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In defense of sustainable meat production

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

1934917078_359cfee43fNicolette Niman has a column today in the NY Times, “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” in which she argues that meat production, especially beef, has gotten a bad rap because of its climate change impacts.  However, as she points out, not all meat production is the same in terms of its greenhouse gas production, similar to an earlier post that not all conventional farming is alike.

Niman’s family runs a livestock ranch network that is more humane and sustainable than your typical factory farm (you might be familiar with their pork products).  They have been featured in recent analyses of food ethics by Peter Singer.

She makes a number of good points, showing how conventional meat production contributes to climate change in ways that sustainable livestock farming doesn’t:

  • land clearing to make way for pastures or crops to feed livestock
  • enteric (gut) fermentation of feed grains that animals are not used to eating, causing the overproduction of methane
  • feed grains that are often grown with fertilizers and pesticides using heavy machinery burning fossil fuels, which are energy and carbon intensive and lead to other ecological issues such as toxicity and nutrient pollution
  • large manure piles or lagoons that emit other kinds of greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide.
  • long supply chains and several processing steps that add energy

I think most people would agree that switching from an industrial mode of meat production to locally grown, more-organic, free-range modes of production is a good thing.   If all livestock animals were raised and killed humanely, raised on healthy, locally sourced foods, and sold with minimal processing and transportation, this would be a large step forward in terms of reducing both climate warming and animal cruelty (warning: this video is graphic).

Nevertheless, a conversation about food, global change, and sustainability should have acknowledged major challenges with animal-based food systems—even ones that are more sustainable:

  • Meat eating is land intensive.  Why?  A farmer can raise more calories on a hectare of land by growing plants rather than animals.  This occurs for two reasons: (1) Livestock lose a lot of energy to the environment from their own metabolism (cellular respiration) to keep themselves alive.  Thus, a lot of the energy consumed in feed simply burns off to the environment rather being turned into a useful form that people can consume. (2) There are many parts of animals that we do not consume or digest (bones, hair, some organs, etc).  When you add both of these together, it turns out to be a significant loss of energy.   A field of plant crops also faces these issues—plants lose energy from heat and metabolism, and there is a lot of plant biomass we can’t eat or digest.  However, by eating animals (a two-level food chain), we encounter these lost sources of energy twice (once with the plants and again with the livestock), whereas we only encounter them once by eating only plants.  This means we lose less energy by eating plants compared to eating animals.   Put another way, we capture more energy in plant foods and can feed a greater number of people on a given land area.  In a world with rising human populations and affluence, which often translates to increased per-capita meat consumption, this means that there will be increasing pressure on land use for the production of meat.
  • She advocates the benefits of pasture-raised animals.  But where are the pastures going to come from?  Modern factory farming fosters the illusion of being land efficient by growing animals in concentrated feedlots.  However, these animals are subsidized by a large fraction of land use to grow grains.  This estimate suggests that 60% of the U.S. corn supply is fed to livestock.  That’s a lot of land.  If we eliminated all factory farming and raised all livestock on pasture, we would need to use much of the land currently being used to grow corn, assuming that meat consumption levels remain constant.  Sure, that might not lead to a net increase in agricultural area, but it still represents a significant use of agricultural land.  The opportunity cost is being able to produce more calories from that land, which will likely be needed to feed more people in a future world of 9 billion. Therefore, sustainability, writ large, is going to require a shift away from meat-based diets and not just a shift from factory farming to sustainable livestock production.
  • As Michael Pollan and others have pointed out, factory farms raise animals on grain and hormone supplements to make them develop quickly and move to market in half the time.  If we get rid of these things, our rate of livestock production may be cut by up to 50%.  If meat consumption remains steady, this means we may actually need to double the pasture area needed, which could lead to new land clearing.

Sustainable meat production is a good step forward, but it’s potentially more complicated with respect to global change than Niman portrays it.

Related post: Are conventional farmers always conventional?

photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in food and agriculture, sustainability | 5 Comments »

Calling out and discrediting climate change contrarianism

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Several folks have asked me about climate change skeptics/deniers/contrarians.  Why does the media give them air time, and why are they considered legitimate sources of information?

Many have argued recently that Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s new book, SuperFreakonomics, is the most recent version of contrarianism disguised as balanced analysis of climate change:

(1) Eric Pooley, a columnist with Bloomberg, was one of the folks to make the initial call out the day the book hit store shelves.

(2) Next came Paul Krugman’s NY Times blog, further calling out Levitt and Dubner as contrarians with a series of hard-hitting blog posts, including this one.

(3) David Roberts at Grist then added comparisons to the longstanding climate warming skeptic, Freeman Dyson, taking some serious shots at the media (sorry Jon Stewart fans, you may not like what you hear).

(4) In one of his longest posts ever, Joe Romm at ClimateProgress (who was also one of the vocal folks initially calling out Leavitt and Dubner) picked up Roberts’ and Krugman’s analyses yesterday and examined further the two questions above, showing how and why the media often enables these folks (with more bad news for Jon Stewart fans).

(5) In a letter yesterday at RealClimate, scientist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert (one of Levitt’s colleagues at the University of Chicago) shows how easy it would have been to get the science right in SuperFreakonomics.

Related post:  SuperFreakonomics ignites a SuperStorm of criticism

Posted in climate change science, climate skeptics deniers and contrarians, policy | No Comments »

“Can Biotech Food Cure World Hunger?”

Friday, October 30th, 2009


A full-throated debate at the NY Times today.

As I’ve alluded to before, my main criticism is that the technology advocates need to get out of their bubble and consider the social implications of these technologies as well as social forces that cause famines in the first place—namely, poverty and poor food distribution.  You can increase yields as much as you want, but if people can’t afford or gain access to food, they will starve.

Related post:   Food and population defy simplistic portrayals

photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

Posted in food and agriculture, technology | No Comments »

In this week’s issue of Science: Bangladesh at the front lines of adaptation

Friday, October 30th, 2009

In “Hot, Flat, Crowded—And Preparing for the Worst“,1,2 (subscription required) Mason Inman lays out how Bangladesh is already coping with climate change.

Bangladesh is being hit with multiple kinds of challenges:

  • salt water incursion as sea level rises, affecting water supplies and crops along the coast
  • concentration of rainfall events into fewer but heavier downpours, which leads to both drought in winter months (and failure of crops) as well as severe floods during the summer monsoons that wipe out crops and destroy infrastructure

Some excerpts:

Bangladesh is striving to become a global showcase for climate change adaptation. Earlier this month, its government approved a wide-ranging strategy for dealing with climate change that includes ramping up civil engineering projects to control flooding and protect farmland from rising sea levels. Researchers here are also testing crops that better tolerate floods and drought. Realizing that time-honored approaches to living off the land no longer suffice, Bangladesh has implemented more community-level projects than any other country to gird people for climate shifts.

The World Bank estimates that as much as $100 billion a year is required to prepare people in vulnerable areas for climate change. That’s assuming the world gets its act together to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. If not, says disaster expert Ian Burton of the University of Toronto in Canada, “then the cost of adaptation is going to be enormous.”

It would be interesting for someone to estimate what the more-catastrophic adaptation cost scenarios look like compared to mitigation costs.  This would make it clear what it costs to mitigate now vs. trying to adapt later when it’s more difficult to do so (if at all possible by that point).

We essentially have four choices:

(1) mitigate now, adapt now
(2) mitigate now, adapt later
(3) mitigate later, adapt now
(4) mitigate later, adapt later

#1 will likely be the least expensive option in the long term, and it will help us sustain the fewest impacts in the near term.  It gives us the most flexibility in terms of how we shape the future, and it buys us the most insurance against catastrophic change.  The Stern Review suggested global  mitigation costs of 1-2% world GDP (about $600 billion-1.2 trillion/yr).  That number goes up the longer we wait.  A recent Congressional Budget Office estimate of the Waxman-Markey House bill for a U.S. cap-and-trade program was $22 billion/yr  (roughly the cost of a postage stamp per day for the average American household) by the year 2020.

By eliminating the up-front costs of adaptation, #2 might appear to save money, but if we don’t adapt to change we are already committed to, the costs associated with warming impacts may be large as we lose coastal real estate and farmland, sustain infrastructure damage from more severe storms and flooding, lose crop productivity, and face public health concerns from things like heat waves.  This option is like refusing to pay a few hundred bucks a year for homeowners insurance but then having to pay several hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild after a fire.

#3 doesn’t make much sense because we will end up spending twice on adaptation—once to confront near-term changes we are already committed to and once again to deal with (or at least attempt to deal with) conditions getting much worse.  Moreover, mitigating later may be too late to avoid potentially dangerous temperature rise, and it reduces our chances of lowering atmospheric CO2 if climate change is irreversible over hundreds of years.

#4 is truly a losers game.  Ecologically, socially, and economically, it would likely be catastrophic in all terms.

An ounce of prevention may indeed be worth a pound of cure.

Related post:  Climate adaptation: We have no choice, and it’s not enough

1Inman M. (2009) Hot, Flat, Crowded—And Preparing for the Worst. Science 326:662-663.

2Bowdoin people can access the article here.

