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This Week's Gut Check Column: The Meat of the Problem


The debate over climate change has reached a rarefied level of policy abstraction in recent months. Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Upstream or downstream? Should we auction permits? Head-scratching is, at this point, permitted. But at base, these policies aim to do a simple thing, in a simple way: persuade us to undertake fewer activities that are bad for the atmosphere by making those activities more expensive. Driving an SUV would become pricier. So would heating a giant house with coal and buying electricity from an inefficient power plant. But there's one activity that's not on the list and should be: eating a hamburger.

If it's any consolation, I didn't like writing that sentence any more than you liked reading it. But the evidence is strong. It's not simply that meat is a contributor to global warming; it's that it is a huge contributor. Larger, by a significant margin, than the global transportation sector.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Some of meat's contribution to climate change is intuitive. It's more energy efficient to grow grain and feed it to people than it is to grow grain and turn it into feed that we give to calves until they become adults that we then slaughter to feed to people. Some of the contribution is gross. "Manure lagoons," for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. And some of it would make Bart Simpson chuckle. Cow gas -- interestingly, it's mainly burps, not farts -- is a real player.

But the result isn't funny at all: Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius. A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. "How convenient for him," was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. "He's a vegetarian."

Continue reading...

Photo credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

By Ezra Klein  |  July 29, 2009; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Articles , Food  
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"But there's one activity that's not on the list and should be: eating a hamburger."

"According to a 2006 United Nations report, livestock accounts for 18 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions."

Yes and what percentage of that is coming from dairy? How about poultry? Should be add milk, cheese and eggs to that list? Who puts out more methane per unit of food produced? A steer raised for slaughter or a cow bred for maximal milk production?

"Some of the contribution is gross. "Manure lagoons," for instance, is the oddly evocative name for the acres of animal excrement that sit in the sun steaming nitrous oxide into the atmosphere."

Manure lagoons are more typical for dairy operations then for stockyard operations, or if not I would like to see some statistics.

Or should we promise to never wear wool because sheep fart too? Do livestock kept for traction power emit more or less CO2 over the course of their working life than a diesel driven tractor equivalent?

Where do you stop? If there really is a study out there that breaks down domestic livestock between the categories of meat, dairy, eggs, chicken, fiber with attendant impact on global warming quantified by category then lets have at it. But all I am seeing is an attempt by vegetarians to push their preferences under guise of global warming concerns.

We live in a world from the macrobiotics pity the vegans who pity the lacto-vegetarians who pity the lacto-ovo-vegetarians who pity the semi-vegetarians (who eat chicken and fish) who all gang up on us barbarians who enjoy a cheeseburger once in a while.

(I mean if you belong to PETA practically everyone in the world is complicit in holocaust. For example in Seattle they recently picketed a national veterinary convention because they had a demonstration of salmon tossing by the famous fish market staff at Pike's Street Market. Apparently fish are intelligent and sensitive creatures who shouldn't be mocked in death.)

I restrict my consumption of beef and avoid pork pretty much altogether, but not because I am trying to save the world from global warming or honoring Leviticus, they just are not healthy for a man my age and overall health condition. But I am not going to buy into a world view that equates the dangers of a Big Mac with a Chinese or Indiana coal burning power plant. The planet got along fine when millions of buffalo roamed the plains or where giant sloths and mammoths walked the earth. Blaming Bossie seems kind of short sighted here.

Posted by: BruceWebb | July 29, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

First, it does depend on the meat. Cattle that are raised start to finish entirely on pasture, and managed properly (that is, rotated around the pasture with the correct density and frequency) induce more carbon sequestration through topsoil formation than they emit. So 100% pasture raised meat can actually be a net improvement on the carbon emissions situation, conceivably even better than a vegetarian or vegan meal which has involved the plowing of fields, an action that disrupts topsoil ecology and can cause topsoil to emit carbon rather than sequester it. (This goes at least for large animals like cattle; I'm not so sure about something the size of a goat or smaller, because the action of the large animals' hooves on the grass is part of what encourages new topsoil formation.) But the moment you start feeding grains or legumes to your animals, the carbon balance moves against you and the impact of those animal products starts to be bad for the atmosphere. There's not a lot of 100% pasture meat out there, but you can find some sources through See also for more on the topic.

Second, to some extent a carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme would address a portion of the meat impact on carbon emissions. One contributor to a conventionally produced hamburber's emissions is the fossil fuels burned to power the tractors that plow, spray herbicides and pesticides, and harvest the fields that are given over to animal feed. These emissions are not counted under "transportation," but attributed to livestock. Nonetheless, the gasoline and diesel that powers those machines will be hit by whatever tax/cap-and-trade price hikes that are being applied to petroleum products in general. So the cost of growing animal feed goes up, thus the cost of conventionally raising animals goes up, thus the cost of conventional meat goes up. Just as rising costs should cause people to drive less and drive more efficient vehicles, rising costs of conventional meat should lead to reduced meat consumption. As you note, not all of cattle's global warming emissions take this form. Their methane emissions (burbs, farts) aren't covered, and it sounds as though the GHG emissions from the manure lagoons would also get a loophole pass. Still, meat doesn't escape the process entirely.

