One of the silliest arguments against eating meat offered by vegan zealots is that cattle cause global warming. Their argument boils down to two (incorrect or meaningless) points:
1. Trees are cut down to produce the crops required to feed cattle.
2. Cow farts add so much methane to the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect is amplified.
Trees may indeed be cut down to produce crops, but of course vegans consume crops – where do they think their whole-wheat pastas and soybean burgers come from, anyway? As Lierre Keith argued so eloquently in The Vegetarian Myth, it’s monocrop farming that’s damaging the environment, and vegetarians regularly consume the products of monocrop farming: corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.
I once responded to a vegetrollian who accused me of ruining the planet with my carnivorous diet by spelling out two scenarios:
1. A local farmer raises cattle on grass. During their lives, the cattle produce new topsoil by pooping on the ground. They require no fertilizer to grow, and they fertilize the soil naturally. When it’s time to turn the cattle into burgers and steaks, they’re driven a short distance to a local slaughterhouse, then the meat is driven a short distance to a local store, where I buy some of it and take it home to my freezer.
2. A farmer somewhere in Iowa grows soybeans, which requires massive amounts of fertilizers made from oil shipped in from the Middle East. The soybeans also require pesticides. The fertilizers and pesticides run off into local streams and rivers, poisoning the water and killing the marine life. The soybeans are then piled onto a gas-guzzling truck and shipped a long distance to an Archer Daniels Midland plant, where they’re processed into soy burgers. The soy burgers are then placed on another gas-guzzling truck and shipped to a grocery store in California, where our vegan buys them and convinces himself he’s saving the planet by eating them.
The vegetrollian never responded to my two scenarios.
The cow-fart issue is, of course, simply ridiculous. In response to yet another vegetrollian who raised that issue, I mentioned two points:
1. The Great Plains were once home to millions of buffalo, yet their methane production somehow failed to push the planet into a permanent warming cycle.
2. Given that vegetarians live on grains and beans, they’re probably major methane producers themselves. I certainly was during my vegetarian days … although it never occurred to me that I might be warming the planet.
Once again, no response from the vegetrollian.
As illogical as these beliefs are (especially the cow-fart issue), I’m not surprised that so many vegans have adopted them. As I’ve said before, many vegans are akin to religious zealots, and their beliefs are essentially religious. Raising cattle for the purpose of eating them is evil, so there must be evil consequences. The only problem is that those beliefs don’t hold up to science.
Here are some quotes from a recent U.K. Telegraph article titled Cows absolved of causing global warming with nitrous oxide:
In the past environmentalists, from Lord Stern to Sir Paul McCartney, have urged people to stop eating meat because the methane produced by cattle causes global warming.
Sir Paul has written some fantastic songs, so enjoy those. Just don’t take his advice on diet.
However a new study found that cattle grazed on the grasslands of China actually reduce another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.
Authors of the paper, published in Nature, say the research does not mean that producing livestock to eat is good for the environment in all countries. However in certain circumstances, it can be better for global warming to let animals graze on grassland.
I’d say it’s a lot better for the planet to let animals graze on grassland. More on that later.
Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, carried out the study in Inner Mongolia in China. He found that grassland produced more nitrous oxide during the spring thaw when sheep or cattle have not been grazing. This is because the greenhouse gas, also known as laughing gas, is released by microbes in the soil. When the grass is long snow settles keeping the microbes warm and providing water, however when the grass is cut short by animals the ground freezes and the microbes die.
Dr Butterbach-Bahl said the study overturned assumptions about grazing goats and cattle.
“It’s been generally assumed that if you increase livestock numbers you get a rise in emissions of nitrous oxide. This is not the case,” he said.
Here are some quotes from an article about another study of food consumption and its (supposed) effects on the planet:
Plant-based diets are generally seen as healthy – but they are not necessarily the healthiest diets for the environment, according to new French research.
The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined the nutritional value of the self-reported diets of nearly 2,000 French adults and compared dietary composition with estimates of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by the ingredients’ production.
Per 100 grams, the researchers found that animal products like meat, poultry, dairy, fish and eggs were indeed associated with much higher GHG emissions than fruits, vegetables and starchy foods. However, despite containing larger amounts of plant-based foods, diets of the highest nutritional quality were not necessarily the lowest in GHG emissions.
Due to ease of transportation and storage, and relative lack of waste, the least healthy foods, like sweets and salted snacks, were associated with some of the lowest emissions on an energy basis.
The researchers used a database to estimate GHG emissions per 100 grams of each food for the 400 most commonly consumed foods within the sample population. But when they looked at what people ate to meet their energy needs, they found the ‘healthiest’ diets – defined as those high in fruit, vegetables and fish – were associated with about the same level of emissions as the least healthy diets.
They explained that it was necessary to eat far more low-energy food in order to meet daily energy needs.
“Altogether, our results therefore seem to contradict the widely accepted view that diets that are good for health are also good for the planet,” they wrote.
I disagree with their belief that plant-based diets are the healthiest, but you get the idea: 100 grams of broccoli may require less energy to produce than 100 grams of chicken, but the 100 grams of chicken will provide a lot more energy. (Good luck eating enough broccoli to feel full.)
The researchers noted that red meat requires the most energy to produce and therefore has the greatest impact on the environment. Well, that depends on how it’s raised, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more to environmental impact that just energy use. Below I’ve embedded a TED talk that several readers recommended. Look at what this scientist (who has enough integrity to admit his previous beliefs were wrong) has to say about the effects of livestock on the planet:
I recommended that speech to yet another vegetrollian who showed up on the blog this week to lecture me about how eating meat will ruin the planet. (She also assured me she’s a “happy vegan,” then expressed her hope that John Nicholson, author of The Meat Fix, dies of a coronary soon. Yeah, that’s the kind of wish a happy person makes.)
No reply from the vegetrollian on the TED talk so far.