The Food Revolution: Once Upon a Planet, Part II

Editor's Note: Continuing with our Food Revolution Series, John Robbins talks about the direct connection between our food choices and global warming. Note that some of the figures used are a little out of date, as this is from a 2001 publication - but are still highly relevant and go to show that John was ahead of his time, writing about these issues when most of us were asleep to all things global warming.

by John Robbins, an author widely recognized as one of the world's leading experts on the intimate link between diet and environmental and personal health. Amongst others, John is the author of the revolutionary book 'Diet for a New America', a book nominated for a pulitzer prize, as well as the updated 'Food Revolution' and 'Healthy at 100'.

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The Heat Is On

If the Earth were the size of a basketball, the part of the atmosphere where weather occurs and all organisms live would be as thin as the film of water vapor from a single human breath. It’s within this gossamer thin veil that all life on Earth exists. It’s also here that the buildup of greenhouse gases is destabilizing our climate and throwing the viability of the biosphere into jeopardy.

The atmosphere is a complex mixture of gases that envelops the world. For countless centuries, the atmosphere has remained stunningly stable, as it must to maintain conditions conducive to life. If the concentration of oxygen, for example, were to increase by 20 percent, all vegetation on Earth would burst into flame and virtually all life on the planet would be destroyed, most of it within a few hours.(14) The concentration of another of the atmosphere’s gaseous constituents, carbon dioxide, has also remained remarkably stable over countless centuries—that is, until now. When we burn fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) and forests, we pump enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In what by any measure of Earth time is a mere microsecond, we have raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25 percent. Most of that gain has occurred in only the last 40 years. As long as we keep on burning fossil fuels and forests, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to skyrocket out of control.

As the concentration of carbon dioxide continues to increase, which it inevitably will unless we make major changes, Earth’s vegetation won’t catch on fire. But many scientists expect the ice caps to break up, the seas to rise, storms to worsen, pests to spread, and entire ecosystems to die.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program in the early 1990s to ascertain what is certain, and what is speculative, about climate change. The panel, made up of leading climate scientists from 98 countries, studied the problem exhaustively and issued a 1995 report warning the world that global warming is an indisputable reality. The report did not have one or two lead authors, as is usual for scientific papers, but 78 lead authors and 400 contributing authors from 26 countries, whose work had been reviewed by 500 additional scientists from 40 countries, and then re-reviewed by 177 delegates representing every national academy of science on Earth.(15)

The findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were unequivocal. There is simply no question any longer. Our burning of fossil fuels is destabilizing the world’s climate and is likely to unleash devastating weather disturbances and disasters. It is absolutely imperative that we cut carbon emissions all over the world, but particularly in the industrial nations where these emissions are the heaviest. In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new report, revising its estimates. Global warming, they said, was nearly twice as serious and dangerous as their own previous calculations, done five years earlier, had indicated.

Of course, human beings have always altered the world. We’ve always been busy as beavers, building houses, damming rivers, plowing fields, cutting trees, and changing things in countless other ways to suit ourselves. But huge increases in population and even greater increases in technological capability have exponentially amplified our ability to create change.

Living indoors in heated and air-conditioned buildings, as many of us do today, we can forget how vulnerable we are to atmospheric conditions. Stephen Schneider is a climatologist who spent twenty years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He is currently a professor at Stanford University and an advisor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He recently described what even a four-degree warming over the next century—now a very conservative estimate of what we may encounter—would mean.

“By and large, most of us can adapt to one degree. But four degrees is virtually the difference between an ice age and a warm epoch like we’re in now. It takes nature ten thousand years to make those kinds of changes, and we’re talking about changes like that on the order of a century. There isn’t an ecologist anywhere who thinks that we can adapt to that without dramatic dislocation to the species in the world, and to agriculture and other patterns of living that depend on climate.” (16)
If a four-degree increase would cause that much disruption, imagine the impact of a much larger increase, which the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates is likely. According to this report, the next century is expected to bring an increase of anywhere from 2.7 to 11 degrees. If they are correct, global food security will be dealt brutal blows by the loss of biodiversity and by massive flooding of coastal areas. Such flooding would devastate coastal croplands.