Posted by: JonathanTE | July 29, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

This kind of categorical judgment about resource priorities and the environment is just too simplistic! Identify an activity or sector with which you have little identity or interest or knowledge--or perhaps some latent guilt or something, and point out the entropic burden which that sector places upon society and the earth.
You'll just piss off cretions (and lifelong followers of agriculture, animals and the land, like me) and give progressivism a deservedly bad name!

It's always HOW we create our food, use resources, and make our life's path that is the more important ethical question--not the fact that we ALL are a part of the entropic process. Find and advocate for responsible meat eating (sure, possibly less for city dwellers than for people in the country) and total resource use. Advocate strongly, but avoid categorical judgments! Ah, such a huge topic, but thanks ,always, for your words.

Posted by: wayneburkhart | July 29, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

What I'm still waiting for is someone that builds a serious, quick-casual restaurant chain around the whole food/healthy food/sustainable food movement. We have chains built around steak (Outback, Lonestar, Ruth's Chris, etc.). And more power to'em!

But can't somebody make a buck off folks like me and Ezra that want to 1) do our part; 2) eat right; 3) have someone else do the cooking and waiting on us without having to dig through the menu to find the one or two better choices among many bad-ish ones?

I know there are local joints in some bigger metros that do this, usually in cities with major college campuses. Seva in Ann Arbor, Mich., for example. But I'm talking about taking it mainstream, making it as ubiquitous as Outback or Applebee's.

Posted by: Rick00 | July 29, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I noticed you started off your column talking about policies aimed at discouraging behavior associated with carbon emissions, but by the end of the piece seemed to be focusing on individuals' reducing their own meat intake (and environmental groups encouraging same) without any policy incentives in place.

The PB&J campaign is well-intentioned and cute, and possibly valuable in terms of raising awareness, but it's fairly hopeless as a way of actually reducing total meat consumption (meat being, as you point out, a highly elastic market: if enough people switch to veggie alternatives often enough, meat prices will drop until everyone else ramps up their meat intake to pick up the slack).

We need policies in place to bring the prices of animal products more in line with the massive externalities they impose on society. Given how unpopular advocating partial vegetarianism is, it's absolutely the right call not to waste political capital promoting what could only amount to a feel-good effect.

Posted by: tps12 | July 29, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

JonathatTE nails it. The beauty of cap and trade is that you don't have to answer all of BruceWebb's questions put the right incentives in place. As long as emissions are accurately assessed then the market can figure out how to either reduce them or pay more to emit them. Simple as that.

You don't need micro targeted policies to reduce meat consumption. The extent to which meat takes carbon emissions to produce is the extent to which it becomes more expensive to make and consume under a straight up cap and trade system. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, instead we have targeted exemptions stuck in by farm-State reps that reduce the effectiveness of the market. Why do these people hate free markets?

Posted by: jeirvine | July 29, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I once read that someday, people will care about their suffering footprint as much as their carbon footprint.
If we look at the arc of history (to use MLK's phrase), it does bend toward justice. Someday, we won't torment and slaughter fellow animals for a fleeting taste of their flesh. I'm proud to be on the right side of history.

Posted by: AZProgressive | July 29, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

The criticisms people have laid out regarding Ezra's post are ridiculous. There is no reason whatsoever that people need to eat hamburgers everyday, and whether we're willing to admit it or not, many, many people do eat hamburgers everyday. Furthermore, anyone who tries to deny that livestock is a significant contributor to climate change sounds like George Will, which means you sound stupid. It's a very simple science; go read about it.

If you're unwilling to change your diet at least a little because you love meat, milk, and eggs that much, please admit that it's because you're selfish and not because you have any moral reason for doing so.

I think it's strange how defensive people get about the meat and dairy thing. Perhaps they should see a counselor about what appears to be a severe dependency issue, no different from cigarettes or crack. It is actually very easy to give these things up if you exercise a little self-control. If you can't do this, then indeed, you have dependency issues.

Besides, pork chops suck. Seriously, they're disgusting.

Posted by: jacobbeizer | July 29, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

The 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report regarding global greenhouse gas emissions referenced here does not reflect what is taking place in the U.S. cattle industry. Greenhouse gas emissions for the entire U.S. agricultural industry account for about six percent of this country’s emissions and animal agriculture emissions are estimated at about three percent.

It seems to me that an industry that can convert grasses from land unsuitable for crop production into a nutrient rich food such as beef should be promoted rather than criticized. The FAO report also did not call for an end or even a reduction in animal agriculture and in fact estimates meat production will double over the next 40 years.

