It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Food and Carbon Dioxide

The NYTimes, peculiarly and I think inappropriately in the "Media and Advertising" section, has an article on the connection between meat and carbon emissions. It's interesting enough. I think the vegetarians have a point, very much unlike the "vegetable-mile" people, who complain about how far your food has travelled, who as I will explain in an article soon, have it fundamentally and deeply wrong.

I don't have much to add right now, except to point out that anyone who wants to follow up on the "University of Chicago Study", given that the Times astonishingly and inexcusably does not even deign to name the researchers (thank you Media and Advertising section) should look for Eshel and Martin, Earth Interactions, Vol. 10, pp. 1-17, March 2006, available here.


mz said...

Yes, this has been known for a very long time, if you eat vegetarian, most likely your food's production will produce much less greenhouse gases. Never mind fertilizer runoff and other land use problems, which can be much bigger things and much more directly seen. I live by the world's most polluted sea, the Baltic.

What's another question too, relating to the "how much has your food travelled" is the energy intensity. For example, you can grow tomatoes in greenhouses in Finland in the winter. It will just use huge amounts of electricity (and farm subsidy!), and actually it is better for the environment to fly them from Spain with airplanes. (Well, I have not done the arithmetic, have just heard this...)

But your eating habits do have a change: if you pick a beet (red root?) instead of a tomato, it might be produced close by and just stored for a while, and the climate effects go way down.

But the current international homogenization and season-independence of food cultures is a reality: it's not financially burdensome at all for an individual to eat a food that is energy-intensive to produce for the time and place.
Partly because farming is so subsidized at least in EU and partly because transportation costs are so low.

In a much bigger picture still, this is one of the small effects of society becoming materially richer and people using much more energy in their lives. 60 years ago even apples were a bit rare around here, you bet people would have thought you were crazy if you said that tomatoes were flown from Spain to the nearby market.

Fergus said...

It's not really inappropriate Michael; it's about how some activist groups are using the connection in their advertising...

Stunning to me is that there is far more detailed and convincing documentation available from one of the big humanitarian organisations, showing all sorts of environmental impacts arising from the global growth in demand for meat, especially beef. I seem to remember it was based around water resource management, as well as potential climate impacts.

In broad resource terms, a diet of meat is the most inefficient use of resources (energy) in relation to return (food energy). Several consequences of the growth in demand for beef also have implications for the climate; land-use changes, deforestation, crop albedo, soil moisture retention and P&E, not to mention the carbon used in cooking it on the barbecue. Then there's the methane.

As an inconvertible carnivore, I hate to admit this, but in climate terms, meat is definitely worse than veg. It may even be enough of an environmental problem at a regional level to require serious consideration when dealing with questions of mitigation and adaptation.