This can sound like bad science fiction and seem unbelievable at first. But it is unfortunately all too real. The changes we are causing go far beyond a simple rise in temperature. If we continue to radically alter the envelope of gases that surround the planet and sustain life, there will be all kinds of other effects, from bizarre weather to localized crop failures to ecosystem collapses. Schneider says we can only speculate about some of them. The Gulf Stream could change direction or stop, and if it did, while the world was warming, Europe would freeze. The destruction of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise sea levels by tens of feet, flooding coastlines and inundating island nations. (17)

There have been many extreme weather events in the past. Yet as Bill McKibben, author of the environmental bestseller about global warming, The End of Nature, points out,

“Climate changes all the time, but it changes slowly. We’re doing it at an enormous rate of speed. . . . That has real consequences. . . . Natural systems can’t adapt to that sort of speed of change. . . . With the ability to change climate, you change everything. You change the flora and the fauna that live at a particular place. You change the rate at which the rain falls and at which the rain evaporates. You change the speed of the wind. You change the very ocean currents. . . . Nothing that we’ve ever done as a species is as large in its effect as this. . . . An all-out nuclear war would have been a consequence of the same magnitude. But happily, we stepped back from that brink. Unhappily, we’re not stepping back from this one.” (18)
What would it take to step back? We’d have to dramatically reduce our burning of fossil fuels, and convert to sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydrogen. To avoid devastating consequences, it is imperative that we dramatically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that we are emitting into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, much as the meat industry has sought to confuse the public about the harm it causes, the coal and oil industries have hampered efforts to bring about needed changes. Even as weather extremes were wreaking staggering damage in 2000, Exxon/Mobil declared in an ad on the op-ed page of the New York Times, “Some . . . claim that humans are causing global warming, and they point to storms or floods to say that dangerous impacts are already under way. Yet scientists remain unable to confirm either contention.” (19)

Actually, scientists were nearly unanimous in confirming both contentions. Scientific groups ringing the alarm bell included the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Princeton; the Goddard Institute of Space Studies of NASA in New York; the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado; the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; the Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research in the United Kingdom; and the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg. (20) Meanwhile, the Greening Earth Society, a creation of the Western Fuels Coal Association, was citing the opinion of a few “greenhouse skeptics,” without mentioning that most of them are on Western Fuels’ payroll, and then proclaiming that more warming and more carbon dioxide is good for us because it will promote plant growth and create a greener, healthier natural world.

Ross Gelbspan is a veteran reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. He is also the author of The Heat Is On: Climate Crisis and Coverup, an award-winning book that documents the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to spread confusion and prevent public officials from taking needed actions. He responds, “They forget to mention that peer-reviewed science indicates the opposite. While enhanced carbon dioxide creates an initial growth spurt in many trees and plants, their growth subsequently flattens and their food and nutrition value plummets. As enhanced carbon dioxide stresses plant metabolisms, they become more prone to disease, insect attacks, and fires.” (21)

In fact, rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane, along with corresponding changes to the gaseous composition of the atmosphere, have already raised global temperatures and caused enormous damage. The frightening thing is that we may be only beginning to witness what will unfold.

