Sunday, October 4, 2009

ZEITGEIST: Put More Vegetables in to Your Reusable Grocery Bags! The Problem With Livestock Farming

By David Kraft

Did you know that your diet may be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions? Raising cows, be it for beef or dairy production generates 18% more greenhouse gas emissions than vehicles do worldwide, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

A 2006 study from the University of Chicago found that greenhouse gas emissions caused by a diet in which meat accounts for 35% of calories versus emissions produced by a plant-based diet was akin to driving a Chevy Suburban versus a Toyota Camry. The results of that study also showed that switching from a red meat-based diet to a plant or poultry-based diet could reduce emissions to the extent that it would be like switching from a Toyota Camry to a Toyota Prius.

The bottom line is that what we put into our bodies plays a significant role in the pollution of our planet. It is just as important as opting for public transportation whenever possible, using reusable shopping bags, and conserving electricity and water in our homes and workplaces.

Greenhouse gases are not the only environmental issue surrounding cattle rearing. Cattle occupy about 30% of the earth's land surface when we take into consideration how much acreage is used to produce cattle feed. When trees are cleared for grazing grounds, the obvious result is deforestation. This leads to habitat loss for fragile and endangered species and contributes to global warming. Practices such as overgrazing contribute to soil compaction and soil erosion.

Cattle-raising is also a significant source of water pollution. Animal waste can enter the groundwater and contaminate wells when it is applied as liquid fertilizer to farmland. Antibiotics and hormones given to the cattle, along with chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides for feed crops are also known water contaminants. Furthermore, feed production requires vast amounts of water, as do the animals themselves, and heavy grazing disturbs water cycles. Put simply, livestock production is resource-intensive.

Many people are simply not willing to become vegetarians, but reducing red meat and dairy consumption is a significant step toward reducing the environmental impact of the cattle industry. If every meat-eating family in America went without eating animal products for just one day a week (or had three animal-free meals per week), think of the potential overall impact it could have on greenhouse gas emissions.

Another way to have an impact is to purchase organic meat and milk products. Organic meat and dairy farmers take chemical use out of the equation, from the way their feed is grown to using land management techniques that avoid chemicals in the first place. Grass-fed beef is just that-grass fed. It requires far less in terms of growing additional crops on additional land to feed the cattle because they simply graze in place, and are moved to another pasture every few days. Furthermore, organic practices result in a reduced demand for antibiotic use; the animals are healthier because they have better living conditions and are fed a diet suited for their species instead of a scientific mixture.

Unfortunately, eliminating beef and dairy products in our diets will not solve all of our diet-based problems. So much of big agriculture employs unsustainable farming practices that we are a long way away from achieving balance. Agricultural policy in our country needs to swing away from subsidizing the growing of massive amounts of corn and soybeans, and support small, sustainable crop production.

Farmers have been encouraged to grow so much corn that markets have had to be created to absorb those crops. This is how cattle end up eating corn, which they would not normally eat, and how dangerous strains of E. coli have come into being. This is also why ethanol is becoming a fuel for cars, rather than the focus turning toward fuel efficiency or even electric-powered vehicles. For a terrific examination of where our food comes from, pick up one of Michael Pollan's books, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals or In Defense of Food, from your local library.

David Kraft is a freelance author that writes about a variety of subjects. He supports eco-friendly living and green products such as reusable shopping bags. For more information about eco-friendly living, visit his reusable bags site.

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