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Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain

Test EVERY Cow in the Food Chain
Like Other Countries Do

Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Vegan? or "Knife & Fork U"

It was 1987, and I was a first year student at De Anza College in California when my environmental/social justice awakening began. Their Liberal Arts degree program got me thinking about evolution, ancient history, and the magical ecological processes of planet Earth.

With other concerned students and supportive professors we launched the Green Future Club, hosted a Rainforest Awareness Week, and established an on-campus recycling project that exists to this day. I gave up my traditional Alberta-raised, British parent-influenced meat-centric diet, learned to soak beans and spice tofu, and reveled in my new 'direct action' veggie lifestyle.

Years later, still studying, still living in poverty, I was searching for affordable accommodation in Victoria. I found an opportunity with a compromise attached - the animal rights occupant insisted on a vegan flat-mate. What the heck, I thought, it's time for the next phase of my personal evolutionary growth. Who knew the rather enormous learning curve involved in living without any animal products at all! I'm now adept at reading labels, scanning websites for hidden animal products in products from soap to dental floss to beer and wine. I've never been physically healthier, or more spiritually self-satisfied.

[(a version of this article is published in the January/February Watershed Sentinel magazine -]

As mainstream corporate culture catches up with the awareness that scientists and informed citizens have been broadcasting for years, decades, about our need to make more environmentally friendly lifestyle choices, I'm eternally grateful to those who helped me learn, and think, and live as gently as possible on this beautiful planet. I hope this story, and the information that follows, inspires you to consider ways you can live a healthier and environmentally gentler lifestyle - for the good of all.

Beyond Carbon: What's Your Methane Footprint?

Though some continue to dispute it, the reality of the global climate crisis is now common knowledge. Phrases like 'greenhouse gases', and 'carbon footprint' are an integral part of our common lexicon. The discussion has shifted from whether we ought to act, to determining our best strategies. While mainstream discussions often focus on reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, other environmentally minded folk are considering the impact of our collective methane (CH4) footprint.

Basic Methane Facts

Methane is the main component in natural gas, and can be burned as fuel for heating, cooking, and transportation. Because it's commonly found throughout the solar system, NASA is considering methane as a potential rocket fuel.

Along with carbon dioxide, and some fluorinated gases, methane was an important part of the 2005 Kyoto Protocol discussion.1 Based on the amount of warming it causes, and the amount in the atmosphere, methane is considered the number two greenhouse gas.2 Over a hundred year time period, methane emissions have 25 times more impact on temperature than carbon dioxide emissions of the same mass.3"

Methane is produced by coalmining, landfills, decaying organic waste, and wastewater sludge, but animal agriculture is the number one source of emissions at 100 million tons per year.4 Interestingly, about 16% of the world's annual methane emissions are the result of cow burps.5 As cows digest their food, microorganisms break down the fibers and other nutrients. Hydrogen and carbon dioxide are released, and bacteria transform these into methane, up to 100 gallons of it per cow per day. The cows get rid of it mainly by burping.6

Capturing livestock methane

Ranchers and feedlot owners across America are working to capture livestock methane. "Energy recovery from methane, where economically viable, is of considerable benefit to the environment."7 A New Jersey landfill has been collecting methane since 2001 and currently generates about 13 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 13,000 homes for a year.8

In Argentina, researchers are managing cow burps by reducing grains, instead feeding alfalfa and other plants that are easier to digest. In an attempt to capture remaining cow burps, big red plastic tanks are strapped to the cow's backs, with tubes connecting the tanks to the cows' stomachs.9

Reducing your Methane Foodprint

Vegetarians, and especially vegans, sometimes marvel at the lengths people will go in order to protect their 'right' to consume animals. While methane capturing technology may prove useful in some instances, livestock methane can practically be eliminated with a simple paradigm shift - to a plant based diet.

In the 70s Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess distinguished between 'shallow' and 'deep' ecology. While shallow ecologists search for 'environmentally friendly' ways to live without significantly changing our often elaborate lifestyles, deep ecologists recognize the inherent value of all living beings and shape environmental policies accordingly. Deep ecologists "are motivated by love of nature as well as for humans. They recognize that we cannot go on with industrialism's 'business as usual.'"10

There are many reasons, aside from reducing greenhouse gases, to consider a plant based diet.

