MAY 05, 2014 12:00 AM PDT

Less Red Meat, Less Climate Change

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
What could have a more natural and positive effect on climate change than agriculture? Contrary to what you may think, there are plenty of elements of agriculture that contribute to global warming and climate change - especially the effects of livestock.

A recent paper issued by the groups California Environmental Associates and Climate Focus places a new focus on the impact of agriculture on climate change and offers some solutions on how it could be reduced. The authors of Strategies for Mitigating Climate Change in Agriculture combed through literature and compiled extensive data on agriculture and climate change, and they developed some key pathways to reducing harmful effects.

According to the paper, advances could be made by going up the food chain to affect the choices of consumers. Reducing the demand for beef alone could have dramatic effects-not only in reducing the resources that the cattle consume, but their, shall we say, carbonaceous emissions.

Of the overall agricultural emissions, 70% can be attributed to grazing livestock such as cows and sheep - a phenomenon that is of no surprise to anyone who has spent significant time around cattle.

The report notes that changes in habits in several regions would have the largest effects in reducing emissions - China, Brazil, the United States, and the EU countries. In particular, the US and China were cited, since the US is the largest red meat consumer at the moment and China's red meat consumption is expected to undergo rapid growth. Projections show the worldwide consumption of beef increasing 116% by the time we reach 2050.

The study is not advocating total elimination of red meat or a vegetarian/vegan diet; it is just suggesting that the balance be tilted away from red meat consumption and that waste be reduced. For example, looking strictly at the aspect of carbonaceous emissions, poultry consumption reduces the carbon emissions compared to red meat by a factor of six.

From a waste perspective, the report suggests several policies that could be instituted to limit the estimated 30-40% of food wasted during the long path from production to consumers. "Best-by" and "sell-by" dates are sometimes confused, causing edible food to be thrown away. Similarly, food that may be fine to eat but is aesthetically less appealing may go unpurchased and is eventually discarded.

Portion sizes are another issue. While American restaurants are stereotyped for unusually large portion sizes, there is a fair amount for truth to that charge. The concern is that other countries may follow suit, if they haven't already.

In less developed countries, the losses take place in the other direction - inability to keep the food under safe storage conditions results in significant amounts of food that spoils before it can reach the consumer.

The authors contend that by implementing these dietary changes and reductions in waste, more than 3 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be prevented from entering the atmosphere each year. Even implementing a portion of these strategies could help reduce the current trajectory of climate change - and every little bit helps in this critical area.
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