Forum for discussions about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration.


Postby BrianDavey » Sat Aug 30, 2008 7:02 am


'The Cow Is a Climate Bomb'

By Michaela Schiessl and Christian Schwägerl

Whether cattle are reared organically or with conventional farming methods, the end effect is bad for the environment, according to a new German consumer report. The agricultural lobby, however, is preventing politicians from tackling this massive source of greenhouse gas emissions........

.........On Monday Foodwatch published a comprehensive study of the effects of agriculture on the climate, the first study of its kind that differentiates between conventional and organic farming. The scientists who conducted the study, with Germany's Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IOeW), accounted for both the CO2 emissions resulting from the production of feed and fertilizers, as well as the land requirements and productivity of various production methods.

The results are enough to send diehard fans of steaks and burgers into a panic. Even if all farms and methods, organic or otherwise, were optimized to reduce their effects on the climate, Foodwatch concludes that the principal approach to making agriculture more climate-friendly would require a drastic reduction in beef production. This would mean a radical increase in the price of steaks and the like..........But when it comes time to break the bad news to the average citizen, politicians are suddenly thin on the ground. Agriculture is the blind spot in the German government's climate protection policy. Farmers are for the most part exempt from an ambitious national program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels by the year 2020......Officials at the German Agriculture Ministry headed by Horst Seehofer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), offer a disarmingly simple explanation: It is "too difficult, from a methodological point of view," to measure the greenhouse gases that are emitted in connection with fertilizer application, the spraying of pesticides and herbicides, cattle digestion and the draining of wetlands. Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry has a completely different take on the matter: "We have exempted agriculture from the climate protection strategy in order to limit the number of potential sources of conflict," says a senior member of the staff of Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the Social Democrat Party (SPD).

Hans-Joachim Koch, who, until recently, advised the government in his former capacity as chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment, is even more direct when he says: "The lobby is well-organized." His successor, Martin Faulstich, agrees. "No one dares to say that we ought to eat less meat and more plant-based protein," says Faulstich, who has announced plans to commission a special report on agriculture.

The results of the Foodwatch study clearly illustrate how important it is to include the farming sector.
The worst source of agricultural emissions, making up 30 percent of the total, is the draining of wetlands. The large amounts of CO2 trapped in the soil of wetlands are released when the land is used for farming. According to the IOeW study, the only way to stop these adverse effects on the climate would be to restore the wetlands. The resulting loss of land would have to be offset by doing away completely with the farming of crops for biofuels, a practice that is already considered questionable in terms of CO2 emissions, because of the large amounts of fertilizer it consumes.

But, in Foodwatch's assessment of the results of the IOEW study, organic agriculture is also not nearly as climate-friendly as many consumers believe. A complete conversion to climate-optimized organic farming, which requires more land, would reduce emissions by about 20 percent. However, this would be principally the result of not using nitrogen fertilizer, with its energy-intensive production and release of nitrous oxide in the fields.Nitrous oxide is 300 times as harmful as carbon dioxide..........The difference can be illustrated by drawing a comparison with automobile emissions. The production of one kilo of grass-fed beef causes the same amount of emissions as driving 113.4 kilometers (70.4 miles) in a compact car. Because of more intensive production methods, producing one kilo of conventional beef is the equivalent of driving only 70.6 kilometers (43.9 miles)............According to Foodwatch, having the agriculture sector participate in emissions trading is not feasible. Instead, Foodwatch wants to see the European Union eliminate its agricultural subsidies and introduce emissions taxes and environmental duties. This would reward farmers for CO2-friendly production. Consumers would be the ones paying for the new system, with the (intended) result being a substantial increase in the cost of meat, milk and cheese.
Environment Minister Gabriel holds very similar views. In a strategy document, which is still confidential, Gabriel actively seeks conflict with the agricultural lobby. According to Gabriel, €40 billion ($26 billion) in agricultural subsidies can only be justified if the money does not end up harming the climate. He also wants to introduce an environmental inspection system that would prohibit the importation of feed produced in former rainforest areas. According to the Gabriel document, "we need a radical restructuring of subsidies." It argues that farmers should only receive payment for things that "have a positive effect on nature and the environment."
In expressing these views, the environment minister is placing himself squarely in opposition to Seehofer and taking sides with the Brussels Commission, which hopes to redefine up to 17 percent of agricultural subsidies as quickly as possible, from direct payments to farmers to agricultural climate protection.

On Tuesday Seehofer, who opposes the idea, met with federal and state agricultural experts in Bonn to finalize a packet of climate protection measures. The plan includes proposals for "more efficient fertilizing," new animals that release less methane and investment assistance for the purchase of "environmentally-friendly agricultural equipment." It also calls for a reduction in the amount of farmland in use.
In truth, the plan merely calls for actions that have long been required or approved on a voluntary basis. Concrete conservation goals are not specified, and there is no mention of reducing the number of cows.

Seehofer's senior staff members are only too aware that these measures are not enough to noticeably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to high-level ministry officials, a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases from agriculture can only be achieved if everyone consumes less meat, milk, cheese and yoghurt. But the same officials concede that this is something they neither wish nor have the authority to require anyone to do.