Posted in climate adaptation, climate change science, food and agriculture, sea level rise | 2 Comments »

Chicago 1995: How social disparities lead to environmental disasters

Thursday, October 29th, 2009


As I mentioned in the last post, heat waves have the potential to harm or kill a lot of people.  Who are the people most likely to suffer first? The experiences from the Chicago 1995 heat wave offer some insights for urban America.  Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago is as relevant as ever to the current conversation about climate change.

Some excerpts from a U. Chicago Press interview with Klinenberg.

The heat made the city’s roads buckle. Train rails warped, causing long commuter and freight delays. City workers watered bridges to prevent them from locking when the plates expanded. Children riding in school buses became so dehydrated and nauseous that they had to be hosed down by the Fire Department. Hundreds of young people were hospitalized with heat-related illnesses. But the elderly, and especially the elderly who lived alone, were most vulnerable to the heat wave.

“It’s hot,” the mayor told the media. “But let’s not blow it out of proportion. . . . Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.” Many local journalists shared Daley’s skepticism, and before long the city was mired in a callous debate over whether the so-called heat deaths were—to use the term that recurred at the time—”really real.”

[T]he black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1.

Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths…Chicago’s Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods with high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces. Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades. The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.

The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city:  It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Yes, the weather was extreme. But the deep sources of the tragedy were the everyday disasters that the city tolerates, takes for granted, or has officially forgotten.

Related Post: Say so long to your furnace and hello to a new air conditioner

photo credit: / CC BY-ND 2.0

Posted in climate adaptation, environmental justice, race and class, social science, urban | 3 Comments »

Say so long to your furnace and hello to a new air conditioner

Thursday, October 29th, 2009


Last summer’s sizzling heat in Texas and the Pacific Northwest saw temperatures soar into the triple digits for what seemed like weeks.

As Yale 360 indicated in June, a new report by the United States Global Change Research Program suggests that we are in store for many more summers like 2009. Their projections of daily temperatures show that much of the South will be hotter than 90 degrees F for almost half of the year.  As temperatures warm, we can expect to set more record high temperatures.

In a forthcoming article in Geophysical Research Letters,1,2 Gerald Meehl and colleagues asked a simple question: What is the ratio of record high temperatures to record low temperatures, and how will this change over time with climate warming?

Based on temperature data from across the U.S. between 2000-2009, they found that the current ratio is about 2:1, meaning that we are breaking twice as many record high temperatures as we are record low temperatures.  Using climate models to predict U.S. temperatures over the coming century, they estimate that the ratio will increase to 10:1 by 2025, 20:1 by 2050, and 100:1 by 2100.

Because this is a ratio, we need to be a bit careful how we interpret these data.  You can increase this ratio two ways:  by high temperature records outpacing low temperature records (increase the numerator), or by dramatically reducing the number of low temperature records without many new high temperature records (decrease the denominator).

Either way, we’re in for hotter weather.  This kind of study will hopefully influence climate adaptation efforts now, especially in helping cities deal with heat issues among elderly populations.   The heat waves in Chicago (1995) and France (2003) are vivid reminders.  As I mentioned in an earlier post on adaptation, no more Hurricane Katrina responses.

Related posts:

1 Meehl, G.A. et al. (2009) The relative increase of record high maximum temperatures compared to record low temperatures in the U.S. Geophysical Research Letters (paper in press).

2 Bowdoin people can access the article here.

photo credit: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Posted in climate change science | 1 Comment »

Milbank: A change of climate in the Senate?

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post today suggests that the tide of opinion in the Senate may be turning against climate change naysayers.

An excerpt:

Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, committed climate-change denier, found himself in just such a position Tuesday morning as the Senate environment committee, on which he is the ranking Republican, took up legislation on global warming.  Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was in talks with Democrats over a compromise bill — the traitor! And as Inhofe listened, fellow Republicans on the committee — turncoats! — made it clear that they no longer share, if they ever did, Inhofe’s view that man-made global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

“Eleven academies in industrialized countries say that climate change is real; humans have caused most of the recent warming,” admitted Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “If fire chiefs of the same reputation told me my house was about to burn down, I’d buy some fire insurance.”

Posted in policy | No Comments »

Why U.S. mass transit often fails

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

3350372077_9f317575fbWhy are San Francisco and New York light years ahead of the rest of the U.S. in terms of effective and well-used public transportation systems?

In the latest issue1,2 of Technology and Culture, Louise Nelson Dyble argues that the legacy of mass transit was forged decades ago as cities wrestled with how to deal with rail and automobiles and as municipal constituencies wrestled for power gained through revenues like toll roads. What’s emerged, she argues, is a system of antagonistic transportation silos, with public transport as an especially weak and ill-funded silo.  This model has failed.

