Beef: “The Hummer of the Dinner Plate”

As I enter my seventh week without beef–that’s BEEF, with an F, not Beer, with an R–and  continue to reduce intake of other creatures (Final Frontier: Fried Chicken), here’s a brow-raising take on the connection between meat-eating and climate change from this week’s New York Times Magazine:

THE HIGH PRICE OF BEEF: Late in February, the governors of Maine, Rhode Island, Washington, Maryland and other states received letters from Lindsay Rajt of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, asking them to encourage the citizens of their states to become vegetarians. The governors of those states have been fighting for tighter vehicle-emissions standards as a way to combat climate change. That made them a target for the folks at PETA, who argue that the climate impact of the car pales in comparison to that of the cow.

A 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that livestock production accounts for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions — more than all forms of transportation combined.

 Meat’s supersize impact comes from fuel- and fertilizer-intensive agricultural methods of growing feed, all the power needed to run slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants and the potent greenhouse gases produced by decomposing manure. Pork, lamb and poultry all have their impacts, but beef is undoubtedly the Hummer of the dinner plate. Sixty percent of the deforestation in the Amazon River basin between 2000 and 2005 can be attributed to cattle ranching; much of the remainder was cleared to raise corn and soy for feed. And cows, once fed, burp — a lot. Each day, a single cow can burp as much as 130 gallons of methane, a greenhouse gas that traps more than 20 times more heat per ton than carbon dioxide.

Trimming the amount of meat Americans eat would not only help the planet — a mere 20 percent reduction is the equivalent of switching from a Camry to a Prius — but would also be likely to reduce obesity, cancer and heart disease.

 Until recently, it was only animal rights groups like PETA that were willing to ask Americans to forgo the pleasures of the flesh. That changed in January, when Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and a vegetarian), uttered four little words: “Please eat less meat.” He continued: “This is something that the I.P.C.C. was afraid to say earlier, but now we have said it.”

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