Posted by: jackcarson1 | July 29, 2009 5:16 PM | Report abuse

I hope to see more attention brought to this issue, not just in the Food section, but also in the Health section, in restaurant reviews, in feature articles, etc. It will take time to change current meat consumption habits, but I appreciate it when individuals are willing to publicly lead by example. Thanks, Mr. Klein.

Posted by: Hopp | July 29, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

In terms of concrete policy proposals that might make some impact, I think the one we ought to start with is simple enough: school lunches should be meatless one day a week.

No self-respecting nutritionist is going to argue that children will be irreparably damaged by going without a slice of bologna, or absenting low-quality pepperoni on their cardboard-like rectangular pizza, or skipping breaded and deep-fried chicken, for one lunch per week. Meanwhile, per-meal costs can be kept down and carbon outputs reduced.

All it would take is a smidgen of political will to stand up against Sysco, Monarch, and all the other food service contractors who get cut-rate meat products and sell them in outrageous quantity to be used as fodder for our kids.

Posted by: gerbilsbite | July 29, 2009 9:36 PM | Report abuse


a good and thoughtful post.

the other day, on the road, there was a little squirrel that had just been run over.
so unfortunate, that it scampered across the street at just the wrong moment.
it deserved a burial under its favorite pine tree, not to be roasted and served in a fancy sauce.
i dont know why people still eat animals.

Posted by: jkaren | July 30, 2009 12:23 AM | Report abuse

we all deserve to be buried under our favorite pine trees, jkaren.

Thanks for that thought :)

Posted by: wapomadness | July 30, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

First, let's assume that we have a large agricultural market in beef, which we do. Next, let's use the article's assertion that a once a week change in our diet can make a significant impact on the environment. If this is accurate, then you can also factor that the same change in your diet will incur a similar, but negative, impact on the agricultural market ( even if you believe that all cattle farmers can magically convert their grazing lands into rotational crops).

I'll make the assumption that the whole point to the dietary change is that as demand drops, so too do our CO2 emissions from the source. However, this isn't a Chevy plant, you can't just recycle the product into scrap metal. Eating a hamburger isn't causing CO2 emissions. We're talking about living, breathing animals. Are we assuming that we'll just kill off a substantial portion and be done with it? Are we going to force a reduction in breeding? If you're really being serious about denting the CO2 emissions and don't have any other agenda, and you're saying that cattle are a major source, don't you have to completely remove their existence to where their carbon footprint is negligible?

I fully understand and agree that we should not hold money and economy above the future of our race and this planet, but why can't we have our steak and eat it too?

There have been articles for many years now talking about how dairy farms have taken their manure loads and used them for nat gas energy sources. In a time when we're currently trying to solve industrial emissions with renewable energy solutions, it seems like we're passing on a huge opportunity.

One of the solutions to our energy demands and reducing CO2 emissions has been bio-energy. Right now we break down waste and trash using bacteria and decomposition. The principle is the same with converting manure to methane gas and using it as burnable natural gas. So instead of taking a pretty big economic hit, disrupting our diet, handling the population control of another animal, we keep a staple agricultural sector intact and at the same time create a new domestic income with a renewable energy source?

Posted by: forty4487 | July 30, 2009 9:55 PM | Report abuse

It's good to see a column on this important and undercovered subject. It's worth noting, however, that not all animal-derived products have the same greenhouse gase (GHG) impact. Cows, of course, emit methane during digestion, as do other ruminants like sheep (and, to a lesser extent, goats). Pigs, however, aren't ruminants, so their digestive systems don't have significant direct methane emissions. Their, however, manure emits methane and nitrous oxide during decomposition. Poultry are on the low end of the emissions range. Fish are also on the low end, with their emissions depending on whether they are caught or farm-raised. Eggs are also pretty low, in the range of poultry.

I've seen credible estimates of the life-cycle GHG emissions of various meats and fish in a report commissioned by the Belgian government and a peer-reviewed journal paper. A summary chart, along with links to the original sources, can be found over at the Ethicurean ( The paper by Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews from Carnegie Mellon University ( also has some GHG emission factors for various foods.

But a GHG calculation for animals gets complicated quickly. What were the animals fed? How was the feed grown? Organically? Locally? Using chemical fertilizer? Does the animals' manure decompose in a huge cess pool, or out on open rangeland? Do different breeds have different GHG emission factors?

For beef and dairy, there is the grass-fed complication. I've seen some claims (including the Treehugger post cited by JonathanTE above) that by raising cows completely on pasture it's possible to have negative overall GHG emissions because the growing grass will sequester carbon in its roots. With the deep root structures of grasses, it seems conceivable. But I'd like to see some peer-reviewed work on this subject. Is anyone doing the hard work to calculate carbon and methane balances on the range?

As JonathanTE mentions above, comprehensive GHG pricing throughout the supply chain. If the price of a gallon of cow's milk or pound of beef includes its GHG contribution, then those choices might look less attractive than chicken or goat's milk, and people might make substitutions.

Posted by: meander510 | July 31, 2009 11:03 PM | Report abuse

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