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    Cows in a cage: the solution to climate change.

    Deforestation and burning in the Amazon. Source: Leo Freitas

    Deforestation and burning in the Amazon. Source: Leo Freitas

    In the future, green consumers might be faced with a difficult choice: Do they want to buy meat from grazing, grass-fed, cows who emit 50% more greenhouse gasses than their locked-up counterparts? Or do they want to prioritize the fight against climate change by supporting farmers who keep their cattle indoors, minimizing the emissions of greenhouse gasses?

    Projections show global meat production will double by 2050 due to population growth. Today, livestock uses more land than any other creatures on the planet. 26 percent of the Earth’s arable land is used for livestock production and 33 percent is used for feed crops, food solely produced for animal consumption, alone.

    At the Beyond Kyoto conference, Peter Gæmelke, President of the Danish Agricultural Council, nevertheless insisted, that the farmers he represents “are not part of the problem, we are a part of the solution.”

    The solution that Gæmelke refers to is increased efficiency in the global livestock sector.

    His answer is to “improve animal housing facilities”. These ‘improvements’ consist of  man-made environments with temperature control where milk and manure can be collected and controlled.

    But Gæmelke acknowledged dismissively, “animal rights activists think they should roam free”. Should his solution be implemented, consumers could be left with a choice between prioritizing animal welfare – by buying meat from grazing cattle – or the more climate-friendly meat from locked-up cows who emit 50 percent less greenhouse gasses.

    “As long as customers want meat on their table we will produce it (…) climate friendly livestock is possible. We still need to feed the world and I think everyone should have the right to eat what they like,” said Gæmelke.

    The controversy lies in the huge amount of CO2 and methane emitted as a result of livestock production. The total CO2 emission created by livestock is 2.7 gigatons and 32 percent of the world’s emission of the very potent greenhouse gas CH4 is caused by cattle.

    What to do with all the waste?

    Biogas and biofuel were two new technologies touted at the Kyoto Conference as sustainable energy alternatives in the livestock sector.

    “Biogas is produced from animal waste or other forms of organic materials to produce energy,” Henning Steinfeld, Head of Livestock Sector Analysis and policy branch for the Food and Agriculture Organization in Italy explains. The process separates livestock manure and the liquid product can be used to burn and heat houses.

    “Biofuel I am much more skeptical about, particularly when it uses maize or other feed stock because it is not really efficient,” Steinfeld says. With the current oil prices, you will often end up paying more for the input than the value of the fuel that’s produced.

    “Even in the most efficient systems in the U.S. the threshold price for biofuel to be economically viable is about $65 to $75 a barrel. Now that the fuel price is below that, it is not economically viable,” he adds.

    We are running out of land

    In some developing countries, meat production is regarded as a way out of poverty. Currently 2.4 million hectares of forest are being converted to pasture land each year and 0.5 million are being converted for feed crops mainly in Latin America.

    Developing countries are seeing the largest growth in livestock production where a middle class is emerging. Currently India is the greatest dairy producer in the world, but the system is extremely inefficient. The dairy system in India emits 10 times more methane per litre of milk then an intensive system in Europe and questions are raised as to how innovations such as biogas and biofuel can be transferred to these struggling systems.

    “In places where environmental considerations are being taken seriously, there is a rapid transfer of technology and usually there are not many barriers to that,” Steinfeld says. “It depends on the political will of that developing country. China, for example, is making great efforts to clean up its livestock production and technology transfer is not a problem”.

    Health benefits of eating some meat:

    • Iron
    • Zinc
    • Vitamin B 12
    • Protein (all essential amino acids)
    • Calories
    • Long-chain fatty acids (some meat)
    • Reduce change of stroke

    Health hazards of eating too much meat:

    • Chronic “lifestyle” diseases (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes)
    • Heart disease
    • Some kinds of cancer ( from red processed meat)
    • Infectious diseases (e.g. viral, parasites)
    • Antibiotic resistance
    • Diverse health issues of biodiversity loss and climate change

    Source: Colin Butler, Associate Professor at the Australian National University in Canberra

    By Kelly Mahan

    Related stories: Jørgen E. Olesen: Fighting global warming demands a change in our snack habits.

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