By: Jacob Stone | Opinions  | 

Eliminate the ‘Middlecow’

There are 1.3 to 1.5 billion cows on this planet. Yearly, each cow emits 70 to 120 kilograms of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping energy in the Earth’s atmosphere, contributing to the climate change crisis. But cow farts and burps are only part of the problem; 14.5 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock, mainly large animals raised for slaughter and consumption by humans.

People tend not to think of their diets as ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but changing a diet to cut beef can have dramatically positive environmental effects. Cows eat much less efficiently than other animals and are disproportionately responsible for the 14.5 percent of global emissions blamed on all livestock. Red meat requires 11 times as much clean freshwater and produces five times as much greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of meat in comparison to other sources of protein, such as pork, chicken and fish, and produces 11 times as much greenhouse gasses per kilogram compared to vegetables and grains like potatoes and rice.

Basic biology explains this inefficiency. Living beings use up energy to survive and grow, and the bigger they are the more energy they waste. When cows graze, they use up most of the energy in their feed in order to stay alive. When humans eat those cows, they only obtain a fraction of the original energy in the grain used to make the feed. If we eliminated the “middlecow,” we’d become much more efficient at converting valuable grain into energy that we need.

Chicken, pigs, fish and other animals are much more efficient at converting feed into meat for human consumption. Trading beef for other forms of protein can, therefore, have an extremely positive effect on the environment. A recently published article in The Guardian quoted Prof. Tim Benton, an environmental researcher at the University of Leeds, who said that “The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat.”

A U.K. study of over 23,000 vegetarians and fish-eaters and 29,000 red-meat eaters found that meat eaters’ diets produced approximately 7.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide daily, while both vegetarian and fish-based diets produced only 3.8 kilograms.

Meat eating also strains our world’s precious freshwater supply. It takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, the equivalent of six month’s worth of showers. The U.N. predicts that by 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in regions of absolute water scarcity. Using other sources of nourishment drastically lowers freshwater footprints and can help alleviate the growing problem of a global scarcity of freshwater.

We are only exacerbating the problem by consuming more and more meat per capita each year worldwide. A recent Scientific American article reported that worldwide meat consumption tripled between 1971 and 2010 while world population only grew by 81 percent. Americans are one of the main sources of this problem, eating 97 kilograms of meat per person per year, double the worldwide average of 41.9 kilograms.

Our dietary habits are wreaking irreversible change to the environment around us and are relatively easy to change. The solution: stop eating (or eat less) red meat.

Photo Caption: Cows are responsible for a disproportional amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by livestock.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons