As the Times points out today, farm animals generate an astonishing 18 percent of the world's most ill-smelling greenhouse gas emissions, more than cars, trucks and buses combined. That includes the impact of rainforests being cleared in the Amazon, primarily for cattle and cattle feed. The nascent technological solution being debated at the UN's Poznan conference this week is methane-capture projects. When they work right, they're awesome—transforming barnyard waste into fuel, fertilizer, and fungible carbon credits.
Yet the size of this solution right now is nowhere near adequate to the size of the problem. According to the US EPA's AgStar program, which promotes methane capture projects, there are currently 111 such systems around the US. That's out of .... 70,000 dairy and swine farms. Smithfield Foods alone, the nation's largest hog farm operator, in 2005 slaughtered 27 million animals. Each one produces three times as much excrement as a human being, approximately none of which is treated or filtered in any way before being released into the land and water. The fumes alone can literally kill people.
Methane capture remains a pie-in-the-sky solution for a pies-on-the-ground problem. The true answer for those concerned about the future of the planet is simple: eat less meat. The appetite for meat has increased with affluence, up 200 percent in developing countries since the 60s, and of course Americans eat more meat than any civilization in history except maybe the Mongols or the Masai. Dr. Rajenda Pachauri, the Nobel Laureate and head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, mentioned when I heard him speak at Yale last spring that he has started to recommend a vegetarian or near-vegetarian diet outright to anyone who is concerned about the future of the planet. For every pound of beef replaced with a pound of carrots you'll save 19 pounds of CO2, and fight an industrial-food system that "In Defense of Food" author Michael Pollan deems "broken."
It's been 17 years since I chowed my last burger, and I've learned the hard way that suggesting a meatless diet is still a grave social taboo in the country that invented McDonald's. However, maybe eco-preaching can be avoided in favor of a clever marketing campaign to connect filet mignon in the collective consciousness with "flatus."