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Do Food Miles Matter? Reducing Meat & Dairy Consumption May Be Even More Important

  • Red meat and dairy are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions from food for an average U.S. household
    By ERIKA ENGELHAUPT
    Environmental Science and Technology, April 16, 2008
    Straight to the Source

The benefits of eating locally grown food may not extend to curbing global warming, according to a comprehensive study of greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. food.

On a typical spring day, lunch for Seattle-based writer Sage Van Wing includes pasta with pork sausage from a small local farm. The peppers, cheese, and shallots on top come from the nearby farmers market. Van Wing is a locavore-she tries to eat only locally grown foods whenever possible.

Red meat and dairy are responsible for nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions from food for an average U.S. household.

Van Wing, who coined the term locavore with a friend 3 years ago, says curbing global warming is one of many social and environmental reasons for eating locally. And for many people, "food miles", the distance food travels from farm to plate, are a simple way to gauge food's impact on climate change.

But it's how food is produced, not how far it is transported, that matters most for global warming, according to new research published in ES&T . In fact, eating less red meat and dairy can be a more effective way to lower an average U.S. household's food-related climate footprint than buying local food, says lead author Christopher Weber of Carnegie Mellon University.

Weber and colleague Scott Matthews, also of Carnegie Mellon, conducted a life-cycle assessment of greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of growing and transporting food consumed in the U.S. They found that transportation creates only 11% of the 8.1 metric tons (t) of greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) that an average U.S. household generates annually as a result of food consumption. The agricultural and industrial practices that go into growing and harvesting food are responsible for most (83%) of its greenhouse gas emissions.

For perspective, food accounts for 13% of every U.S. household's 60 t share of total U.S. emissions; this includes industrial and other emissions outside the home. By comparison, driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon of gasoline for 12,000 miles per year (the U.S. average) produces about 4.4 t of CO2. Switching to a totally local diet is equivalent to driving about 1000 miles less per year, Weber says.

A relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same greenhouse gas reduction as eating locally, Weber adds. Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year.

Several other recent studies have analyzed particular foods and poked holes in the food mile concept. For example, it can be more energy efficient for a British household to buy tomatoes or lettuce from Spain than from heated greenhouses in the U.K.

The new work expands on those studies by providing a comprehensive look at the U.S. food supply. Weber used an input-output life-cycle assessment, which counts not only the CO2 produced when food is shipped but also all greenhouse gases, including methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), emitted from farm production. This means counting all the way back to the fossil fuels used to manufacture fertilizer and tractors.

"There is more [total] greenhouse gas impact from methane and nitrous oxide than from all the CO2 in the supply chain," Weber says. In large part, he adds, this is because N2O and CH4 emission in the production of red meat "blows away CO2". Cows burp CH4, and growing their feed uses large amounts of fertilizers that are converted to N2O by soil bacteria.

Edgar Hertwich, an expert on life-cycle analysis who is at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, calls the results "quite convincing" but notes that consumers should still keep an eye on food flown on airplanes, which have very high greenhouse gas emissions. "Food miles are a very good idea, but not for the faint of heart," adds Gidon Eshel, a Bard Center Fellow at Bard College. "Counting transport alone won't do the trick; you need a full life-cycle analysis."

"It's still useful to think about transport," says David Pimentel of Cornell University, an ecologist who has conducted life-cycle analyses of food's energy use. He recently calculated that if a typical American drives home with a 1 pound can of corn, 311 calories of fossil fuel energy are used to transport the 375-calorie corn in the can.

Van Wing read Weber's paper and found it a "holistic and helpful" look at food miles. But the research doesn't change her outlook on food, she says. She will continue to buy from local growers, whose production practices she can see firsthand.

For more information on this topic or related issues you can search the thousands of archived articles on the OCA website using keywords:

Peter Fulda
post Apr 28 2008, 05:44 PM



I am not sure where this figure of 13% comes from, but according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization, animal agriculture accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emmissions, and is cited as THE #1 contributor to global warming.

I find it even more irritating whenever I see an article that suggests switching from beef to chicken. Poultry production causes its own version of environmental degradation, and no environmental organization should ever suggest it as an alternative for the benefit of the environment.

It is about time people of concience wake up and simply get the dead animals out of their kitchens if they really want to be serious about changing their habits for the better. And stop being fooled by terms such as "organic meat" or "free range". These products just give consumers an excuse to not do the most ethical thing and foster civilization�s appetite for the most unethical.

