New research suggests what you eat as important as what you drive.
Your personal impact on global warming may be influenced as much by what you eat as by what you drive.
That surprising conclusion comes from a couple of scientists who have taken an unusual look at the production of greenhouse gases from an angle that not many folks have even thought about. Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, assistant professors of geophysics at the University of Chicago, have found that our consumption of red meat may be as bad for the planet as it is for our bodies.
If you want to help lower greenhouse gas emissions, they conclude in a report to be published in the journal Earth Interactions, become a vegetarian.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that both researchers are vegetarians, although they admit to cheating a little with an occasional sardine. They say their conclusions are backed up by hard data.
Eshel and Martin collected that data from a wide range of sources, and they examined the amount of fossil-fuel energy - and thus the level of production of greenhouse gases - required for five different diets. The vegetarian diet turned out to be the most energy efficient, followed by poultry, and what they call the "mean American diet," which consists of a little bit of everything.
There was a surprising tie for last place. In terms of energy required for harvesting and processing, fish and red meat ended up in a "virtual tie," but that's just in terms of energy consumed. When you toss in all those other factors, such as bovine flatulence and gas released by manure, red meat comes in dead last. Fish remains in fourth place, some distance behind poultry and the mean American diet, chiefly because the type of fish preferred by Americans requires a lot of energy to catch.
Eating Red Meat Like Driving an SUV?
Can changing your diet really have much of an impact?
"It is comparable to the difference between driving an SUV and driving a reasonable sedan," said Eshel, who drives a Honda Civic, and only when he has to.
Eshel, who grew up on a farm, has always been interested in ecology and the impact we have on the planet. He got into this research, he says, because "now that I'm a professor of geophysics, I have tools in my tool kit that I can apply much more quantitatively and rigorously to evaluate what we do."
It's probably safe to say that both he and Martin figured the vegetarian diet would come out on top, but demonstrating that wasn't easy.
The first hurdle, Eshel says, was coming up "with those semirealistic diets." We don't all eat the same way, of course, so how do you figure out the accumulative impact of our widely varied diets?
The researchers began with data from the US Department of Energy that quantifies the "food disappearance" rate.
"What they are referring to is the rate at which food disappears from supermarket shelves," Eshel said. On the basis of that data, they were able to construct the five semirealistic diets.
Then they collected data from a wide range of sources, mostly available to anyone on the Internet, concerning the amount of energy required to grow, harvest and prepare the foods that make up those five diets.
The centerpiece is the "mean American diet." About 72 percent of the calories from that diet are plant-based.
"Of course, most of it is tomatoes and ketchup and potatoes and french fries, but none the less it is plant-based," Eshel said.
Of the remaining 28 percent, about half comes from meat, and the rest from dairy and eggs.
When they looked at only carbon dioxide emissions associated directly with energy consumption, they came up with the vegetarian diet far less damaging to the planet than the others.
However, the researchers admit that their findings can't be considered exact. Take fish, for instance.
"The seafood portion of American diets is heavily skewed toward what is called charismatic predator fish," Eshel said, which are harder to catch. "Sword, shark and tuna and so on require long-distance ocean journeys, and those efforts are not efficient. They require a lot of labor and a lot of fossil fuel."
Switching from red meat to fish won't necessarily help the planet, unless you can develop a taste for anchovies, which prefer to remain closer to shore and travel in large schools that can be easily caught and harvested.
Considering the fact that so much of our energy goes into such areas as transportation, is it realistic to think of lowering greenhouse gases by changing the typical American diet?
The researchers insist it is. The United States, Eshel says, accounts for about 28 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.
"The US has five sectors of the economy that are large emitters," he said. "Those are transportation, industrial, commercial, residential and agriculture."
Energy used in agriculture has grown substantially in recent years, he says, and now stands at around 18 percent or 19 percent of the nation's energy use.
The researchers say their findings show that at least 6 percent of that use comes from the production of foods that are not energy efficient, like cattle and the food to feed them. Considering that the "mean American diet is responsible for an additional ton-and-a-half of greenhouse gas emissions a year from each of us," the savings could be substantial.
