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Friday, December 5, 2008

From hoof to dinner table, a new bid to cut emissions




The cows and pigs dotting these flat green plains in the southern Netherlands create a bucolic landscape. But looked at through the lens of greenhouse gas accounting, they are living smokestacks, spewing methane emissions into the air.

That is why a group of farmers-turned-environmentalists here at a smelly but impeccably clean research farm have a new take on making a silk purse from a sow's ear: They cook manure from their 3,000 pigs to capture the methane trapped within it, and then use the gas to make electricity for the local power grid.


Rising in the fields of the environmentally conscious Netherlands, the Sterksel project is a rare example of fledgling efforts to mitigate the heavy emissions from livestock. But much more needs to be done, scientists say, as more and more people are eating more meat around the world.


What to do about farm emissions is one of the main issues being discussed this week and next, as the environment ministers from 187 nations gather in Poznan, Poland, for talks on a new treaty to combat global warming. In releasing its latest figure on emissions last month, United Nations climate officials cited agriculture and transportation as the two sectors that remained most "problematic."


"It's an area that's been largely overlooked," said Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He says people should eat less meat to control their carbon footprints. "We haven't come to grips with agricultural emissions."


The trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the emissions that are raising global temperatures, according to United Nations estimates, more even than from cars, buses and airplanes.


But unlike other industries, like cement making and power, which are facing enormous political and regulatory pressure to get greener, large-scale farming is just beginning to come under scrutiny as policy makers, farmers and scientists cast about for solutions.


High-tech fixes include those like the project here, called "methane capture," as well as inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane, which traps heat with 25 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide. California is already working on a program to encourage systems in pig and dairy farms like the one in Sterksel.


Other proposals include everything from persuading consumers to eat less meat to slapping a "sin tax" on pork and beef. Next year, Sweden will start labeling food products so that shoppers can look at how much emission can be attributed to serving steak compared with, say, chicken or turkey.


"Of course for the environment it's better to eat beans than beef, but if you want to eat beef for New Year's, you'll know which beef is best to buy," said Claes Johansson, chief of sustainability at the Swedish agricultural group Lantmannen.


But such fledgling proposals are part of a daunting game of catch-up. In large developing countries like China, India and Brazil, consumption of red meat has risen 33 percent in the last decade. It is expected to double globally between 2000 and 2050. While the global economic downturn may slow the globe's appetite for meat momentarily, it is not likely to reverse a profound trend.


Of the more than 2,000 projects supported by the United Nations' "green" financing system intended to curb emissions, only 98 are in agriculture. There is no standardized green labeling system for meat, as there is for electric appliances and even fish.


Indeed, scientists are still trying to define the practical, low-carbon version of a slab of bacon or a hamburger. Every step of producing meat creates emissions.


Flatus and manure from animals contain not only methane, but also nitrous oxide, an even more potent warming agent. And meat requires energy for refrigeration as it moves from farm to market to home.


Producing meat in this ever-more crowded world requires creating new pastures and planting more land for imported feeds, particularly soy, instead of relying on local grazing. That has contributed to the clearing of rain forests, particularly in South America, robbing the world of crucial "carbon sinks," the vast tracts of trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide.


"I'm not sure that the system we have for livestock can be sustainable," said Pachauri of the United Nations. A sober scientist, he suggests that "the most attractive" near-term solution is for everyone simply to "reduce meat consumption," a change he says would have more effect than switching to a hybrid car.


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