Making Meat and Fuel: A Recipe for Climate Change?

There’s been a lot of talk the last few days about the "ingredients," if you will, that go into making biofuels—fuel made from plants and other biomass. Two recent studies in the journal Science have shown that instead of saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), biofuels are actually contributing to climate change and global warming.

How? The answer is pretty simple. Prior to these new studies, scientists, energy experts, and the biofuels industry were leaving land use changes—deforestation, conversion of grasslands, etc.—out of the equation. Forests, savannahs, peatlands, grasslands, and well-managed pastures act as carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it up. Destroying those areas to plant biofuel crops releases the carbon and, according to an article in the New York Times, will make climate change worse rather than better.

And it’s not just the biofuels industry that ignores land use changes. The carbon (and methane and nitrous oxide) footprint of producing meat, eggs, and dairy products has also been overlooked. Like biofuels, food animal production—especially in facilities that confine hundreds and even thousands of animals—precipitates land use changes. In just the last five months of 2007, more than 3,000 square kilometers of forest in the Brazilian Amazon has been destroyed thanks to high prices for beef and soybeans. Even slaughterhouses are being built where rainforests used to stand.

A recent article published in Environmental Health Perspectives (coauthored by my colleague Danielle Nierenberg) suggests that consumers and policymakers need to think more about not just reducing meat consumption, but considering all of the ingredients—from the production of fertilizers to grow livestock feed to deforestation—that go into meat production.

Our fuel and our diets will likely never be carbon neutral, but there are steps we can take to make them climate friendly.