Peter Fulda
Novi, MI

sustainablebeefp...
post Apr 28 2008, 07:12 PM


When you make the statement that red meat and dairy are responsible for x% of greenhouse gases - you should really be making a statment about the method of production - instead of generalizing about beef and dairy as a whole. Grass Fed beef (and I do mean 100% grass fed) and grass fed dairy products - can in no way be compared to the unsustainability of artificial manmade growing systems that dominate the industry (feedlots). Our ranch is run 100%organically - we don't plow the land - no erosion problems or reeking havoc on the soil eco system. The cow - a true herbivore plays an important role in building organic matter by returning to the soil what she does not use, and she walks the pastures to push into the ground plants that go to seed for the next season. We use short duration/high intensity grazing techniques - moving the cattle to different pastures depending on the maturity of the grass - preventing over grazing and did you know the soil actually stays healthier when you graze the grasses properly?? This is sustainable agriculture - relying on the sunlight and soil to grow the grass, which the cow eats and makes beef - essentially turning sunlight into energy dense food. Our beef is sold on a local basis - therefore making it travel very few miles. So please before you generalize about beef and dairy, please do some research into how man made systems have created the greenhouse gases - not the meat and the dairy itself.
There is a significant trend toward the grass fed beef and dairy - for all sorts of reasons - and yes one of the biggest is for sustainability.
One very educational web site to check out and learn more is eatwild.com

As a rancher - I look at it as my responsibility to care for the land without the man made inputs. We are a growing number in food production - that understand not only our responsibility to the environment and our families, but yours too. So I encourage all to become educated on where your food is coming from and how it is raised - find sustainably grown foods.

ladycat
post Apr 28 2008, 07:31 PM


QUOTE (sustainablebeefproducer @ Apr 28 2008, 06:12 PM) *
did you know the soil actually stays healthier when you graze the grasses properly??

Amen!!

I got into an argument with a bunch of vegans over this issue at another forum. I carefully explained away their every point of contention with the truth, and they still couldn't see it.

A properly managed farm (not monoculture and not a CAFO), leaves the land better than they found it, and is friendly to wildlife, as well.

I grew up in farming and I'm still surrounded by the faming industry. I know how these things work.


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nirava
post Apr 28 2008, 09:12 PM


It is not red meat and dairy that should be blamed, it is improperly, unnaturally raised animal products trucked hundreds of miles from producer to consumer that are the problem. Ruminants should not eat grain, chickens should not be jammed into "battery cages", and dairy should be from a local family-run farm and unprocessed. We buy grass-fed beef raised 60 miles from our house and drink raw milk from a dairy 70 miles away. These are extremely healthful foods that kept our ancestors alive and well for millennia. Truly sustainable agriculture and pastured livestock are healthful for both planet and consumer and provide enormous carbon sequestration. Choosing local plant foods from crops grown in mineralized soils rich with organic matter and humus and rotationally grazed, pasture-based meat products that provide their own "natural fertilizers" make all the other "green" choices green with envy.

Sebastian Penrae...
post Apr 28 2008, 09:22 PM


According to a recent study by the UN 18 percent of global warming emissions come from raising livestock for meat. That's 40 percent more than all the world's cars, SUVs, airplanes, and other modes of fossil-based transportation, which combined account for 13 percent.

http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/dia/tra...%2FA0701E00.htm

vrd
post Apr 28 2008, 10:37 PM


and 100% grass fed cattle don't emit methane?

jlitvlnvla
post Apr 28 2008, 11:59 PM


to make a meal with red meat takes 20 times as much land as to make a meal with soybeans and rice.
The amount of forests that must be cut down to support a planet that lives on red meat and dairy would make our planet uninhabitable.
By eating a vegan diet , free of meat and dairy you're preserving our planet by allowing the forests to remain standing and absorbing the CO2 in the air and giving back Oxygen for us to breath.

Whether animals are allowed to graze or not, from what I've read, they are all treated cruelly when they're killed. We are what we eat. Our cruelty to others and our horrible wars will not end till we stop eating food from cruelly treated animals. When the world is vegan there will be world peace. People have wanted peace for milleniums. Why have they failed 100% of the time? Because they haven't been vegan for many milleniums. Even getting dairy is cruel to animals. Cows could live for a couple decades with no problem. But they only give milk for a few years. Are they still allowed to live? NO. They're killed in horrible ways when they are no longer profitable to own.
Plants don't have nerves. Animals do. Eating a vegetarian meal does not involve torture. Eating meat and dairy does.
Food from plants such as vegetables and fruit would just rot when not eaten, and usually within a few weeks. Not animals. When people can eat meals that were made in peaceful ways, they'll have more peaceful minds and be able to live peacefully.
Right now the amount of meat and dairy used on this planet is going up and so is the cruelty and the number of wars.



ladycat
post Yesterday, 12:49 AM


QUOTE (vrd @ Apr 28 2008, 09:37 PM) *
and 100% grass fed cattle don't emit methane?