In the last 35 years of the twentieth century, the Arctic Ocean ice thinned by 40 percent. In 2000, the polar ice at the top of the world melted for the first time in human memory. If any explorers had been trekking to the North Pole that summer, they would have had to swim the last few miles. Many scientists believed there had not been so much open water in the polar region in 50 million years. Other scientists predicted that summer ice in the Arctic Ocean could disappear entirely by 2035. (22)

It was no secret why this was happening. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had increased the Earth’s temperature. In 2000, it was announced that of the 25 hottest years that had occurred since Earth temperature record keeping began in 1866, 23 of them had occurred after 1975. (23)

That same year, E magazine, for only the second time in its history, dedicated an entire feature section to a single topic—global warming. The magazine’s editor, Jim Motavalli, explained that crazy and extreme weather episodes had been increasing, but that was only part of the story. Scientists had confirmed:

“Dramatic and permanent environmental changes. Sea level is rising in the Pacific, inundating small islands and threatening larger ones. Reefs around the world are dying from coral bleaching. Coastal resorts from New Jersey to Antigua are losing their beaches, and making a desperate attempt to hold back restless seas. The populations of California’s tidal pools and Washington State’s glacial slopes are changing dramatically. In the Antarctic, huge ice floes the size of American states are breaking off, and insect pests are killing the great coniferous forests of Alaska. Coastal cities like New York are battening down the hatches, and giant ozone clouds hide the Indian Ocean in gloom.

“Worldwide climate change on this scale cannot be explained as part of a natural cycle. . . . The crisis is manmade, but the responsibility is not spread evenly over the Earth. Some 73 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from industrialized nations, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The largest single source is the United States, which alone accounts for 22 percent of total world emissions, or five tons of carbon dioxide per U.S. citizen, per year.” (24)

November 1996 brought a once-in-200-years flood to the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The assumption, when the flood subsided, was there would not be another one for two centuries. The next once-in-200-years flood occurred, however, three weeks later. (25)

Even taking into account the growth in urban populations, the increase in damage from severe climate events has been staggering. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, wreaking greater damage than any storm to hit the region in 300 years. In 1996, China was hit by a flood that killed more than 3,000 people and caused $26 billion in damages, breaking the record set by Andrew for the costliest natural disaster in world history. In 1998, China was struck by an even more devastating flood, this one causing $36 billion in damages, exceeding by itself the entire world’s damages from all natural disasters in any year prior to 1995. In one watershed, 56 million people were flooded from their homes. During the same summer, Bangladesh was struck by a flood that put two-thirds of the densely populated country under water and left 21 million homeless. A couple months later, Hurricane Mitch killed 18,000 people in Central America. (26)

As the intensity of extreme weather events has increased, international aid agencies have struggled valiantly to respond. In 2000, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies said that climate change was manifesting “in a catalogue of disasters such as storms, droughts, and flooding unparalleled in modern times.” (27)

What We Know

  • Economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1980: $2.8 billion (28)
  • Average annual economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1980–1984: $6.5 billion (29)
  • Economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1985: $7.2 billion (30)
  • Average annual economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1985–1989: $9.2 billion (31)
  • Economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1990: $18.0 billion (32)
  • Average annual economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1990–1994: $27.6 billion (33)
  • Economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1995: $40.3 billion (34)
  • Average annual economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1995–1999: $58.5 billion (35)
  • Economic losses from weather-related disasters, worldwide, 1999: $67.1 billion (36) (All figures in 1998 dollars)
Gas Pains

For almost all of the past 10,000 years, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has remained constant, at about 280 parts per million. Then, about 100 years ago, it began, slowly at first, to rise. Now we’re at 360 parts per million, a concentration of carbon dioxide that has not existed on Earth for at least 400,000 years.

While there are many human activities that are driving this alarming trend, agriculture turns out to be surprisingly significant. But not all forms of agriculture are equally to blame. Different food choices and different forms of food production have vastly different impacts on global warming.

The use of large amounts of nitrogen fertilizers in the United States is a driving force behind climate change, because ammonium nitrate, the most common form of nitrogen fertilizer (and also an ingredient in explosives), is essentially congealed natural gas, a fossil fuel. (37)

The impact on the atmosphere is extreme. Alan Durning and John Ryan of the Northwest Environment Watch say the U.S. economy consumes nearly a pound of ammonia per person per day, mostly as nitrogen fertilizer. They add that one-quarter of the nitrogen fertilizer used in the United States is applied to corn eaten by livestock. (38)

The production of any kind of food uses energy, and as long as that energy is derived from coal, oil, and gas, carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. But when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, not all foods are the same. Not nearly. . .

