There had been warnings. In 2018 a UN-backed report It said that “the consumption of meat is one of the most destructive ways in which we leave a mark on the planet.” Very affected, she blamed livestock for the emission of huge amounts of methane, for allocating 1,695 liters of water to make a hamburger and for deforesting the jungles of South America to grow soybeans used to make feed.
We already know that these types of entities are always “deeply concerned” and little else, so we cannot say that we were surprised by the almost immediate statements of one of those responsible for the study, James Lomax, who clarified that “it is not realistic to cut meat from the diet completely.” Ah, well nothing, to something else.
In short, the meat industry breathed relieved and, in turn, hopeful for something that should concern us as a society: the forecast of the FAO – the UN food agency – is that “meat consumption will grow by 76 % until 2050 “. It will be because of that universal access to meat that Western societies should never have fed (meat = progress) that the UN is forced to pick up cable three years later: its latest report on methane emissions already speaks openly of vegetarianism and, to a lesser extent, veganism. In the long run, he admits, there is no other.
Let’s go by parts. The study that concerns us today was published in May 2021 under the name ‘Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions’. It is dense and very technical to read, so here I will limit myself to highlighting the most important ideas on the animal question and its impact on the planet. But, first of all, you have to understand why so much methane rattles and what the cows paint here.
Broadly speaking, methane is a greenhouse gas eighty-six times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the planet, but it has a short life: it “only” acts for two decades. Its emission has soared to maximum levels since 1980 and the key is precisely that cutting its emissions will help curb the effects of climate change in the short term, that is, ten or twenty years from now.
Be careful, this gas not only warms the planet. Methane also generates tropospheric ozone -The one we breathe, well- and that can be lethal. In fact, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition ensures that every million tons of methane not emitted prevents 1,430 premature deaths annually from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and 4,000 incidents related to asthma.
The cows and their looooong gases
So far the summary of the problems of methane and the benefits of reducing its emission. Now it is time to point out the culprits: “More than half of global methane emissions occur mainly in three sectors of human origin: waste (20%), fossil fuels (35%) and agriculture (40%)”.
In this last sector, the report points to livestock -especially cattle, specifically, cows- as the largest source of methane emitters. For those who do not know, during part of their digestive process – enteric fermentation – cows release a large amount of methane – between us, farts and belches. Seriously, this is not to be taken as a joke: “If cows formed a country it would be the third in the world in greenhouse gas emissions. “Naturally, when we say that it is the fault of the cows, it is the fault of the humans who exploit them for their own benefit. According to the FAO, there are about 1,500 million cows in the world. The vast majority destined for a miserable life and death. But that is another issue.
Although they are a fundamental piece, the question of methane neither begins nor ends with the cows. The following table shows the regional distribution and the sector that originates the methane emissions. Data are in million tons (MT).
As elDiario.es pointed out a few weeks ago in this global review of the UN report, the most cost-effective sectors to tackle methane emissions are the generation of natural gas, livestock and waste management. If we look at it carefully, the graph is self-explanatory: in Asia, rice cultivation is fatal to global warming – and Chinese coal mines, too – while in Africa, Latin America, Europe and South Asia – India Mainly– there is a problem with livestock and their waste. Natural gas producing regions such as Russia, North America and the OPEC countries have another source of worrying methane emissions there, and landfill management is generally poor around the world.
Although the report expands on each of the methane sources and there is a lot of interesting data – such as why the flooding of rice crops is so bad for the environment – we cannot tackle in a single article, rigorously , all those questions. If someone is very interested in the topic, the report can be downloaded in English.
Let’s keep going. After distributing blame and advice to the other sectors, we come to the one that interests us now, that of agri-food. The UN asks us for three behavioral changes to curb climate change through the methane boycott: reduce food waste – here we speak of an anti-capitalist approach -, be more efficient with “livestock management” and adopt – I quote literally – “Healthy diets: vegetarian or lower in meat and dairy. This could reduce methane emissions by as much as 80 million tons in the coming decades.”
Of course, if the United Nations wants us to give up meat, it is because they have already tried everything and, as a species, time is running out on us. The report acknowledges the failure of the scientific community in not finding what to feed the cows so that they generate fewer emissions and, at the same time, be profitable to farm. Through supplements and processed grains, emissions could be reduced by 30%, but the UN itself quarantines the study that affirms this because it doubts that it can be extrapolated to all farms and, even if it were, it would be insufficient.
Let’s remember that all this crusade against methane is due to the fact that it is not possible that the temperature will only increase 1.5 ℃ this century if we only reduce CO2 emissions. This is the objective of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and humanity will not be able to fulfill it if the ecological transition is not also a protein transition. Leaving behind protein of animal origin is the best and fairest thing for animals, the environment and our health.
In fact, the study dares with a recommendation such as the following: “(…) These estimates provide an approximate idea of the emission reductions that could be achieved through a reduction in the consumption of feed that comes from ruminants [carne y lácteos] by adopting healthy vegetarian or vegan diets. “The report here considers that vegetarian options have fewer barriers to access than vegans – and, depending on which environments, this is true – although it must be taken into account that the production of milk from cow – whose veto has the FAO very clear – represents the base of the vast majority of dairy products that are consumed and that the same report urges to abandon. Finally, another advantage is noted: “Healthy diets could achieve reductions in methane emissions in the range of 15 to 30 million tons per year, with additional climate benefits from the reduction of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. ”
Until now the FAO had been somewhat critical of intensive livestock and asked us to eat less meat and organic, extensive livestock and small producers. Now he clarifies that the same thing about the meat is better not. I think that with these new recommendations it seems that he is beginning to understand two things: that intensive livestock farming is an ecological attack – I would also add a moral one – and that in the long term it does not lead anywhere to convert animal products back into something elitist that a few ranchers produce for a few rich in an overpopulated world of poor who also want meat if there is meat. But no, there cannot be meat for everyone and planet for anyone.