Do the billions of gnus, bison, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, deer, moose, and elephants emit methane?


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ladycat
post Yesterday, 12:56 AM


QUOTE (jlitvlnvla @ Apr 28 2008, 10:59 PM) *
to make a meal with red meat takes 20 times as much land as to make a meal with soybeans and rice.

Typical argument from a vegan who doesn't understand how properly managed meat animals complement grain and other vegetative crops.

The cattle here in the wheat belt do NOT use up land that would "otherwise" be used for grains. Without the cattle grazing the winter wheat, it wouldn't make a crop at all. The cattle are very necessary to allow the wheat to produce. Without the cattle, the wheat crop would fail.

The farmers also wouldn't be able to make it financially without the cattle. If they all went bankrupt because vegans got their way, we'd all starve anyway.


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vegaia
post Yesterday, 09:32 AM


No matter how you cut it, cattle and other livestock are INVASIVE SPECIES (like humans). They alter ecosystems, are detrimental to waterways, add to climate change and inhibit nature. Eating less meat, dairy and eggs (and preferably none) will go a long way toward making this planet more sustainable.

vrd
post Yesterday, 11:36 AM


ladycat wrote

>Do the billions of gnus, bison, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, deer, moose, and elephants emit methane?

Yes, I'm sure they do emit some methane, just like a lot of other animals, including ladycat.

Is the quantity anywhere near the quantity emitted by ruminant livestock?

Absolutely not!

Did the quantity emitted by livestock get a thorough analysis and indictment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

Resoundingly yes!

Are methane emitting wildlife necessary for ecological balance in numerous biomes, including those currently invaded by livestock?

Yes.

Are methane emitting livestock, and especially in the obscene numbers that are maintained for meat gluttony, necessary for ecological balance?

Absolutely not!

Are methane emitting cattle necessary for human nutrition?

No, and in fact contribute to a huge amount of the top health problems- which multiplies the environmental impact.

Are methane emitting cattle necessary for solving human hunger/food security problems?

No, and once again, contributes to the problem.

It's the meat/cattle addicts that don't understand the ecology and economics of the current situation and what the future holds if it's not drastically changed.

diana
post Yesterday, 08:51 PM


16 pages on the same topic (it was a question of the week). There is much you're missing if you haven't read that. Oversimplification still doesn't mean fact. I have no qualms about eating less meat, especially less CAFO/ factory-farmed and drugged meat. But I was reading the following tonight and remembered just how much sense this makes (sine it covers that to which we were adapted):

The 10 Characteristics of Traditional Diets

1. No refined or denatured food. Refined and denatured food includes: white flour, white sugar, corn syrup, low-fat/skim milk, refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils, protein powders, artificial vitamins, additives or colorings.

2. Animal protein and fat. Sources included: fish, seafood, water/land fowl, land animals, milk and milk products, reptiles and insects.

3. Four times the calcium and other minerals. Ten times the fat soluble vitamins A & D from animal fat as the average American diet.

4. Some animal products eaten raw. Examples: milk, yogurt, cheese, beef, fish.

5. High food-enzyme content. Foods with high-enzyme content include: raw dairy, meat, fish and honey; cold-pressed oils; wine and beer (unpasterized); and lacto-fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or other pickled vegetables.

6. Seeds, grains and nuts soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened. Neutralizes naturally occurring antinutrients like phytic acid, tannins, enzyme inhibitors and complex carbohydrates.

7. Total fat content varies (from 30% to 80%), but only 4% of calories came from polyunsaturated oils. Most of the fat was from saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.

8. Nearly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

9. Some salt. Sources included sea salt, salt flats and mines, milk and meat.

10. Consumption of animal bones. Made broth from bones.

ladycat
post Yesterday, 09:36 PM


QUOTE (vrd @ Apr 29 2008, 10:36 AM) *
ladycat wrote

>Do the billions of gnus, bison, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, deer, moose, and elephants emit methane?

Yes, I'm sure they do emit some methane, just like a lot of other animals, including ladycat.

Is the quantity anywhere near the quantity emitted by ruminant livestock?

Absolutely not!

Explain to me how cows grazing on grass produce more methane than wild ruminants grazing on grass.


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dairydiva
post Yesterday, 10:05 PM


"Do the billions of gnus, bison, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, deer, moose, and elephants emit methane?

