How our chopsticks, forks and spoons can help fight global warming

George Jacobs - May, 2010

Guest Column

George Jacobs is an English teacher, teacher educator, and environment and animal welfare activist in Singapore. His latest book, with Tom Farrell, is Essentials for Successful Language Teaching (2010, Continuum).

Most of us eat at least three times a day. More people are becoming aware that what we eat affects not just our aste buds, our waistline and our wallet, it also affects the environment. We have green cars, green schools and now green food, though we’re not yet talking about green M&Ms! Yes, the food choices we make can help the environment if we eat more fruits and veggies and less or no animal products. There are the two main links between our diet and the big GW (Global Warming).

Eating Meat Is Wasting Food
The first link between our food and GW is that eating meat is wasting food, because we have to feed many kilograms (kg) of food to the cows, pigs, chickens, etc. to obtain just one kg of meat. Think about yourself growing up. Do you know at what age the average human child gains the most weight? For girls, it’s age 12, when they gain on average about 4.7 kgs, and for boys, it’s age 13, when they gain an average of about 5.2 kgs. Think back to when you were 12 or 13, and ask yourself, “Did I eat only about 5 kgs of food that entire year.” Of course not. You ate many more kilograms of food, and it’s the same with non-human animals.

That’s why eating meat is wasting food. We have to grow so much extra food to feed the other animals whom we human animals later eat. The GW link lies in the fact that we have to cut down so many more trees to obtain the land to grow all this unnecessary food. As you know, trees soak up CO2 when they are alive, but when we cut down trees or burn them, CO2 is released.

Eating Meat Gives the Earth Gas: GW Gas
Here’s the second link between eating animal foods and GW: Eating meat gives the Earth gas, GW gas. When most people think of GW, they think of CO2, and, yes, CO2 is the largest contributor to GW, but there are other greenhouses gases that are actually more powerful than CO2.

Methane is a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more powerful than CO2. The animals we eat, especially ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep, emit methane as part of their digestive processes. That’s right, burping and farting are melting the polar ice caps. Nitrous oxide, found in the manure of animals raised for meat, is another greenhouse gas. It is estimated to be about 290 times more powerful than CO2 in terms of global warming impact. Did you know that the human animal population of about 6.8 billion eats about 60 billion of our fellow land animals every year? Think about all the manure our 60 billion friends are producing and all the nitrous oxide from that manure being released into the atmosphere. That figure does not include all the marine animals we consume—an increasing percentage of whom grow up not swimming freely but in Concentrated Feeding Operations less kindly called “factory farms,” which pollute bodies of water.

Livestock Contribute More GW Than Does Transportation
Most people think that slowing GW is about not flying in airplanes, about taking public transportation or about walking, and those are all good ideas. But, according to a 2006 UN report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, production of animal products leads to more greenhouse gas emissions than does transportation. To quote the UN report, “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport. ” Some scientists dispute the 18% figure. A 2009 article in a World Watch Institute publication put the figure at 51%  On the other hand, one scientist recently put the figure, at least in the U.S., at only 3% Regardless, reducing meat consumption can play a role in reducing the enormous threat posed by GW.

What To Do and What To Chew
As usual, most people are waiting for the government to do something, such as reduce CO2 emissions, or waiting for someone to come up with some miraculous invention that stops animals from producing methane and nitrous oxide. Instead of waiting for others to do something, maybe we should take a more pro-active stance. As one group of MIT students put it, “We are the people who we’ve been waiting for.”

This is where our chopsticks, forks and spoon become our valiant weapons in the battle to stop the destruction that GW is threatening. At each of our daily three meals and when we have those tasty snacks, we can make a choice. When we eat plant foods, we do our bit as we bite. Do I hear you saying, “Switching 100% to plant foods to help the planet might be difficult”? No worries. Every little bit(e) helps. Just try to eat more fruits and vegetables. It may take a while to adjust, but find some friends or family members to make the switch with you, and you may be pleasantly surprised how easy it can be.

Furthermore, a great deal of demographic evidence and evidence from health research suggests that humans do not need to eat meat to be healthy. For instance, tens of millions of people in India have been vegetarian for generations. As to the health research, one example comes from the American Dietetic Association which, after an evidence based review, concluded that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”