Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cow Farts

One of the nicest things about traveling in Europe is that they still have active and vibrant media over there. Our home-town newspaper in Donostia (Diario Vasco runs fifty or more pages of fine print and has in-depth articles about everything…..even boring ministerial politics. Britney does not make much of an appearance.

On TV, news is just news. There is no Glenn Beck. There is no Sean Hannity. Michael Savage would probably face jail time for inciting hatred. The atmosphere of tolerance extends not only to racial and ethnic minorities but to politics as well. People talk and laugh, not scream. The political arm of the terrorist organization in Basque country holds demonstrations where old people in suits walk peacefully through the streets, singing.

In London, the diversity of the population is mind-blowing, even to a former New Yorker. I sat upstairs in a London bus in front of an ethnic Chinese girl speaking fluent German in the Berlin dialect to her boyfriend on her cell phone. They even tolerate Americans: every tube car we rode in had at least two or three twenty-something American girls dressed for business.

The nice thing about having squads of professional journalists on the payroll of newspapers and television is that there are often actual facts there for people to absorb. A case in point: Cow farts.

I got a couple of emails from vegetarian friends in California while I was traipsing around Spain eating every form of living creature from sea snails and sea cucumber to woodcock. Between us, we had four salads in 21 days, no rice, no potatoes, and maybe three stalks of asparagus and half a green been. There was a $20 tablespoon of pea puree at one point. That whole diversity thing has not gone as far as diet, I guess. Anyway, there is an internet report going around about how the beef industry releases more green house gas than even aviation, the previous number one culprit……some 18% of the total. The group sending around the report is Compassion in World Farming. PETA is in there….and a whole rash of others.

Meat is no longer just murder… is also climate crime. Damn.

And then, to rain on the parade of outrage, comes an actual journalist from the Guardian in London, Simon Fairlie with an article with actual facts.

The 18% figure comes from a single report from November of 2006 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (note the Brit spelling). The report was “Livestock’s Long Shadow”.

The ultimate irony for PETA and my vegetarian/humane farming friends is that the agenda of the FAO has nothing to do with humane farming or vegetarianism. The FAO thinks small farms are dangerous to the planet, and fully supports a doubling of production of meat and poultry from intensive factory farms worldwide.

This is because “by far the largest share of emissions come from more extensive (than intensive) systems, where poor livestock holders often extract marginal livelihoods from dwindling resources”. Seventy percent of emissions are attributed to extensive (ie small farms) and only 30% to intensive (factory) farms.

The Economist magazine….another hotbed of actual journalists…..has been fighting the FAO for decades, and particulary the FAO’s policy of blaming peasants for environmental damage. To quote the author of the FAO report in a letter ten years ago: We cannot afford the common nostalgic desire to maintain or revive mixed farming systems with closed nutrient and energy cycles…..To avoid overuse of immediate natural resources, mixed farmers and pastoral people alike need to substitute them with external inputs (fertilizers, feeds, and pesticides in other words). The trend of further intensification and specialisation is inescapable. Attempts to change the direction are doomed to failure.”

This would be news to all the organic farmers in America……and really distressing to my vegetarian friends. Save the Earth! Buy Dole, not Coke Farms! Buy Perdue, not Niman Ranch! Plow up that damn herb garden, Margaret before you destroy the climate!

It turns out the FAO’s figures are not even accurate. They claim that a third of the 18% greenhouse emissions attributed to livestock is caused by deforestation of the Amazon. Supposedly 75% of the deforestation is given over to cattle ranches and soy bean farms feeding the cattle ranches. Turns out most of the deforestation goes to old fashioned real estate development, not farms. And, rainforest beef represents only 1% of world beef supply… how does it generate a third of the carbon dioxide? Run the numbers again and you get about 12%.

The other problem with the FAO report is that the Brazilians have managed to slow down the deforestation by half since 2006, so even if you accept their deforestation premise, the numbers fall even further….to maybe 10%.

The other problem is that the existing human population requires x amount of protein in our diet, whether it comes from animals or plants. Replacing cows with soybeans would still require nitrogen and methane-producing fertilizers to grow the crops…..and our number falls further.

A recent study (Food Climate Research Network) put the real number at about 8% of the country’s total greenhouse emissions. Transport supplies about 33%.

So…..coming from a sympathetic chef who thinks that mass beef production actually is a problem (could the dipshits at McDonalds ever tell if their grilled hockey puck was soy or Bossie? I doubt it....) and 8% is nothing to sneeze at: Don’t get your panties in a wringer, vegans and vegetarians! As Mr. Fairlie concludes in his article: If that 18% figure enters the common dialogue and is picked up by policy makers, all it does in the end is drive agriculture to more intensive, factory and industrial mode.

Like Jack Webb always said: "The facts, ma'am.....Just the facts."


Blogger kathy said...

Mmmmmmmm, Cow Fart Salad! Who'd a thought it could taste so good? I wonder.... Oh yeah - us consciencious vegetarians!

10:27 PM  

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