As More Eat Meat, a Bid to Cut Emissions
NY Times, December 3, 2008
"STERKSEL, the Netherlands — The cows and pigs dotting these flat green plains
in the southern Netherlands create a bucolic landscape. But looked at through
the lens of greenhouse gas accounting, they are living smokestacks, spewing
methane emissions into the air.
That is why a group of farmers-turned-environmentalists here at a smelly but
impeccably clean research farm have a new take on making a silk purse from a
sow’s ear: They cook manure from their 3,000 pigs to capture the methane trapped
within it, and then use the gas to make electricity for the local power grid.
Rising in the fields of the environmentally conscious Netherlands, the Sterksel
project is a rare example of fledgling efforts to mitigate the heavy emissions
from livestock. But much more needs to be done, scientists say, as more and more
people are eating more meat around the world.
What to do about farm emissions is one of the main issues being discussed this
week and next, as the environment ministers from 187 nations gather in Poznan,
Poland, for talks on a new treaty to combat global warming. In releasing its
latest figure on emissions last month, United Nations climate officials cited
agriculture and transportation as the two sectors that remained most "problematic."
The trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the
emissions that are raising global temperatures, according to United Nations
estimates, more even than from cars, buses and airplanes.
But unlike other industries, like cement making and power, which are facing
enormous political and regulatory pressure to get greener, large-scale farming
is just beginning to come under scrutiny as policy makers, farmers and
scientists cast about for solutions.
High-tech fixes include those like the project here, called “methane capture,”
as well as inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane, which traps
heat with 25 times the efficiency of carbon dioxide. California is already
working on a program to encourage systems in pig and dairy farms like the one in
Other proposals include everything from persuading consumers to eat less meat to
slapping a “sin tax” on pork and beef. Next year, Sweden will start labeling
food products so that shoppers can look at how much emission can be attributed
to serving steak compared with, say, chicken or turkey.
But such fledgling proposals are part of a daunting game of catch-up. In large
developing countries like China, India and Brazil, consumption of red meat has
risen 33 percent in the last decade. It is expected to double globally between
2000 and 2050. While the global economic downturn may slow the globe’s appetite
for meat momentarily, it is not likely to reverse a profound trend.
Of the more than 2,000 projects supported by the United Nations’ “green”
financing system intended to curb emissions, only 98 are in agriculture. There
is no standardized green labeling system for meat, as there is for electric
appliances and even fish.
Indeed, scientists are still trying to define the practical, low-carbon version
of a slab of bacon or a hamburger. Every step of producing meat creates emissions.
Flatus and manure from animals contain not only methane, but also nitrous oxide,
an even more potent warming agent. And meat requires energy for refrigeration as
it moves from farm to market to home.
Producing meat in this ever-more crowded world requires creating new pastures
and planting more land for imported feeds, particularly soy, instead of relying
on local grazing. That has contributed to the clearing of rain forests,
particularly in South America, robbing the world of crucial “carbon sinks,” the
vast tracts of trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide.
Producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a
pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots, according to
Lantmannen, the Swedish group.
But any suggestion to eat less meat may run into resistance in a world with more
carnivores and a booming global livestock industry. Meat producers have taken
issue with the United Nations’ estimate of livestock-related emissions, saying
the figure is inflated because it includes the deforestation in the Amazon, a
phenomenon that the Brazilian producers say might have occurred anyway.
United Nations scientists defend their accounting. With so much demand for meat,
“you do slash rain forest,” said Pierre Gerber, a senior official at the United
Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Soy cultivation has doubled in Brazil
during the past decade, and more than half is used for animal feed.
Laurence Wrixon, executive director of the International Meat Secretariat, said
that his members were working with the Food and Agriculture Organization to
reduce emissions but that the main problem was fast-rising consumption in
Estimates of emissions from agriculture as a percentage of all emissions vary
widely from country to country, but they are clearly over 50 percent in big
agricultural and meat-producing countries like Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.
In the United States, agriculture accounted for just 7.4 percent of greenhouse
gas emissions in 2006, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The percentage was lower because the United States produces extraordinarily high
levels of emissions in other areas, like transportation and landfills, compared
with other nations. The figure also did not include fuel burning and land-use
In Denmark, by law, farmers now inject manure under the soil instead of laying
it on top of the fields, a process that enhances its fertilizing effect, reduces
odors and also prevents emissions from escaping. By contrast, in many parts of
the developing world, manure is left in open pools and lathered on fields.
Others suggest including agriculture emissions in carbon cap-and-trade systems,
which currently focus on heavy industries like cement making and power
generation. Farms that produce more than their pre-set limit of emissions would
have to buy permits from greener colleagues to pollute.
New Zealand recently announced that it would include agriculture in its new
emissions trading scheme by 2013. To that end, the government is spending tens
of millions of dollars financing research and projects like breeding cows that
produce less gas and inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane, said
Philip Gurnsey of the Environment Ministry.
At the electricity-from-manure project here in Sterksel, the refuse from
thousands of pigs is combined with local waste materials (outdated carrot juice
and crumbs from a cookie factory), and pumped into warmed tanks called
digesters. There, resident bacteria release the natural gas within, which is
burned to generate heat and electricity.
The farm uses 25 percent of the electricity, and the rest is sold to a local
power provider. The leftover mineral slurry is an ideal fertilizer that reduces
the use of chemical fertilizers, whose production releases a heavy dose of
For this farm the scheme has provided a substantial payback: By reducing its
emissions, it has been able to sell carbon credits on European markets. It makes
money by selling electricity. It gets free fertilizer.
And, in a small country where farmers are required to have manure trucked away,
it saves $190,000 annually in disposal fees. John Horrevorts, experiment
coordinator, whose family has long raised swine, said that dozens of such farms
had been set up in the Netherlands, though cost still makes it impractical for
small piggeries. Indeed, one question that troubles green farmers is whether
consumers will pay more for their sustainable meat."
Dr. Ann C. Wilkie Tel: (352)392-8699
Soil and Water Science Department Fax: (352)392-7008
University of Florida-IFAS
P.O. Box 110960 E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Gainesville, FL 32611-0960
Campus location: Environmental Microbiology Laboratory (Bldg. 246).
BioEnergy and Sustainable Technology Society