A cow on overage releases between 70 and 120 kg of Methane per year. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide (CO2). But the negative effect on the climate of Methane is 23 times higher than the effect of CO2. Therefore, the release of about 100 kg Methane per year for each cow is equivalent to about 2,300 kg of CO2 per year. Let’s compare this value of 2,300 kg of CO2: the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is created by using 1,000 liters of petrol. In a car using 8 liters of petrol per 100 km, you could drive 12,500 km per year.
Are cows the cause of global warming?
World-wide, there are about 1.5 billion cows and bulls. All the ruminants (animals such as cows, which regurgitate food and re-chew it) in the world emit about two billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year. In addition, clearing of tropical forests and rain forests to get more grazing land and farm land is responsible for an extra 2.8 billion metric tons of CO2 emission per year!
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases world-wide (this is more than the whole transportation sector). Cattle take a major role in these greenhouse gas emissions according to the FAO. Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch: “livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to fix the situation.”
Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly this is for grazing, but it also includes 33 percent of the global farmable land which is used to produce feed for livestock. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.
Are cows to blame for global warming? Are cattle the true cause for climate change?
We cannot deny that farming has a major impact on global warming. Since farming is basically serving the consumer’s demand for food, we should look at our nourishment. With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/2001 to 465 million tons in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tons.
A Japanese study showed that producing a kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a global warming potential which is equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2). It also releases fertilizing compounds equivalent to 340 grams of Sulphur dioxide and 59 grams of phosphate, and consumes 169 megajoules of energy. In other words, a kilogram of beef is responsible for the equivalent of the amount of CO2 emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometers, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.
The most important conclusion for us is: eat much less meat and dairy products. This is one of the most effective ways to reduce our personal carbon footprint and to generally reduce our personal negative impact on the environment.
Finally, a quote from Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize 1921): Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.
Ecotourism and insights: the future of food
With billions of mouths to feed, we can’t go on producing food in the traditional way. Scientists are coming up with novel ways to cater for future generations. In-vitro burger, anyone?
The future feast is laid out around a cool white room at Eindhoven’s University of Technology. There is a steak tartare of in-vitro beef fiber, wittily knitted into the word “meat”. There are “fruit-meat” amuse-gueules. The green- and pink-striped sushi comes from a genetically modified vegetarian fish called the biccio that, usefully, has green- and pink-striped flesh. To wash this down, there’s a programmable red wine: with a microwave pulse you can turn it into anything from Montepulciano to a Syrah. For the kids, there are sweet fried crickets, programmable colas and “magic meatballs”. These are made from animal-friendly artificial meat grown from stem cells: packed with Omega 3 and vitamins, they “crackle in your mouth”. Yum.
None of this is quite ready to dish up. The meatballs at the Eindhoven future food show are made from Plasticine; the knitted steak, appropriately, from pinky-red wool. But the ideas aren’t fantasy. Koert van Mensvoort, assistant professor at the university, calls them “nearly possible”. Van Mensvoort – who is also the brains behind nextnature.net, a must-see website for technological neophiliacs – put his industrial design undergraduates together with bio-tech engineers, marketing specialists and a moral philosopher, tasking them to come up with samples of food that is, technologically, already on our doorstep.
The truth, though, is that artificial steak is still a way off. Pizza toppings are closer. The star of the Dutch research into in-vitro meat, Dr Mark Post, promised that the first artificial hamburger, made from 10bn lab-grown cells, would be ready for “flame-grilling by Heston Blumenthal” by the end of 2012. At the time of writing it is still on the back burner. Post (who previously produced valves for heart surgery) and other Dutch scientists are currently working over the problem of how to turn the “meat” from pieces of jelly into something acceptably structured: an old-fashioned muscle. Electric shocks may be the answer.
This quest is key to the future of food. It’s not what can be done but what we will accept. Some scientists warn that trying to copy the meats humans are used to is futile – another symptom of our ignorant and unsustainable nostalgia about food. “It’s simplistic to say ‘natural is good’, to reject globalization and hark back to a mythical past when food was still ‘true and honest’,” says the Dutch intellectual Louise Fresco, a former head of food- innovation research and an advisor to the UN.
“It’s the default thing to do, to try and replicate what you know,” warns van Mensvoort. “It’s not how you innovate. We started with horseless carriages, but in the end what we got was cars. ‘Natural’ is the biggest marketing scam, and the most successful, of all.”
The technological problems of producing the new hi-tech foods are nothing compared to the trouble the industry is having with the consumers – the “yuck factor”, as the food technology scientists across the world like to put it. Shoppers’ squeamishness has turned the food corporations, from whom the real money for R&D will have to come, very wary, and super-secretive about their work on GM in America.
“There’s energy behind these projects because of the certainty that 9 billion human beings cannot possibly go on eating food, especially meat, produced in the traditional way. The planet can’t take it.”