Yes, I'm sure they do emit some methane, just like a lot of other animals, including ladycat.


Is the quantity anywhere near the quantity emitted by ruminant livestock?

Absolutely not!




I have to end this ignorance of believing that wild animals are not contributing to the release of methane but yet domestic ruminants are causing greenhouse gases which are causing global warming.

First and foremost, there are less cows now than there were before. Less cows=less methane=less contributing to global warming. Cows are more efficient these days, allowing more milk from less cows. Second, methane is released by rumen bugs who are digest cellulose, found in plants, in this case I'm referring to forages. The more forage an animal eats, the more methane it will produce. Less cows are grazed today than previously. Grazing cows produce more methane because of the amount of forage they consume. Of course, all cows release methane but a high forage diet will produce more methane.

Looking at how methane is produced and the fact there are less cows now than previously, I thoroughly disagree that methane from cows is causing global warming.


Methane is a gas created in the rumen (of ALL RUMINANTS...deer, sheep, llamas, bison, etc.).

Methane is created when a ruminant eats plant material containing cellulose. Cellulose-eating microbes in the rumen eat the cellulose and then release methane.

Ruminants who feed on plant material (i.e. wild animals and domestic animals alike) all release methane.

Good response ladycat! A wild ruminant consuming grass is going to release just as much methane as one that is domestic.

jlitvlnvla
post Today, 05:58 AM


According to ladycat <<The cattle here in the wheat belt do NOT use up land that would "otherwise" be used for grains. Without the cattle grazing the winter wheat, it wouldn't make a crop at all. The cattle are very necessary to allow the wheat to produce. Without the cattle, the wheat crop would fail.
>>
Please explain why wheat can't grow without cows around them.
I've never heard of this cause for wheat failure.
Is it true for rice as well?
If the world were vegan you could grow 20 times as much rice soybeans and wheat, and it would go directly to humans meals rather than being fed to cows. You wouldn't even need the land that you now need for cows. Lots of that land could remain as forests that would take the CO2 out of the air and put back oxygen for us to breathe.

The percentage of oxygen in the air today has greatly diminished over the last few milleniums. When the rising countries start to eat more meat it will take so much land to produce enough meat for them that there won't be enough oxygen left in the air for us to breathe. And if there is there will be so little left that we'll probably become about the size of elves. Dragonflies used to be MUCH bigger. Dinosaurs were huge. Do you know why? Because of the percentage of oxygen in the air. At least that is part of the reason.

Besides unnecessarily reducing all the forests left in our world
meat raised on farms is not nearly as healthy as meat from hunting. Meat from animals raised on farms, especially red meat, is filled with saturated fat, and no fiber. That large amount of saturated fat in people's diets is what is responsible for many of the leading causes of death today. High blood pressure, heartattacks , and even cancer is a result of eating so much meat. If people had the fiber in their diets from eating the grains directly instead of the meat, we'd have a far healthier country. And if they wanted to eat meat, well meat from wild animals has very little saturated fat

Here in MA with health insurance required now, the emergency rooms and doctors offices have such long waiting lines it is amazing. One can die in an emergency room waiting 4 to 8 hours for the next available doctor. So having health insurance doesn't make our citizens any healthier. It is our diet and the food we eat.

The first farms to domesticate animals were in Iraq. See what has happened there since farms started!

ladycat
post Today, 09:40 AM


QUOTE (jlitvlnvla @ Apr 30 2008, 04:58 AM) *
Please explain why wheat can't grow without cows around them.
I've never heard of this cause for wheat failure.
Is it true for rice as well?

I don't know the scientific reason, but if winter wheat is not grazed, the heads seed out very poorly and the crop is so bad it's not worth trying to harvest.

I have no idea about the rice. They don't grow rice here. I'm in the winter wheat belt.


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Sebastian Penrae...
post Today, 02:04 PM


Peter Fulda wrote
QUOTE
Poultry production causes its own version of environmental degradation, and no environmental organization should ever suggest it as an alternative for the benefit of the environment.


From the UN's report Livestock?s long shadow
QUOTE
Although industrial poultry production is entirely based on feed grains and other high value feed material, it is the most efficient form of production of food of animal origin (with the exception of some forms of aquaculture), and has the lowest land requirements per unit of output. Poultry manure is of high nutrient content, relatively easy to manage and widely used as fertilizer and sometimes as feed. Other than for feedcrop production, the environmental damage, though perhaps locally important, is of a much lower scale than for the other species.


