice consuption and change to root crops such as potatoes and komote and subsidise a change to these crops. By the way potatoes are a luxury at 40 peso a kilo. This is the UN year of the potatoe and lots of advice on the UN website how to start. I think if Filipinos got the idea about how to make vodka from potatoes they would grow more!

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