Meathane Madness

I was hesitant whether I just wanted to discuss this particular subject, but after seeing a recent article on a prestigious scientific magazine (New scientist) I just had to act. They released an article about a methane leak from a pipeline in Los Angeles which was releasing 80,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere since late last year. A staggering figure you would think, but when I thought closely about that number it is nothing compared to animal agriculture. I could not understand why they made such a fuss about this problem when just 800 cows alone produce this much methane in one year. When you scale 800 cows to the total number of cows in the world of 1.4 billion you’ve found your smoking gun when it now comes to climate change. Around 1.54 million tonnes are produced by the cows. A leak in a single well is the least of the problems. Animal agriculture, however, is happening across the globe on an industrial scale with methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide being produced in huge quantities. It is not only from the animals themselves but the energy and food needed to feed and sustain them. The numbers actually only get worse

Does it smell of gas in here?

The cattle raising for food comes with problems. In the past this wasn’t the case as there were fewer people who required less land for themselves and their animals. In our current situation we are aware it’s not possible with over 8 billion people currently inhabiting the world. Farming of animals to feed this many people has so many negative consequences it’s hard to pinpoint the worst culprit. The most severe from my point of view is the huge amount of gases produced with this activity accelerating global warming.

The most clear and worrying statistic is that over 51% of carbon dioxide produced by humans is accountable to the harvesting and growing of food because of livestock, be it animals producing the gases themselves or from the amount of food they need to survive and the energy used. Carbon dioxide is a gas we are most familiar with when it comes to global warming but methane is also produced, which is far worse. In a short period of around 5 to 20 years it has 86 times the global warming ability of carbon dioxide. This increases to 86 times after 20 years. But It doesn’t end there. Because nitrous oxide is likewise produced by livestock through the breakdown of grasses and has a global warming factor 296 times worse than carbon dioxide. The half-life is considerably longer surviving in the atmosphere, surviving for over 100 years. Methane, however, does eventually break down to constituent parts of water and carbon dioxide due to oxidation. We focus on one gas, CO2, but animal agriculture creates 3 gases, being methane and nitrous oxide being far worse and more damaging.

A steak or the leopard?

Raising such a huge number of livestock requires significant amounts of land. Not only huge amounts of gases are produced but the land needed has to come from somewhere. Currently a third of the entire ice-free planet is for livestock.  If we imagine the entire UK, effectively, the whole of England would be used for cattle/cattle feed and Scotland, Wales and Ireland would remain for wildlife and people. This type of demand is truly unsustainable and puts a huge pressure on wildlife. Predators such as wolves or lions are persecuted in countries where they hunt or kill livestock. This type of process will only get worse with the ever-expanding need for meat and dairy.

The meat from this scenario isn’t necessarily free range or organic as the amount of space needed to grow grass-fed free range cattle is huge. If that was the case, then there simply wouldn’t be enough space in the UK to feed us. We, in fact, rely on poorer nations to bear this burden which explains why around 91% of rainforests are lost owing to animal agriculture and cattle ranching. Can you imagine this type of impact on the ecosystem and wildlife? Palm oil has recently been blamed by the media, including myself, as the cause of extinctions and the slow extermination of orangutans. It appears that palm oil is the younger brother of animal agriculture, a much more serious and further developed problem which is far more destructive.

Trade the burger for a bean?

Eating meat is something we have grown up with and are deemed to be normal. Palm oil is a commodity that has come to the market exploiting poorer countries and paying low prices. Thankfully, this type of exploitation of wildlife and jungles is in the public domain and is slowly being made sustainable and Fair trade. The meat industry, on the other hand, is something that is deep-rooted. Below are examples of the problems we face and the simple realities of being ‘carnivores’. You can see the amount of land required to sustain a single person for a year.

Vegan: 1/6th acre

Vegetarian: 3x as much as a vegan (half an acre)

Meat Eater: 18x as much as a vegan (9 acres) 

The facts above truly astound me. This explains the reality and delusion of our contemporary situation and the reasoning for such destruction of habitat across the world. The time to generate plant-based food and meat is dramatically different. The amount of time to rear animals for food is so long that you can grow 100 times more plant-based food in the same amount of time. Imagine the number of people who could be fed with 37,000 pounds of rice or grains compared to 375 pounds of meat? Imagine the amount of space that would be dedicated to wildlife if we all changed to plant-based food?

1.5 acres can produce 37,000 pounds of plant-based food.

1.5 acres can produce 375 pounds of meat.

There are many other impacts of rearing livestock: 

  • Desertification resulted from the clearing of rainforest for grazing. In Brazil, for instance, when jungle is removed and grazed for a short period, the ground becomes unfit for use due to the intense sunlight. Nothing then grows.
  • Nitrification occurs in various rivers that outflow into the sea where high levels of nitrogen from animal waste cause oxygen restricted zones. It has the same influence as fertilisers causing a spike in phytoplankton thus removing oxygen from the water column.
  • Fracking requires billions of gallons of water to operate. Compare that to cattle for beef or milk, which push water use into the trillions. Here in the UK, it is a welcomed relief owing that to the high rainfall, but with changing climates meat and dairy will be very difficult to grow in warmer climates.

What can we do?

The easiest answer to solve this dilemma is just saying stop eating meat. However, I’d be sceptical too if I had to cut the meat out completely. However, I have chosen to restrict it to only a few meals a week as well as not consuming any dairy. This may sound crazy and, at first it was, but to make a choice for the planet and to help stop global warming, then there is not any easier way. To save water by taking shorter showers or deciding to walk to make efforts to slow global warming is nothing compared to not eating that cheeseburger or drinking that milkshake.

  • A person who follows a vegan diet produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide, uses 1/11th oil, 1/13th water and 1/18th land compared to a meat-lover for their food

The above statement may scare people with the word vegan but if you’re truly concerned about the weather then make an informed choice. You’ll likely read items about oil and gas companies causing global warming through burning gas or transportation in cars and planes but the main culprit is cattle raising. 

The impact of restricting meat consumption will have far-reaching and instant impacts. Methane and nitrous oxide levels would stop increasing in the atmosphere and we would see real change in the weather and temperatures. Coral bleaching and drought events would become more infrequent and could potentially stop. However, not everyone will want to make that change and that’s understandable, but if you care about wildlife, conservation and the world, then doing a little more than meat free Mondays is a blessing.

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I am a trained geologist who has a passion for conservation and working with wildlife. I write articles that interest me and that I am passionate about using skills and knowledge to highlight issues related to climate change. I don’t write articles for views, I write them to change views.

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