Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cutting Down On That Red Meat Mr. Bush?

I am not at all sure that even if our media and politicians had read in its entirety Mr. Bush's statements on increasing prosperity in China and India and its link to growing food prices, the reaction would have been any different. The false outraged, self righteous, preachy tone of the Indian response was childish and annoying. An instinctive America-bashing mentality seems to have taken deep roots in our civic discussions of global problems. In all this furore a much more interesting and informative study of American food habits, diets and its impact on climate change went relatively unnoticed. NPR covered it last week and the talk and the paper is worth following.

The study by Christopher Weber and Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University , Pennsylvania did a life-cycle assessement of greenhouse gases emitted during all stages of growing, processing and transporting food consumed in the U.S. They broke it down according to food types and concluded that consumption of red meat and dairy accounted for about 50% of greenhouse gas emissions by an average U.S household. Their main conclusions:

Source: Food Miles and Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the U.S.

..transportation creates only 11% of the 8.1 metric tons (t) of greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) that an average U.S. household generates annually as a result of food consumption. The agricultural and industrial practices that go into growing and harvesting food are responsible for most (83%) of its greenhouse gas emissions.

For perspective, food accounts for 13% of every U.S. household's 60 t share of total U.S. emissions; this includes industrial and other emissions outside the home. By comparison, driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon of gasoline for 12,000 miles per year (the U.S. average) produces about 4.4 t of CO2. Switching to a totally local diet is equivalent to driving about 1000 miles less per year, Weber says.

A relatively small dietary shift can accomplish about the same greenhouse gas reduction as eating locally, Weber adds. Replacing red meat and dairy with chicken, fish, or eggs for one day per week reduces emissions equal to 760 miles per year of driving. And switching to vegetables one day per week cuts the equivalent of driving 1160 miles per year.

What should the Indian response be to these findings? Indian agriculture food production chains are no doubt less energy intensive than the U.S. but industrial scale poultry and dairy production in India may be reaching comparable levels. The avoidance of beef by a majority of Indian seems to be helping in keeping industrial scale red meat production in check although we have lots and lots of cows that produce lots of milk and also plenty of methane. If you look at the breakdown of emissions during the dairy life -cycle production of gases in the above figure CO2, CH4 and N2O make up the dominant portion. Those ruminant stomachs are a real headache whether in U.S or in India! Our cattle are producing substantial amounts of greenhouse gases whether they are involved in industrial food processing cycles or not. The current debate on national responsibility for emissions have mostly involved people shouting at or worse past each other. I do feel that our response to statement's like the ones Mr. Bush made should involve more substance and less gas.

No comments:

Post a Comment