Eat less beef and help the planet, G8 is told

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — Experts gathering for the Group of Eight environment ministers meeting in the city known for its high-quality beef have a suggestion on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Eat less beef.

“One way to combat climate change is reducing meat consumption,” said Ragendra Pachauri of the International Panel on Climate Change at a symposium Saturday, the opening day of the three-day climate meeting in Kobe.

A 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization made clear the environmental costs of excessive beef consumption. Since then, both the U.N. and environmental nongovernmental organizations, including, not surprisingly, vegetarian groups, have touted the environmental as well as the health benefits of avoiding filet mignon and hamburgers.

According to the U.N. report, the livestock sector internationally generates 18 percent more greenhouse gas emissions, as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, than the transport sector.

Furthermore, the livestock sector also damages the ecosystem, as it is a major contributor to land and water degradation. And the problem is expected to get worse. The U.N. noted that global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999 to 465 million tons by 2050.

The livestock sector now uses 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface. Most of the use consists of permanent pastures. But 33 percent of the global arable land is now used to produce livestock feed, the report said. One result is deforestation, as old-growth forests that absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide are cleared to create new grazing areas.

In Latin America, some 70 percent of forests in the Amazon region have been turned over to grazing, the U.N. said.

The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of carbon dioxide deriving from human-related activities and 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Most of this comes from manure.

The sector is also responsible for 37 percent of all human-induced methane, which is produced largely by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of all human-induced ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain, the report added.

While the problem of beef is not on the menu, so to speak, at the G8 environment meeting, reduction in consumption of resources is. Environmental NGOs in Kobe for the summit have emphasized the importance of international action to curb what has become a mammoth international industry that is harming the environment.

“The meat industry causes extensive damage and is linked to climate change and diversity loss. It’s clear the planet can’t sustain current levels of meat consumption and that people need to cut back,” said Jurgen Maier of the German NGO Forum on Environment and Development.