Is Vegetarianism the only Answer?

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In 2014, researchers determined that methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas (GHG) which…accounts for 16% of total global GHGs emissions, (GIUBURUNCA, Mihaela, et al.). One of the main reasons for the abundant amount of methane is cattle, specifically ruminant livestock, that produce both dairy and meat, which are contributing to global warming. Their digestive systems go through enteric fermentation that releases methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxide (N2O). According to the United Nations Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS), this ruminant livestock makes up 80% of greenhouse gas emissions out of the total agriculture contribution, with methane being one of the biggest culprits (GEAS). Due to the large demand for meat in the US, and globally, as people’s main source of protein, the livestock population has been increasing, causing a positive correlation in methane production. Methane is the main greenhouse gas contributing to the climate change crisis as it’s produced when ruminant livestock digest food through enteric fermentation. A number of solutions have been proposed and debated, such as adding seaweed to livestock diets (partially cows) or whether grass-fed or grain-fed is ultimately healthier for the environment. However, the only concrete solution that will solve this problem is to reduce the amount of meat eaten, particularly meat from ruminant livestock, and for those who are willing to go vegetarian. Livestock is mass produced to provide easy and cheap protein for people around the world.

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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA), Meat, milk, and eggs provide 34% of the protein consumed globally (FOA). Many people rely on meat for protein because cattle are easy to raise and they can withstand climate shocks, which is vital with the change in our climate (FOA). Meat can be incredibly cheap as many fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s, Burger King, and In-N-Out, serve meat at a cheap price. For low-income families this can become an easy way to feed the family. This cheap meat has turned a food that was an occasional meal”meat”into an affordable, every-day product for many (GEAS). An increase in the demand for meat has caused what used to be a small-farming business that raised cattle on their land into a mass industry that looks more like a factory. However an important detail to acknowledge is while meat can be a great source of protein, high meat diets [can cause diseases such as] bowel cancer and heart disease (GEAS). Eating meat on a regular basis is not only be harming the planet but it is harming the bodies of those who consistently eat in-expensive meat. With this increased demand for meat, an increase in cattle raising is contributing to climate change because they produce harmful greenhouse gases (GHG). These GHGs, specifically methane, is produced by livestock and emitted into the atmosphere.

Ruminant livestock, such as cows, sheep, goats, and buffaloes, are animals that digest food in a process known as enteric fermentation. Enteric fermentation is the digestive process that produces greenhouse gases like methane, that contribute to 44.1% of the total livestock emissions (FOA). Cattle or cows are the biggest contributors as beef is in high demand, with 77% of global distribution of enteric methane emissions from ruminant come from cows alone (Morris). The large desire for meat, specifically beef–which come from cattle–is ultimately leading to the climate change crisis we see today. University of California, Davis has been conducting an experiment that may be a long-term solution for excessive methane production from ruminant livestock. They have found that by adding seaweed to cattle diets can dramatically decrease their emissions of the potent gas methane (Kennedy). The researchers add Asparagopsis armata, a type of algae, into hay and add molasses for taste (since the salty seaweed is not a favorite taste for cows) and they examine the effect it has on the amount of methane released by cattle. One of the groups received a “high dose” of seaweed, amounting to 1 percent of its feed. Another received half that, and the final group received no treatment, so the researchers could identify if adding seaweed to the diet would be successful (Kennedy). They used breathalyzers to determine the amount of methane and other greenhouse gases are on their breaths and immediately found it reduced methane emissions. They feared the seaweed would affect the taste of the milk but it was found that there was no change. The only need for further investigation is the long-term effects and if it changes the taste of beef. The one naysayer they presented was the inadvertent side effects, such as harming ocean ecosystems or creating additional emissions from shipping, all problems that need to be solved before the diet of cattle is switched (Kennedy).