"It's a huge deal," Eshel said.
So do these two vegetarians want us to give up our hamburgers and tuna and eat cauliflower?
"I hate to sound preachy," Eshel said, but it wouldn't hurt to give a little.
"I say eat whatever works for you, but just keep in mind that the less animal-based food you eat, and the more you replace those calories with plant-based food, the better off you are, in terms of your health as well as your contributions to the health of the planet."
On the premise that spring is too beautiful for a depressing topic like Iraq, I thought I’d take up a fun subject—global warming.
Time magazine warns us to “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.” On the other hand, my sister is on the Global Warming Committee of the Unitarian Church in Albuquerque, N.M. They go around replacing old light bulbs with more energy-efficient models. My money’s on my sis.
It’s a good thing the phrase “the tipping point” became a cliche just in time to help us describe global warming. Just a few years ago, we were more or less cruising along on global warming, with maybe 50 years or so to Do Something about it. Suddenly, the only question is how soon to push the panic button, and 10 minutes ago appears to be the right answer.
People in journalism are the worst criers of “Wolf!” imaginable. We are always setting off alarms about Ebola, or avian flu, or the impending water shortage, or the Social Security crisis, or killer bees, or the pine bark beetle, or anorexia among teenagers (surpassed only by obesity among teenagers). Boy, if we can’t sell you a scare with a few headlines and some mashed facts, no one can.
Naturally, having listened to the media set off endless alarms, the public is inclined to discount them, not to mention that global climate catastrophe is not an inviting topic. We’re somewhere between “Don’t Panic Yet” and “Panic Now!”—edging toward “Now!”
What is happening is not just what climatologists told us would happen, but global warming turns out to reinforce itself by a number of feedback mechanisms. For example, when the polar icecaps start melting, there’s less blinding bright ice to reflect heat back into the atmosphere—over 90 percent of sunlight simply bounces off ice and back into space. Whereas the dark water left behind by melted ice does the opposite, pulling in more warmth and accelerating the process.
The political fight over global warming is over, except for the Bush administration, which has some weird problem with science in general. I’m still not sure what’s behind that: I recall Rush Limbaugh and the radio right taking great glee in pooh-poohing the Kyoto treaty and the whole idea of global warming. Maybe they associated global warming with Canadians or something equally awful.
You might think some premise like, “The whole world is getting hotter, and disastrous consequences will ensue,” would be more persuasive than, “I don’t like Canadians, they’re wusses,” but I suspect part of the fun of being Rush Limbaugh is never having to say the word “responsible.”
The shame for journalism is that it has always been so easy to expose those few “scientific” voices claiming there is nothing to global warming. When the money for “scientific research” on such a subject comes from oil companies, skepticism is required.
Instead, many “journalists” let the bullies on the right cow us with the “liberal media” nonsense and reported there was “a debate” over global warming. There was no debate. The only question is how fast it’s happening. And the answer that keeps coming up is “faster than we thought. And still faster.”
Time magazine, in its warm and fuzzy way, proposes that capitalism can solve much of the problem of global warming—Henry Luce would be so proud. Can’t you see it now? Boy, I’ll bet those titans can hardly wait to cut into next quarter’s profits. The insurance industry, for obvious reasons of its own, has long taken global warming seriously. By simply refusing to insure housing or enterprises near low shores, insurance can make quite a difference.
It’s true the United States could make a good thing out of specializing in green energy and green technology—but we are still living with an administration that subsidizes the oil industry. The question is where the political leadership is going to come from before we reach the Panic Point, before Miami Beach sinks underwater, before Wall Street needs a seawall.
Al Gore is all we’ve got, and the right wing is still prepared to dismiss him with contempt and ridicule, not because he’s wrong but because they’d rather talk about the time he was supposedly advised to wear earth tones.
As the Earth drifts toward crisis, our president does not yet seem capable of grasping even the First Rule of Holes. We’re in one, and it is time to quit digging.
At the very least, it is time to replace those old light bulbs. Get busy, team.
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