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Food for thought, but not for people

A recent opinion piece published by a group of scientists appears to advocate eating less as a means of stopping global climate change.

Published on January 9, 2014 10:11AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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A recent article published in the “Opinion and Comment” section of the January edition of the journal Nature Climate Change offers a unique solution for helping to stop global climate change: Stop eating most meat.

The article, published by William J. Ripple of the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University and five other academics, centers on the premise that ruminants — including cows, sheep and goats — are extraordinarily productive when it comes to flatulence. To make things worse, this flatulence includes methane, a gas that contributes to climate change much more than carbon dioxide. For the record, they also mention in passing that methane is produced by the oil industry, landfills, biomass burning and rice production, but their target was animal agriculture.

The problem, as they see it, is that people just eat too much meat, although they acknowledge that hogs and chickens are OK because they produce only tiny amounts of methane. They say too much land is dedicated to grazing and to growing crops to feed cattle and other food animals.

The problem with methane is it’s much more efficient as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. They also argue that because methane breaks down quicker than carbon dioxide the way to impact climate change fastest is to reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere.

However, it should be noted that the livestock industry estimates only 2 percent of greenhouse gases come from ruminants.

But here’s where the article really jumps the tracks. Because ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats produce methane, we need to reduce their numbers or get rid of them altogether. Or tax them. Or all of the above.

“Reducing the numbers of ruminants would be a difficult and complex task,” they wrote.

No kidding. The overarching problem in the world today is too little food, not too many cows. Though climate change is a concern among many, staying alive another day is a bigger concern for hundreds of millions of people. The United Nations estimates that 870 million of the 7.1 billion people in the world are chronically hungry. It is also estimated that the world population will reach 9 billion by the year 2050 — and keep growing.

The authors give lip service to the world’s hungry by arguing that using farmland to grow animal feed is “questionable on moral grounds.” But they leave out of that statement the fact “animal feed” includes corn, soybeans, wheat and other food crops. Reducing the production of “feed” for animals also means reducing the production of “food” for people.

They also leave out the fact that a lot of grazing land is ill-suited for growing food crops such as vegetables. The use of livestock, which eat the vegetation and convert it into protein, allows that land to help feed the world. To turn that land back to nature, as the authors suggest, could in essence sign a death warrant for an untold number of hungry people in the world.

One of the more bizarre suggestions they offer is a “tax or emission trading scheme” that would “modify” consumer prices and “affect consumption patterns.” They point to a tax developed for the European Union “with tax rates proportional to the average greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food sold.”

Yikes. Such a scheme could potentially make a lot of food unaffordable for millions of people.

It may be assumed that this article was written to provide food for thought. We hope so, because it sure wasn’t meant to provide food for a hungry world.


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