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Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing the Planet - Part 3

Transcript for the following video on changing our diet to save our planet:

Because if the current rate of deforestation continues, very soon we will have reached a stage where we will have destroyed our ecosystems to such an extent, that they in turn will no longer be able to support our survival – the very existence of mankind will become threatened.

You see for decades now, environmental scientists have warned of environmental trends such as climate change, such as loss of animal and plant diversity, which, unless reversed, could ultimately lead to the loss of civilisation as we know it. We are rapidly approaching what some call the Omega Point, when the earth’s ecological systems are so weakened that human existence is no longer possible – scientists have warned of the extinction of the human race  once we have destroyed our ecosystems to such a degree.

Few of us realise how little time we have left to act.

In the words of John Robbins, author of “Diet for a New America”: The oldest ecosystems on earth are being decimated at an alarming rate so that we can eat cheap beefburgers.

But of course they are not cheap at all are they – eating meat seems to be costing us the earth

Why don’t we hear more about the effect that meat-eating has on the environment? Because if eating meat was really an important contributor to global warming and climate change, we should know about it, shouldn’t we? Surely meat-eating can’t contribute more than 5%, say 10% at most, to greenhouse gas emissions, right?

Wrong –  according to the 2006 UN report on global warming, entitled ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, almost one fifth of this entire planet’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock trade – nearly one fifth. (Addendum. NB: Updated report in Journal of The Worldwatch Institute indicates emissions from animal farming account for over half of Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions).

 When this is examined more closely, we see that ruminant livestock are the largest single source of methane, accounting for nearly 40% of the planet’s methane emissions. And methane is a much more toxic gas than carbon dioxide – methane is often quoted to be 23 times stronger than carbon dioxide in causing global warming, over a period of one hundred years, however methane largely clears from the environment in around a decade, so averaging its effect over a one hundred year period makes no sense and greatly diminishes its true effect. In fact when the potency of methane is calculated over a more practical time period, twenty years, it is found to be 73 times more potent

than carbon dioxide in warming our atmosphere – this carries a very significant effect which we are going to look at in a moment.

And 65% of all nitrous oxide emissions come from the livestock trade - nitrous oxide carries nearly 300 times the GWP of carbon dioxide – it is an incredibly toxic gas, and most of it comes from the livestock trade.

But the really worrying fact from this report, is that the total amount of GGEs emitted by the livestock trade exceeds that caused by all modes of transport – So when someone asks me what is the link between climate change and eating meat, the answer is this: The major cause of climate change is toxic greenhouse gas emissions. A major cause of toxic greenhouse gas emissions is animal agriculture – the breeding of huge numbers of animals for the purpose of human consumption. And according to the UN report, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions arising from the livestock trade exceeds those produced by every car, every truck, every ship, every train and every aeroplane on this planet

Livestock currently occupy one third of the land on this planet. The human population numbers nearly 7 billion, yet we slaughter 50 billion animals every year, with a significant number being livestock. That’s nearly 1 billion animals every week – now just considering the fact that it takes up to 100 000 litres water to produce 1 kilo beef, that only one person a year can be fed from one hectare of land used for beef production, that there are ten times more fossil fuels burned and ten times more carbon emissions from meat production, can you imagine the amount of water, the amount of land, the amount of medicines, the amount of energy that is being pumped into these animals? The amount of deforestation that has occurred in order to feed them? And the amount of pollution that has been caused as a result? The facts are compelling – that the production of meat for human consumption is outstripping our planet’s resources – Because eating meat is not just about killing animals – eating meat is literally killing our planet. This Earth simply does not have the resources to maintain and feed 57 billion beings a year. That’s 7 billion humans and 50 billion farmed animals. Meat production is decimating our forests, polluting our water and air, destroying our fertile soil, and wiping out our wildlife. And by choosing to eat meat, we unwittingly contribute to, and support, the devastating impact of meat production on our planet.

There is  worldwide concern about the increasing need for pasture land and crop land to feed livestock, the subsequent deforestation and the catastrophic effects of deforestation. There is worldwide concern about water depletion and a water crisis, because of the huge amounts of water we are pumping into these animals. There is worldwide concern about contamination of our groundwater, our streams and freshwater supplies because of the enormous amount of animal waste and all the processes that go with intensive animal farming. Just one cow can produce more than 23 tons of manure every year entering and polluting our water systems, and we have over 1.3 billion cows.

In the US alone, farmed animals produce 130 times more excrement than the entire human population 39,000 kgs per second.

This concentrated waste pollutes our water, destroys the topsoil and contaminates the air.

Livestock production can be seen to be at the heart of almost every environmental catastrophe confronting this planet today – rainforest destruction, spreading deserts, air pollution, water pollution, soil erosion, acid rain, species extinctions etc. And it is increasingly becoming recognized that animal farming throughout the world cannot be seen as a sustainable solution.

That is why the UN conclude their report  by saying that “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation” They go on to say that a reduction in the amount of animal agriculture should be rated as one of the number one issues for future global environmental policy

To get back to methane - usually we hear about carbon dioxide emissions but the full impact of methane is often underestimated – to illustrate this, let’s take an example from Australia:

According to Dr. Barry Brook, Director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability in Adelaide University:

In Australia, the coal-fired power stations release 180 million tonnes CO2 per year, and the cattle industry 3 million tonnes methane per year –

It appears that coal-fired power stations are contributing more to global warming than cattle. But  when the 3 million tonnes of methane is multiplied by 72, to calculate the correct potency of methane as compared with carbon dioxide, we see form the resulting figure that actually it is methane produced through livestock farming, that is having the greater impact on greenhouse gas emissions and therefore climate change.

This is not even taking into account the nitrous oxide emissions from the cattle industry, which obviously makes the total emissions from livestock much higher.

Therefore when we examine the potency of methane gas, what we see is that the cattle industry is contributing more to the global warming gases, than the coal-fired power stations.

There are definite advantages to focusing on a reduction of methane as a quicker and easier short term solution to climate change – firstly methane has a much shorter half life than carbon dioxide. That means that it clears out of the atmosphere much faster. Even if carbon dioxide emissions were reduced now, we would not notice any significant effect for years as it remains in our atmosphere for over a century. Whilst it is essential that we reduce carbon emissions, this usually requires wealthy organizations to take the steps of reducing their carbon emissions drastically and is unlikely to happen in the very short term.

There is a more practical and easier solution that we can take on as our individual responsibility, rather than waiting for wealthy international corporations to make a change. We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in the short term by reducing or eliminating animal products from our diet. This is how it works:

The methane produced by the livestock industry clears from our atmosphere within a few years because methane has a much shorter half life than carbon dioxide – reducing the number of livestock we breed for human food, will result in a significant reduction in methane emissions in the short term.

And reducing our meat intake is the most effective way to reduce our methane emissions – where there is less consumer demand for meat, the livestock trade will respond by producing less meat and more plant foods such as cereals and grains for human consumption.

Choosing less meat or a vegetarian option at our next meal is a realistic and more rapid solution to reducing the harmful impact of greenhouse gases in the short term, and as we are about to see, time is of the essence.


Dr Aryan practices as a Consultant Physician in Respiratory Medicine in the Hutt Valley, New Zealand.  Dr Aryan is also interested in the many-fold and far-reaching effects of our diets, and particularly how our diet affects the environment. She has written and spoken widely about this topic and has presented her talk, Our Diet: Leading to a Sustainable Future or Killing Our Planet? in many venues around New Zealand. She has been interviewed about the link between diet and climate change by both local and national radio and newspapers.

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