What, Me Sacrifice? Take 2

Sacrifice is not a message most Americans want to hear when it comes to what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint; my favorite, from a party held in conjunction with the LiveEarth concerts on July 7, was to take only one napkin with your fast food, not a handful. A study from Japan offers support to more meaningful action. The researchers have calculated that one beef cow during its lifetime is responsible for 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (that is, greenhouse gases with the same heat-trapping power as that much CO2). In more user-friendly terms, that means a couple pounds of beef—about what Americans would buy to grill for a family of four carnivores this weekend—is responsible for about as much greenhouse gas emissions as “driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home,” as the British weekly New Scientist calculates.

The study, published in the August issue of Animal Science Journal, examines beef production from calf birth to slaughter, including transporting feed but not the meat. Most greenhouse gas emissions from cattle production are methane (the always-good-for-a-laugh fact that ruminants release methane from the nether end of their digestive systems), while almost all the CO2 itself is the result of fossil fuel used to generate energy to produce and transport feed. For those who can stomach neither beef-abstinence nor the purchase of enough carbon offsets to balance their carnivory, cheer up: a 2003 study from Sweden concluded that organic beef, from cattle that eat the grass they trod rather than concentrated feed trucked to them, is responsible for 40 percent less greenhouse emissions than standard beef, and requires 85 percent less energy to produce, pound per pound.