Leaders pledged, at the 1995 World Food Summit, to cut global hunger and extreme poverty in half by 201511 but, while world meat production has quadrupled in the past 50 years, approximately 840 million (about 14%) of earth's human population are still undernourished.12 The fact is, there are currently 3.5 times more livestock than humans on the planet - about 21 billion livestock animals which are, every day, consuming grains and cereals that might be fed to humans.13 "In 1900 just over 10% of the total grain grown worldwide was fed to animals; by 1950 this figure had risen to over 20%; by the late 1990s it stood at around 45%."14

While 1.5 billion people have no access to clean drinking water,15 about 70% of fresh water resources are diverted specifically for agriculture.16 According to Professor David Pimentel at Cornell University, 500 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of potatoes, 900 litres per kg of wheat, 3,500 litres per kg of digestible chicken flesh and 100,000 litres for 1kg of beef.17

In addition to inadequate food distribution systems, current methods of global food production also play a significant role in the continuing global food crisis. The industrial world exports grain to 'developing' countries, where an "efficient, plant-based agricultural model is being replaced with intensive livestock rearing, which also pollutes the air and water and renders the once-fertile land dead and barren."18

Health Considerations of a plant based diet

A Science Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research reports "the vast majority of all cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and other forms of degenerative illness can be prevented simply by adopting a plant-based diet."19 We also know that the risk of death from heart disease for vegetarians is half that of non-vegetarians, and vegetarians have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, gallstones, kidney disease, obesity, and colon disease.20 And let's not forget that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, first surfaced in England in 1986, with the most recent case in Canada reported in February 2008.21

It's easy to attain all the necessary vitamins and minerals from a plant based diet. The Vegetarian Society of England reports "excess dietary protein may lead to health problems Š one of the benefits of a vegetarian diet is that it contains adequate but not excessive protein Š it would be very difficult to design a vegetarian diet that is short on protein."22

Some vegans supplement their diets with vitamins and minerals including B12, iron, and calcium. There's plenty of good information available about how to live a healthy vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, and lots of people, including professional athletes, are doing it.

Animal Rights Reasons to consider a plant based diet

John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and Healthy at 100, suggests it's time to consider the impact of living alongside six billion others. "I just don't see any way that free range grass-fed beef can be anything other than a food for the privileged. It's just too resource intensive. If there were fewer of us, then I could see how it would work. But I can't turn my back on the literally billions of us who are hungry. Š. We can't continue to exploit the Earth, we've got to protect it and preserve it."23

George Monbiot, in a Guardian article titled Why vegans were right all along, concluded "as a meat-eater, I've long found it convenient to categorise veganism as a response to animal suffering or a health fad Š it now seems plain that it's the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue. We stuff ourselves, and the poor get stuffed."24

Lee Hall, Legal Director with Friends of Animals, believes "the life of the vegetarian is direct action. It is direct action for environmental justice. It is direct action for global food security, and thus for world peace. It is direct action for the liberation of other animals. The vegetarian addresses the most urgent social justice issues, and works not at the branches, but at the roots."25


A 2005 University of Chicago study, which examined both direct and indirect emissions gases (i.e., CO2 emissions due to fossil fuel combustion, and methane and nitrous oxide CO2-equivalent emissions due to animal-based food production), finds "a person consuming a mixed diet with the mean American caloric content and composition causes the emissions of 1,485 kg CO2-equivalent above the emissions associated with consuming the same number of calories, but from plant sources. Far from trivial, nationally this difference amounts to over 6% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. We conclude by briefly addressing the public health safety of plant-based diets, and find no evidence for adverse effects."26

From various perspectives, it's clear that a plant based diet is healthier for individuals and for the planet overall. Of course there are those in unique circumstances who will disagree for various reasons, but the time is now to engage the dialogue, do the research, and consider that direct action to save the world is as close as your next meal.


5 Miller, G. Tyler. Sustaining the Earth: An Integrated Approach. U.S.A.: Thomson Advantage Books, 2007. 160.
8 New Jersey Landfills Capture The Methane They Produce, Turn It Into Energy
11 FAO, 'The State of Food Insecurity in the World' 2002; republished at
12 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Agricultural Data 2002; republished at
13 ibid.
14 Prof. V. Smil, 'Rationalizing Animal Food Production,' in Feeding the World: A Challenge for the 21st Century, MIT Press, London, 2000; republished at
16 FAO, Review of agricultural water use per country; republished at
17 R. Goodland & D. Pimentel, 'Sustainability and Integrity in the Agriculture Sector,' Ecological Integrity: Integrating Environment, Conservation and Health, D. Pimentel, L. Westra, R. F. Noss (eds), Island Press, 2000; republished at
19 T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., Senior Science Advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research; republished at
20 Virginia Messina, coauthor of the American Dietetic Association position paper on vegetarian diets, Messina, Mark, and Messina, Virginia, The Dietician's Guide To Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications, Aspen Publishers, Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1996, pg. 58; republished at
24 George Monbiot, "Why Vegans Were Right All Along," Guardian Unlimited, 24 Dec. 2002
25 "Bringing Social Justice to the Table" -
26 "Diet, Energy, and Global Warming" -

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