Every environmental scientist warns that meat no longer threatens just animals or human health but the planet’s very survival. With grain prices at an all time high, 26 countries are suffering from food crises. Burma has lost its crops in Cyclone Nargis. Our own wheat has been damaged by hailstorms in May! We’ve gone from grain exporter to importer. The time for seminars is past, we’re already in the midst of global warming, it’s time to act.
Global warming refers to a significant rise in the planet’s temperature making it uninhabitable. It happens thus: the earth is warmed by energy from the sun. In order to maintain its temperature, the earth must radiate some of that energy back into the atmosphere. However, certain atmospheric gases form a blanket around the earth, allowing solar radiation to penetrate, but preventing it from escaping. The more these greenhouse gases, the hotter the earth.
The major greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. This article deals with methane because it is your food choice that determines its levels. While livestock production creates 65% of nitrous oxide better known as laughing gas (except there’s nothing funny about a gas that has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide), it is most dangerously responsible for methane.
Colorless, odorless and lighter than air , methane acts as a powerful heat trapper. Its Global Warming Potential (GWP) is the measure of any greenhouse gas’s warming effects over time. One kg of carbon dioxide over 20 years has a GWP of 1 while that of methane is 11! The Earth’s crust and mud volcanoes contain huge amounts of methane. There is also a large but unknown amount of methane in ocean floors which global warming could release causing a further surge in global temperatures. Such releases of methane may have contributed to earlier major extinction events. In terms of human activity, the most significant source of methane is animal husbandry or the commercial rearing of animals which produces 37% of all human-induced methane .
Much of the world's livestock are ruminants like sheep and cattle who have a unique, four-chambered stomach. In the chamber called the rumen, bacteria break down food, generating methane as a by-product. On average, each dairy cow belches out 500 litres of methane daily accounting for 16% of the world's annual methane emissions. Plus there’s cattle fart. The 60 million methane tons that cattle annually generate is almost one fifth of all global methane emissions.
Today, methane concentrations in the atmosphere are more than double what they’ve been for the past 160,000 years. Scientists worry about a global warming vicious cycle. Warming already underway thaws permafrost soil that has been frozen for thousands of years. Thawed permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which traps more heat which thaws more permafrost and so on. “The higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost we melt, the more vicious the cycle," says Chris Field of Washington’s Carnegie Institution.
Let’s look at methane emission and global warming in terms of India.
India has the world’s highest cattle population and the highest (alongwith China) methane emissions. It has 11% of the world’s total livestock which continues to grow in response to the demand for milk and meat. This livestock population consumes Rs. 2 crore of feed PER DAY and produces 78% of India’s total methane emission from the agricultural sector and 50% of overall emissions .
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the result of greenhouse gas emissions would mean an average temperature increase in Asia of 3°C by 2050 and 5°C by 2080. How will this affect an agricultural country like India?
The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has stated that global climate change will cause the monsoon to be delayed and often uncertain. Agricultural productivity will be hit by severe drought and flooding , soil degradation and pest infestation (bugs thrive in the heat). Even allowing for adaptation options like shifting growing seasons for major crops, wheat yields could decline by as much as 28-68% and rice by 40%. The World Bank estimates that a temperature rise of 2-3°C will cause a 9-25% loss in farm revenues . This is borne out in J&K where over the last two decades, temperatures have already risen almost 2 °C, paddy fields have turned into arid stretches and food production has fallen by 40%. Fisheries would also suffer as breeding cycles undergo a drastic change, as also the food processing industry since increased temperatures would hamper food storage. More refrigeration would mean more greenhouse gases and more global warming—a terrible Catch 22 situation! All in all climate change could cost India a GDP decline of upto 9%.
With a population of over one billion people, India is among those most threatened by climate change. Receding Himalayan glaciers could jeopardize water supplies while rising sea levels menace the low lying, densely populated 6500 km Indian coastline as well as major cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, plus neighboring Bangladesh which may result in an influx of refugees into adjoining Meghalaya. A one meter rise in sea level could inundate 1700 sq km of prime agricultural land in Orissa and West Bengal. Already several islands in the Sundarbans are submerged, displacing thousands of people. Increased landslides and flooding is projected in Assam . Greenpeace predicts that seven million Indians will need relocation should global temperatures rise by even 2 °C. Another report showing that temperatures would rise more in Northern than Southern India, calculates that the yearly average of tropical disturbances in the North Indian Ocean could increase from 17 to 29 endangering 5760 sq km of land and 4,200 sq km of road.
Already the effects of climate change are evident if only one cared to notice. India’s climate has become increasingly volatile and this trend is expected to continue with increasing frequency of hot days and heat waves and fewer cold days and cold waves. The incessantly rising temperatures and the unprecedented rains in Mumbai, Gujarat and Rajasthan clearly show that something new is happening. In the past decade, almost 67% of Himalayan glaciers have retreated, by 2035 they could virtually disappear. These glaciers are the source of water for nine major Asian rivers. Their melting would undoubtedly lead to increased summer flows and possibly flooding followed, in a few decades, by a reduction in the flow as the glaciers disappear. According to a 2007 WWF report, the end of the glaciers would mean the end of the Indus River causing a water crisis.
The urgency of the situation has not yet dawned on Indian policy-makers. There is not even an effort to understand the implications of climate change, let alone evolve systems to mitigate its impact. "We have not even put in place mechanisms to carry out an inventory of GHG emissions, as mandated by the UN. Although there is money coming from the global environmental fund, there is no system to plan and make use of the fund properly," say experts at IIT Delhi. India remains one of the world's top polluters, currently contributing around 4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Well, if government isn’t attempting to prevent climate change, you can. Animal farming is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this the feed and transportation of animals plus the supplies and electricity consumed by farms and slaughterhouses. And, most damagingly, deforestation with 55 sqft of tropical rain forest consumed for every hamburger. Once a carbon depository, the deforested Amazon is now a major carbon emitter. The total impact of animal farming on global warming is more than that of the world’s entire transport sector – land, air and sea combined! The FAO has unequivocally stated that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems" . Yet politicians and even environmentalists prefer to ignore this, concentrating instead on carbon dioxide and its major sources — fossil fuels. Now it may be difficult to take cow flatulence seriously except that meat animals are walking gas factories consuming fodder and producing methane and nitrous oxide, gases far more dangerous than carbon dioxide. You can help reduce both simply by choosing not to use or eat animals and animal products. The less demand for meat and dairy, the less animals produced, the less greenhouse gases, global warming and climate change. It’s now up to you.
To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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