What We Know

  • Calories of fossil fuel expended to produce 1 calorie of protein from soybeans: 2 (39)
  • Calories of fossil fuel expended to produce 1 calorie of protein from corn or wheat: 3 (40)
  • Calories of fossil fuel expended to produce 1 calorie of protein from beef: 54 (41)
  • Amount of greenhouse-warming carbon gas released by driving a typical American car, in one day: 3 kilograms (42)
  • Amount released by clearing and burning enough Costa Rican rainforest to produce beef for one hamburger: 75 kilograms (43)
Since beef requires the burning of 54 fossil fuel calories for the production of a calorie of protein, and soybeans require only two, people deriving their protein from soybeans are, in effect, consuming only 4 percent as much energy—and producing only 4 percent as much carbon dioxide—as people deriving their protein from beef.

By the same token, since corn or wheat require the burning of only 3 fossil fuel calories to produce a calorie of protein, people deriving their protein from beef are, in effect, burning 18 times as much energy—and producing 18 times as much carbon dioxide—as people deriving their protein from corn or wheat.

This is not just the opinion of anti-meat activists. In 1996, the Journal of Animal Science agreed, in an article titled “Ecosystems, Sustainability, and Animal Agriculture.” The article’s authors stated that “results [of extensive research at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Reserve Laboratory at Miles City, Montana] pointedly reveal the high level of dependency of the U.S. beef cattle industry on fossil fuels.” (44)

Scientists, even those writing in animal industry journals, agree that modern meat production is responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. This doesn’t prevent the cattlemen, however, from denying there is a problem. . .

Is That So?

“The overall energy efficiency of beef often is comparable, or even superior, to the energy efficiency of plant-source foods.”— National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (45)

“American feed (for livestock) takes so much energy to grow that it might as well be a petroleum byproduct.”— Worldwatch Institute (46)

Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. (47) Concentrations of atmospheric methane are now nearly triple what they were when they began rising a century ago. The primary reason is beef production.

According to the EPA, the world’s livestock are responsible for 25 percent of the world’s anthropogenic methane emissions (those that are based in human activity). (48) Once again, however, when challenged, the U.S. meat industry manages to maintain its unique perspective.

Is That So?

“[It’s a] myth that U.S. cattle produce large amounts of methane, a ‘greenhouse’ gas, thereby contributing significantly to possible global warming problems.”— National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (49)

“Livestock account for 15 percent to 20 percent of (overall) global methane emissions.”— Worldwatch Institute (50)

In 1999, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a book analyzing American society and explaining how things we do in our daily lives affect the environment. Focusing on global warming, the report concluded that the two most damaging things residents of this country do to our climate are drive vehicles that get poor gas mileage and eat beef. (51)

Deeply implicated, the U.S. meat industry has joined with the coal and oil industries in seeking to deny the existence of what may well be the most momentous development in human history.

Is That So?

“The evidence of global warming has been inconclusive at best . . . whether [there exists] a warming trend is unclear.” — National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (52)

“Global warming has emerged as the most serious environmental threat of the 21st century. . . . Only by taking action now can we insure that future generations will not be put at risk.” — Letter to the president from 49 Nobel Prize-winning scientists (53)

Stabilizing our climate would help resolve what many scientists consider to be the gravest environmental danger humankind has ever faced. Each of us has a part to play in shifting our culture toward a way of life that respects the natural world. The choices we make and the way we live can play roles in turning the tide. By eating in a way that is congruent both with our own health and the health of the biosphere, we can help our society to face and to turn around the enormous environmental challenges of our times. The more people move toward plant-based food choices, the greater the possibility that our species will not only survive, but will thrive.

A cultural shift toward a plant-based diet would be a step toward environmental sanity. It would be an act of love for all generations yet to come.