This is, of course, partly because poultry production is almost entirely industrialized. The impact would be larger if all poultry were free range, but even then, I'm guessing the science would show a lower impact than with other species.

Sebastian Penrae...
post Today, 04:14 PM


QUOTE (ladycat @ Apr 28 2008, 04:31 PM) *
I got into an argument with a bunch of vegans over this issue at another forum. I carefully explained away their every point of contention with the truth, and they still couldn't see it.
A properly managed farm (not monoculture and not a CAFO), leaves the land better than they found it, and is friendly to wildlife, as well.


There are certainly more sustainable and less intrusive methods of meat production that should be more widely utilized, and it's true that cattle and cropland working together can be more productive than having them separate, however there's no "truth" you can proclaim that changes the fact of meat's high contribution to global warming. Wild ruminants do fart, but that doesn't change the impact of domestic livestock, and despite some promising methods for reducing methane emissions from cattle, their impact will never be anywhere near the levels of vegetable production. As for livestock's contributions to the land they use, it's questionable how beneficial even dual-purpose winter wheat is (see below). Nevertheless, any benefit to the land from grazing will not significantly lessen the impact of the grazers.
QUOTE
"Previous published research suggests that if fall?winter grazing of winter wheat is properly managed, it will not reduce grain yield. However, highly aggregated state average data suggest that fall?winter grazing is associated with lower grain yields."
Winter wheat fall?winter forage yield and grain yield response to planting date in a dual-purpose system


In short, there is no supportable argument that meat production is NOT a major contributor to global warming. However, even if we could reduce or eliminate meat production, which is currently highly doubtful, the economic impact of such a change should also be considered.
QUOTE
"Livestock provide livelihood support to an estimated 987 million poor people in rural areas... As livestock rearing does not require formal education or large amounts of capital, and often no land ownership, it is often the only economic activity accessible to poor poeple in developing countries. In many marginal areas... livestock production is an expression of the poverty of people who have no other options, and do not have the means to counteract environmental degradation either."
Livestock?s long shadow


At some point, as world demand for meat and fossil fuels increases, we WILL change our dietary habits, or go the way of the dinosaurs. Before then, how much rainforest is cut down and how much biodiversity is lost for pasture land, how many people keel over from too much saturated fat, and what massive tonnage of greenhouse gas is added to the atmosphere depends on how aware and reactive we are to the problem, which is huge and complicated by economic factors. Cars don't have to burn oil, and shouldn't, energy can be garnered from renewable sources with lower associated carbon costs, and we should switch to them, but these contributors are dwarfed by livestock production. We must continue to discuss and educate ourselves on this subject. Eating less meat might put a dent in the problem, but a true solution will require far more social, political and scientific investment. At this point, simply building awareness of the problem is the biggest goal and challenge. This article, and all those who have commented here are helping with that, and I thank you for that.

vrd
post Today, 07:00 PM


>Explain to me how cows grazing on grass produce more methane than wild ruminants grazing on grass.

Just here in my part of the US I can drive for hours and see lots of methane emitting cows but I can't seem to locate an equivalent number of methane emitting native bison, elk or antelope, in fact I have to work really hard to find ANY methane emitting wild ruminants.

Worldwide, cows for livestock are kept in higher concentrations in a given land area than natural herds of ruminants would occupy the same area if it were a native grassland.

In addition, cows for beef and dairy are often grazing on land that was not originally grassland being grazed by wild ruminants, but instead their pasture had originally been forests inhabited by other smaller, non ruminant wildlife emitting less methane, plus lots of large trees etc- trapping way more CO2 than all that grass.

>there are less cows now than there were before

based on what credible data????

Yes dairydiva and ladycat, please help "end this ignorance" and take the time to go this site

http://www.virtualcentre.org/en/library/ke...ad/a0701e00.htm

and at least read the executive summary- it's only 5 pages long.

and if you and others are brave enough to risk your illusions about your "golden calf idol", go ahead and skim through the rest of the document.

Here are just the opening paragraphs.

This report aims to assess the full impact of the livestock sector on environmental problems, along with potential technical and policy approaches to mitigation. The assessment is based on the most recent and complete data available, taking into account direct impacts, along with the impacts of feedcrop agriculture required for livestock production.

The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Livestock�s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale and its potential contribution to their solution is equally large. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency. Major reductions in impact could be achieved at reasonable cost.

Just so you understand - This report was compiled by an international group of investigators after thorough analysis of an amazing amount of data. If you are able to poke holes in this report then I suggest you have better things to do than hang out on this forum and you should march to the United Nations and set the world straight.

What sources do you have?