This solution, like many others, helps reduce methane but contribute to climate change in another respect, like harming the ocean’s ecosystem, which doesn’t solve the problem indefinitely. Grain (corn) have taken over cattle diets as it’s cheap and an effective way to get the cows big enough to eat. According to Troy Roush, Vice President of the American Corn Growers Association, 30 percent of our land base is being planted to corn…largely driven by government policy…allow[ing] us to produce corn below the cost of production…we’re paid to overproduce (Kenner). The reason cattle are now fed corn, a type of grain, is because the United States has an abundance of corn, which is cheap and easy to grow. Also, researchers have now found that grain-fed cows produce less methane, which seems to be a double positive; cheap food for cattle and helps contributes to lower methane production. While this sounds like a collective serendipity, grass-fed cattle are healthier for the animals and for people to consume even if they produce more methane, they have more benefits than one might think. As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma states, Cows are not designed by evolution to eat corn. They are designed by evolution to get grass. And the only reason we feed [cows] corn is because corn is really cheap and corn makes them fat quickly (Kenner). Grass-fed cows may produce more methane than grain-fed cows according to Judith Capper, a Washington State University researcher, but even though grain-fed cows produce less methane, use less land and water, there are larger carbon sequestration benefits of raising cattle entirely on grass (Profita). Many believe that since grass-fed beef takes longer to gain weight resulting in more water, more land for grass fields and in general is more expensive, that grain-fed beef has to be better for climate change.

However, according to Michael Pollan, grass-fed beef has a lighter carbon footprint because of the fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels required to produce the grain for feedlots, (Profita). So, in the end, both sides of the argument are right; Grass-fed beef produces more methane but grain-fed beef produces more carbon. The grass is harder for cows to digest which is why grain-fed cows produce less methane, however, some argue grass that is continually grazed by grass-fed cattle sequesters enough carbon to make up the difference in methane, (Profita). In the end, however, grass-fed cows are healthier for the cows themselves and the meat we get from them is healthier for us. Plus cows that eat grass are more beneficial in all because they keep the soil healthy which keeps carbon dioxide underground and out of the atmosphere as when cattle graze it helps stabilize soil, control weeds and reduce the risk of wildfire (Profita). This idealistic silvopasture system which combine trees, livestock and grazing.provid[ing] shade, timber, and food for livestock[with] carbon captured in soil and trees more than makes up for the greenhouse gases that ruminants emit through belches and flatulence, (Toensmeier), can’t be a solution. In order to have all cows grazing on grass pastures, people would be destroying natural forest, to make room for the global beef and dairy demand (World Watch, Toensmeier). Even if cows go back to eating grass and grazing fields, the problem of the emission of GHGs has not been solved completely which is why this solution can’t be the ultimate cure for climate change.

While the last two proposed solutions (grass-fed cows or seaweed-fed cows) can’t become the ultimate solution, becoming a vegetarian or reducing the amount of meat eaten by each individual can solve this problem permanently, without any negative drawbacks to the environment. According to the United Nations Global Environmental Alert Service, each [person should] consume no more than 70-90 grams of meat per day, to help reduce the population of cattle raised (GEAS). However while some argue that by eating meat that doesn’t emit as much GHGs as ruminant livestock, like pigs and chickens, others claim that to truly reduce the amount of GHG emissions resulting from ruminant livestock by an individual, doesn’t mean substituting one meat product with another that has a somewhat lower carbon footprint (World Watch). Meat consumption in general needs to be reduced in order for emissions to decrease to make a positive impact for climate change, which can be done by eating non-meat meat produces that use fake meat and non-dairy dairy products such as soy milk or almond milk. Grain and soy-products can also contribute to GHG emissions, which means that grass-fed meat and resulting dairy products may be more environmentally friendly than factory-farmed or grain-fed options (GEAS).

Some question how to get a sufficient amount of protein in their diet by going vegetarian, which can be done by eating soybeans, quinoa, chia seeds, and tofu, to name a few. A hamburger for lunch doesn’t seem like it would affect the climate of our planet, but as the United Nations Global Environmental Alert Service stated, “the consumption of 1 kg domestic beef in a household represents automobile use of a distance of ?€? 160 km (99 miles),” which means that for every hamburger one eats, climate change is effected (GEAS). The more livestock, especially those who go through enteric fermentation, the more GHGs are emitted into the atmosphere. Livestock has become like automobiles as we are mass producing them to an amount that is not part of pre-human times which is causing a molecule of CO2 exhaled by livestock [to be] no more natural than one from an auto tailpipe(Goodland). The only real way to stop this toxic progression is to cut out meat as much as possible, if not completely, and to rethink how we feed ruminant livestock and ourselves.

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Is Vegetarianism the Only Answer?. (2019, Aug 06). Retrieved August 12, 2022 , from
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