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Worse for Climate than Cars: Eating Meat

By Mia MacDonald and Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H.

This opinion piece was published in The Oregonian on Dec. 30, 2007.

Should you give up your burger or your car? Or both? When delegates in Bali, Indonesia, recently tried to hash out a new agreement to combat climate change, this question wasn't on the formal agenda -- but it should have been.

Most of the major causes of global warming are no longer in dispute. What's less widely acknowledged is how much animal agriculture contributes to climate change.

About 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, can be traced to livestock production, according to a United Nations report released last year. That's more greenhouse gases than are released from all the world's vehicles and airplanes combined -- 14 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Animal agriculture also is at the root of a host of other environmental problems, including deforestation, desertification and water scarcity. For example, the destruction of rain forests, often driven by demand for grazing land for cattle or soy for animal feed, is a serious threat to tropical forests.

At the same time, meat consumption is soaring as McDonald's, KFC and Burger King expand in the Asian and South American markets. Sixty percent of meat and dairy production occurs in the developing world, where half of all meat is now consumed.

China has become home to 1,200 KFCs and 600 McDonald's, as well as 14,000 factory farms. Manure and other runoff from these facilities are a major cause of pollution in the country's groundwater and rivers. Only two generations after a national famine, nearly a quarter of Chinese adults are overweight or obese. Diet-related chronic diseases have become the leading cause of death.

The United States and China now vie with each other for the title of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter. Both China and India, a leading producer of chickens killed for meat, are expected to see significant increases in such gases in coming decades.

In Brazil, the rain forest boundary continues to recede as cattle ranchers and soy barons push farther into the interior. As they cut and burn more trees, carbon dioxide is released, further fueling global warming. And as cattle herds swell, so do emissions of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In time, the land becomes so eroded it's abandoned. Stripped of nutrients, it can no longer support trees, crops or animals.

In the international discussion of global warming, there's been an unsettling quiet on the issue of meat. Ongoing attempts to regulate greenhouse gases in power and transportation sectors suggest that meat and dairy production will account for an even greater proportion of global warming.

The head of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserted in the lead-up to the Bali meeting that radical changes in transportation habits are what's most needed to break the logjam on global warming. But what about the food on our plates?

How much longer can the throng in Bali and elsewhere ignore the science? By 2050, the world's population is set to reach about 9 billion. Producing quantities of meat for that many people on par with what's eaten in the United States today -- more than 200 pounds a year per person -- would be catastrophic for the planet's resources and its climate.

Just as we can develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we can also change our agricultural practices and eating habits. It all comes down to recognizing the true costs of our lifestyles and adjusting policies and practices accordingly. The price of doing nothing will be much, much higher.

Mia MacDonald, is executive director of Brighter Green, a public policy "action tank" in New York. Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., is director of the Washington Center for Clinical Research, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.


Hope Ferdowsian, M.D.

Hope Ferdowsian, M.D.


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