Seehofer's staff fear that imposing a climate tax on meat or milk would lead to a social and political outcry -- and to outsourcing of production overseas. For this reason, they argue, it makes absolutely no sense to choose this route.

But Foodwatch believes that this is the only reasonable approach, and it is not alone in its assessment. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and many experts hold similar views. The Federation of German Consumer Organizations wants to see both the agricultural sector and the Advisory Council on the Environment be included in climate policy.

The Greens favor a climate bonus, and their European Parliament member Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf believes that a CO2 tax makes sense, as long as it is introduced for all industries. However, says Baringdorf, the tax should not be used to replace agricultural subsidies, and the subsidy system needs to be completely revamped.
Baringdorf, an organic farmer himself, says that a certain amount of restraint in meat production would be appropriate. "But let's be honest," he adds. "I don't believe that the world will come to an end because of cows burping and farting."
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Postby Bruce Darrell » Mon Sep 01, 2008 8:55 am

A very interesting article. I would love to get an English version of the full report from Foodwatch and the study from the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IOeW) (both available in German here)
The limited information that I can get from the graphs and diagrams is interesting but not very useful without the background context.

The production of one kilo of grass-fed beef causes the same amount of emissions as driving 113.4 kilometers (70.4 miles) in a compact car. Because of more intensive production methods, producing one kilo of conventional beef is the equivalent of driving only 70.6 kilometers (43.9 miles).

A kilo of cheese, produced conventionally, comes to 71.4 kilometers (44.3 miles) of driving, while organic cheese is somewhat more favorable, at 65.5 kilometers (40.7 miles). Producing a kilo of pork causes the equivalent of only 25.8 kilometers (16 miles) of driving, and only 17.4 kilometers (10.8 miles) for organic pork.

The statement that grass fed organic beef is more climate intensive that conventional (i.e. feedlot) beef is quite surprising, but this seems to be supported by few references I have found online. A website at promoting grass fed foods has this to say:

In the graph below, you can see IERE's side-by-side comparison of the two systems. The black bars represent feedlot animals and the green bars represent pastured animals. Although an animal raised on pasture actually produces more methane (represented by the bars in the category labeled "enteric") the pasture itself reduces the CO2 in the air through a process called "carbon sequestration." The net result is represented in the final bars on the right.

The verdict: fattening ruminants in a feedlot makes a significant contribution to global warming, while raising them on pasture may offset the animals' methane production and actually reduce greenhouse gasses.

This is something that I would like to look into further, to check and understand the background references. Although the feedlot cattle reach slaughtering weight earlier, I would have thought that the more nutritionally dense diet would have produced greater emissions.
IERE climate impact from beef.gif
Diagram from showing emissions and sequestration of grass fed beef (green) vs feedlot beef (black).
IERE climate impact from beef.gif (10.37 KiB) Viewed 7183 times
organic vs conventional diets.jpg
Diagram from original Spiegel article showing the difference between various diet types.
organic vs conventional diets.jpg (23.66 KiB) Viewed 7183 times
Bruce Darrell
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Postby Bruce Darrell » Mon Sep 01, 2008 9:48 am

Baringdorf, an organic farmer himself, says that a certain amount of restraint in meat production would be appropriate. "But let's be honest," he adds. "I don't believe that the world will come to an end because of cows burping and farting."

An amusing statement. The same could be said about flying to Italy, automobile traffic, buying an iPod, etc. None of them individually is a problem. It is the cumulative effect that is the problem.

But methane, especially from cattle, is a significant issue, particularly if we are looking at the possibility of runaway climate change within the next few decades. Methane has most of its warming impact over the first 12-15 years in the atmosphere, not over the century as is the case with CO2.

Cows are not the problem - it is the number of cows and their overall impact that is the problem, together with humans and other livestock.

Lester Brown highlights this issue at

In a rather ingenious approach to calculating the human physical presence on the planet, Paul MacCready, the founder and Chairman of AeroVironment and designer of the first solar-powered aircraft, has calculated the weight of all vertebrates on the land and in the air. He notes that when agriculture began, humans, their livestock, and pets together accounted for less than 0.1 percent of the total. Today, he estimates, this group accounts for 98 percent of the earth’s total vertebrate biomass, leaving only 2 percent for the wild portion, the latter including all the deer, wildebeests, elephants, great cats, birds, small mammals, and so forth.

Paul MacCready talked about this in a presentation he made at TED (technology environment and design) which can be viewed at

He created a graph (attached below) which showed the enormous increase in the total mass of land based vertebrates, including humans. The fact that livestock have replaced wild animals is tragic and well documented. But it is the enormous increase in the total mass that is the key problem here. Vertebrates are at the top of the food chain, and any ecosystem can only support a limited mass of vertebrates. From a climate standpoint, what is especially important is that a significant portion of the increased mass is in the form of methane generators.
Nature vs Humans.png
Graph from Paul MacCready showing the total global weight of all air and land vertebrates.
Nature vs Humans.png (131.48 KiB) Viewed 7182 times
Bruce Darrell
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