Editor's Note: Continue to Once Upon a Planet, Part III


14. Ayres, Ed, God’s Last Offer (New York/London: Four Walls Eight Windows Publishers, 1999), p. 16. 15. Ibid., p. 12. 16. Quoted in Suzuki, David, and Dressel, Holly, From Naked Ape to Superspecies (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1999), p. 59. 17. Suzuki and Dressel, From Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 59. 18. Quoted in Suzuki and Dressel, From Naked Ape to Superspecies, p. 60. 19. Quoted in Gelbspan, Ross, “Reality Check: The Global Warming Debate Is Over . . .,” E, September/October 2000, p. 24. 20. Sagan, Carl, Billions and Billions (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 108. 21. Gelbspan, “Reality Check,” p. 25. 22. Brown, Lester, “OPEC Has World over a Barrel Again,” Worldwatch Institute Alert 8, September 8, 2000. 23. Brown, Lester, “Climate Change Has World Skating on Thin Ice,” Worldwatch Institute Issue Alert 7, August 29, 2000. 24. Motavalli, Jim, “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot,” E, September/October 2000, p. 4. 25. Ayres, God’s Last Offer, p. 52. 26. Ibid., pp. 48–49. 27. Quoted in Keys, David, “Global Warming Creates Unstable Earth,” UK Independent News, August 7, 2000. 28. Dunn, Seth, “Weather Damages Drop,” Vital Signs 2000, Worldwatch Institute, p. 77. 29. Ibid. 30. Ibid. 31. Ibid. 32. Ibid. 33. Ibid. 34. Ibid. 35. Ibid. 36. Ibid. 37. Ryan, John, and Durning, Alan, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (Seattle: Northwest Environment Watch, 1997), p. 55. 38. Ibid. 39. Pimentel, David, and Pimentel, Marcia, Food, Energy and Society (1979), p. 59; and Pimentel, et al., “Energy and Land Constraints in Food Protein Production,” Science, November 21, 1975; cited in Lappé, Frances Moore, Diet for a Small Planet, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), pp. 74–5. 40. Ibid. 41. David Pimentel at Cornell University gave the figure of 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of protein from beef in Food, Energy and Society, p. 59; and in Pimentel, et al., “Energy and Land Constraints in Food Protein Production”, Science, November 21, 1975. This figure was also cited in Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, pp. 74–5. More recently, however, Pimentel has updated the figure to 54 calories. 42. “The Price of Beef,” WorldWatch, July/August 1994, p. 39. 43. Ibid. 44. Heitschmidt, R. K., et al., “Ecosystems, Sustainability, and Animal Agriculture,” Journal of Animal Science 74 (1996):1395–1405. 45. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production: Energy Use,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, displayed on the Web site of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 2000. 46. “The Price of Beef,” p. 39. 47. Ciborowski, P., “Sources, Sinks, Trends and Opportunities,” in Abrahamson, D., ed., The Challenge of Global Warming (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1989); see also Khalil, M., and Rasmussen, R., “Sources, Sinks, and Seasonal Cycles of Atmospheric Methane,” Journal of Geophysical Research 88 (1983):5131–44. 48. Halweil, Brian, “United States Leads World Meat Stampede,” Worldwatch Issues Paper, July 2, 1998. 49. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production: Methane Production,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, displayed on the Web site of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in 2000. 50. Durning, Alan, and Brough, Holly, “Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment,” Worldwatch Paper 103, July 1991. 51. “Group’s Surprising Beef with Meat Industry: Study Ranks Production of Beef, Poultry and Pork as Second to Automobiles in Ecological Cost,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 27, 1999; see also Brower, Michael, and Leon, Warren, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists (New York: Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishers, 1999). 52. “Myths and Facts about Beef Production: Methane Production.” 53. Booth, W., “Action Urged against Global Warming: Scientists Appeal for Curbs on Gases,” Washington Post, February 2, 1990.

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