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Holy Cow: Less Meat and Dairy Better for You and the Planet

By Dr. Stuart Offer, Wellness Coach & Educator, Hickok & Boardman HR Intelligence.

I recently read an article that took my breath away, literally. According to the U.N.’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report livestock are responsible for 14 to 22% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, more than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. And it’s going to get worse as the standard of living rises in developing nations around the world. Global meat production is expected to more than double from 1999/2001 to 2050.

Living here in Vermont we may view the landscape dotted with farm animals as a beautiful pastoral scene. But as I have been uncovering these animals are living smokestacks, throwing methane emissions into the air. Our appetite for meat and dairy is taking a toll on our health, the environment, climate and animal welfare.

When we talk about greenhouse gases and carbon footprint seldom mentioned are the cows and other ruminants, such as sheep and goats. These animals put out methane and nitrous oxide that are far more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, a primary culprit from other industries. Methane has 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide and comes out from both ends of the cow, mostly from the front. It was a shock to learn that a single cow can belch out anywhere from 25 to 130 gallons of methane per day. Nitrous oxide, also called laughing gas, and there’s nothing funning here, has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide!

Researchers found, cutting out or down meat consumption would do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than trading in a gas guzzler for a hybrid!  If you eat one less burger a week for one year it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles. If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day per week for a year, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road!

Now let me say I am not becoming a vegetarian anytime soon but this really gave me a moment of pause and some thoughts on how my personal choices are affecting the planet.

As I delved deeper into the subject I learned livestock produced by conventional farming, aka factory farming, are one of the two or three top contributors to the world’s most serious environmental problems, including water pollution and species loss. They contribute to global deforestation of rain forests, as land is cleared to make way for pastures and to produce the crops that feed the animals, primarily corn and soy. The rain forests are crucial “carbon sinks”, the vast tracts of trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide.

There are many other solutions besides eating less meat that can help such as the Sterksel project in the Netherlands that is capturing the methane produced from pigs and turning it into electricity. In Denmark, by law, farmers now inject manure under the soil instead of laying it on top of the fields, a process that enhances