October 31, 2009
The Carnivore’s Dilemma
By NICOLETTE HAHN NIMAN
IS eating a hamburger the global warming equivalent of driving a Hummer? This week an article in The Times of London
that blared: “Give Up Meat to Save the Planet.” Former Vice President Al Gore, who has made climate
change his signature issue, has even been assailed for omnivorous eating by animal rights activists.
It’s true that food production is an important contributor to climate change. And the claim that meat (especially beef) is
closely linked to global warming has received some credible backing, including by the United Nations and University of
Chicago. Both institutions have issued reports that have been widely summarized as condemning meat-eating.
But that’s an overly simplistic conclusion to draw from the research. To a rancher like me, who raises cattle, goats and
turkeys the traditional way (on grass), the studies show only that the prevailing methods of producing meat — that is,
crowding animals together in factory farms, storing their waste in giant lagoons and cutting down forests to grow crops to
feed them — cause substantial greenhouse gases. It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more
environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.
So what is the real story of meat’s connection to global warming? Answering the question requires examining the individual
greenhouse gases involved: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides.
Carbon dioxide makes up the majority of agriculture-related greenhouse emissions. In American farming, most carbon
dioxide emissions come from fuel burned to operate vehicles and equipment. World agricultural carbon emissions, on the
other hand, result primarily from the clearing of woods for crop growing and livestock grazing. During the 1990s, tropical
deforestation in Brazil, India, Indonesia, Sudan and other developing countries caused 15 percent to 35 percent of annual
global fossil fuel emissions.
Much Brazilian deforestation is connected to soybean cultivation. As much as 70 percent of areas newly cleared for
agriculture in Mato Grosso State in Brazil is being used to grow soybeans. Over half of Brazil’s soy harvest is controlled by a
handful of international agribusiness companies, which ship it all over the world for animal feed and food products, causing
emissions in the process.
Meat and dairy eaters need not be part of this. Many smaller, traditional farms and ranches in the United States have scant