One of her main points is that cities with successful mass transit systems have modes of transport that interact, not just physically but financially.  Specifically, cities like SF and NYC use revenues from toll roads to fund mass transit, especially in ways that make linking roads and public transportation more convenient.

Here’s part of her conclusion as an excerpt:

It may seem natural for the debate about transportation infrastructure to be divided along the lines of modal preference, with conservatives and free-market advocates supporting traditional automobile-oriented projects, and environmentalists and social-justice advocates calling for investments in mass transportation. But this alignment is by no means inevitable. It represents patterns that were established early in the twentieth century during another critical period of technological, economic, and social transformation that are now deeply inscribed into political culture, policies, and organizations at all levels of government. Institutions manifest history—they perpetuate the values and relationships at the time of their creation and at critical moments in their development. They shape the decision-making process and determine who must be supplicants (mass transit riders) and who has entitlements (drivers). There may presently be a rare window of opportunity to reorganize and reconceptualize transportation financing and administration in the United States. With regime change in Washington and an economic crisis spurring enormous new federal spending, it is critical that policy makers heed the long-term institutional implications of their actions. By changing the way transportation policy is defined and implemented, they could realize improvements that endure far longer than anything made of concrete and steel.

1Dyble, L.N. (2009) Reconstructing Transportation: Linking Tolls and Transit for Place-Based Mobility. Technology and Culture 50(3): 631-648.

2Bowdoin people can link to the article here.

photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Posted in behavior, sustainability, transportation | No Comments »

Making development in the tropics more sustainable

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009


Nowhere is the intersection of nature and culture more apparent than in tropical communities developing around forestry.  One of the outcomes of opening the forest to logging is the expansion of killing wild mammals for food—sometimes primates closely related to humans, such as gorillas and chimpanzees.  This is known as the bushmeat trade. And logging roads provide easy access for legal and illegal hunters.

Although bushmeat hunting often makes the news (examples 1, 23), we seldom hear about the underlying demographic and social factors that interact with bushmeat harvests.  Learning more about these factors can empower us to develop sustainable solutions that slow or halt the loss of biodiversity.

In the Early View edition1,2 of Conservation Biology, Poulsen and colleagues examined the interaction between logging towns and bushmeat harvests in Congo.

For six years, they followed animal harvests and meals to see what controlled the rate of bushmeat harvests.

Their results were interesting…

Posted in biodiversity science, nature and culture, sustainability | No Comments »

Behavioral changes at home have big impacts on U.S. emissions

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009


That’s the conclusion of a new paper by Thomas Dietz and colleagues published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access).Policy measures like cap and trade, they argue, could take years to implement.  Why not take a look at how much readily available technologies in U.S. homes could potentially reduce emission in the short term?

How much of a difference could households make? According to Dietz et al., they are

  • 38% of the overall US carbon emissions
  • 8% of global emissions
  • larger than the emissions of any single country except China

By altering behaviors at home to reduce emissions, they call this kind of rapid response a “behavioral wedge,” analogous to the other kinds of carbon reduction wedges proposed by Pacala and Socolow.

What kinds of reductions are possible?

  • They estimate that behavior modifications could save 20% of household emissions in 10 years
  • This is 7.4% of the the US emissions
  • Interestingly, they ranked these behavior changes by amount of carbon reduced and the ease of which people are willing to change behavior (what they call behavioral plasticity).

Here’s what they found (ranked from highest to lowest behavioral plasticity, with emissions reductions in megatons of carbon in parentheses):

  1. weatherization (25.2)
  2. HVAC equipment (12.2)
  3. low-flow showerheads (1.4)
  4. efficient water heaters (6.7)
  5. appliances (14.7)
  6. low rolling resistance tires (7.4)
  7. fuel-efficient vehicle (56.3)
  8. change HVAC air filters (8.7)
  9. tune up AC (3)
  10. routine auto maintenance (8.6)
  11. laundry temperature (0.5)
  12. water heater temperature (2.9)
  13. standby electricity (9.2)
  14. thermostat setbacks (10.1)
  15. line drying (6)
  16. driving behavior (24.1)
  17. carpooling and trip chaining (36.1)

Bottom line:

  • Upgrading homes is a lot more behaviorally palatable than altering driving habits.
  • The good news is that there are some home modifications like weatherization and HVAC equipment that can have a big impact.
  • The bad news is that changing to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, altering driving behavior, and carpooling can also have a big impact, but these behaviors are least likely to change.

This paper is a great example of why sociology and psychology are critical to the current conversation on climate change.

photo credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Posted in behavior, sustainability | 3 Comments »

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