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Food-Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Paul Kando

Food is energy and digesting it produces emissions. Researchers calculate that a meat-rich diet produces 70% more CO2 emissions than a vegan diet and 63% more than a diet that includes dairy products. But is meat in our diet the real environmental problem, or is it how that meat is raised and processed? Factory farming and feedlots are optimized exclusively to maximize the profit of the capitalist, not for sustainability. Nature abhors density and when density puts a species out of balance with its self-renewing capacity, nature reduces that density by one means or another. So man-made monocultures must depend on herbicides and Roundup, and crowded feedlot animals must be drugged to prevent disease. Those drugs, in turn, contaminate the environment and help drug-resistant pathogens to evolve, affecting us all.

Cattle Feedlot
photo credit: Lautner Farms

Properly managed animals, on the other hand, play an important role in the health of our whole ecosystem. This includes stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gases. Pastures with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as treeless pastures of the same size. They counterbalance livestock methane emissions, storing carbon in both biomass and soil. Farmers and ranchers gain extra income from trees, and forestry products like nuts, fruit, and mushrooms. Silvopastures are more resilient and improve the health of both animals and the land. An investment of $42 billion in spreading silvopastures worldwide would yield $699 billion in return, reducing emissions by over 31 gigatons (GT) of CO2 over the next 30 years.

On the original tall grass prairie, grazing migratory herds of ruminants cluster tightly for protection; munch on grasses; disturb the soil with their hooves, and inter-mix their urine and feces before moving on, producing a carbon-rich soil. Managed grazing imitates this by controlling how long livestock grazes a specific area and how long the land rests before the animals return. It improves soil health and water retention, sequesters carbon and improves forage productivity. Worldwide adoption of managed grazing at a net cost of $50 billion would result in $735 billion in returns and a reduction of over 16 GT in CO2 emissions over the next 30 years.

Researchers estimate that a meat-rich diet contributes some 66 GT of CO2 to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. It would be extremely difficult to change culturally embedded eating habits, but replacing feedlots with silvopastures and managed grazing together would compensate for all but 19 GT of those CO2 emissions.

By far our worst food-energy problem, food waste, accounts for 8% of global emissions (71 GT of CO2 by 2050). Retailers and consumers reject food based on bumps, bruises, and coloring. They order, buy, and serve too much. This willful waste of a third of all available food is inexcusable. Sensible management could alleviate food insecurity. Willfully producing waste squanders seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, labor, and financial capital — and generates emissions at every stage — including methane from decomposing trash.

Factory farming, feedlots, food-waste to maximize profits — we can and must do better! By learning from nature how we can best fit in and participate in her sensible solutions.