Books on global warming

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2008:

The Hot Topic:
What We Can Do About Global Warming
by Gabrielle Walker
& Sir David King
Harcourt (6277 Sea Harbor Drive,
Orlando, FL 32887-6777), 2008.
256 pages, paperback. $13.00.

Six degrees:
Our Future On A Hotter Planet
by Mark Lynas
National Geographic Books
National Geographic Society (1145 17th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036), 20
335 pages, hardcover. $26.00.

“Agriculture accounts for about 13% of
global greenhouse gas emissions, approximately
the same amount as transport,” Gabrielle Walker
and Sir David King acknowledge on page 105 of The
Hot Topic, in their first and only more than
fleeting mention of the contribution of animal
husbandry to global warming.

“Almost none of this comes from carbon
dioxide,” Walker and King explain. “Though huge
amounts of carbon dioxide do pass between the
atmosphere and agricultural crops every year,
the balance is more or less zero. It’s the
sister greenhouse gases–methane and nitrous
oxide–that matter most here. Agricultural
methane comes from a variety of places,” Walker
and King continue, “and almost always involves
microbes feasting on organic matter in places
where there is little or no oxygen. Thus the
biggest sources are the guts of cows, sheep,
and water buffalo.”
Reducing the numbers of cows, sheep,
and water buffalo raised for human consumption
would therefore appear to be as helpful in
combating global warming as reducing the numbers
of cars, or improving vehicular gas mileage.
But Walker and King never so much as mention that
“There are various ways to control
agricultural emissions,” Walker and King
suggest, “almost all of which involve increasing
the efficiency of how we use our land. For
instance, better diets for livestock makes
them–to put it frankly–belch less. In New
Zealand, scientists are studying how to change
the microbates that cows use to digest their food
to encourage them to make sugars instead of
methane҆Agricultural lands could even be
encouraged to become net sinks of carbon,”
propose Walker and King, “by reducing the amount
of plowing, which disturbs the soil and
encourages microbes to mobilize the carbon that
it contains.”
Walker is a contributing editor for New
Scientist. King was formerly the chief science
advisor to the Tony Blair government in the
United Kingdom. In that capacity King in
October 2007 supported cattle farmers who then
and now seek to kill badgers to prevent outbreaks
of bovine tuberculosis–after the
government-appointed Independent Scientific Group
concluded that although badgers can carry bovine
TB, massacring them tends to accelerate the
spread of the disease, as infected badgers
wander farther to find mates and healthy badgers
spread into territory where some infected
survivors persist.
As Royal SPCA head of wildlife science
Rob Atkinson observed, “The government’s
study–which took almost 10 years, cost the lives
of more than 10,000 badgers and cost taxpayers
¬£34 million–showed killing badgers is actually
likely to make matters much worse.”
Despite King’s role then as in effect a
spokesperson for the cattle industry, neither
King nor Walker seems aware that finding ways to
produce more crop yield relative to tillage has
been an obsession of agronomists since the Dust
Bowl years during the Great Depression of the
1930s, and that some of the most rapid advances
in that direction came about 35 years ago with
the introduction of no-till corn planting.
Instead of disc-harrowing a field before
planting, a no-till farmer need only clear the
field of vegetation that might compete with corn
seedlings by dowsing the soil with herbicides,
wait a few days for the herbicides to break down
enough in sunlight that they will not harm young
corn, and then sow seed corn kernels with a
device called a seed drill, which essentially
injects them into the ground at an appropriate
No-till cultivation minimizes topsoil
loss due to erosion, previously the bane of
corn-growers, necessitating soil rebuilding with
manure after every harvest. A no-till farmer can
often just saturate the fields between crops with
hog slurry, which soaks in quickly without the
need to plow it under.
No-till is so efficient compared to
traditional corn-growing that it made raising
corn to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens more
economical than ever before, in turn enabling
the explosive growth of confinement husbandry
that markedly cut the price of meat relative to
other commodities and sent U.S. corn production
and meat consumption soaring.
Other nations have followed the U.S. in
turning toward to no-till and raising huge fodder
corn crops to feed livestock. Just half a
century ago most of the corn in the world was
produced for direct human consumption. Humans
now eat more corn than ever, yet 70% or more of
the total global corn crop is grown to feed
livestock. Most of those animals represent the
net increase in per capita meat-eating over that
Plowing less is accordingly unlikely to
do very much to slow the pace of global warming.
But raising fewer animals for meat could have a
marked and dramatic effect, while increasing the
volume of grain available for human consumption
several times over.
Though their topic is “What we can do
about global warming,” Walker and King obtusely
ignore the most obvious answer, but at least
acknowledge the problem. Mark Lynas in Six
Degrees never even gets warm.
Lynas discusses corn growing and cattle
grazing in Nebraska on pages 29-30, where “Beef
and corn dominate the economy.” Lynas describes
the vulnerability of the Nebraska topsoil and
water supply to the potential effects of global
warming. Yet Lynas never looks at the
contribution of raising beef and corn for cattle
fodder to the climatic problem that he foresees
as a looming threat to the beef and corn
Lynas comes closest to making the
connection on page 195. “As the Chinese diet
becomes increasingly rich in meat and dairy
products,” Lynas writes, “more grain is
needed. By 2030, if Chinese consumers are to
become as voracious as Americans, they will use
the equivalent of two-thirds of today’s entire
global harvest.”
But Lynas does not discuss Chinese
potential demand for meat and dairy products in
terms of greenhouse gas yield. The major
conseqence Lynas sees is that, “One study
conducted by the United Kingdom and Chinese
governments suggests that by the latter third of
the 21st century, if global temperatures are
more than three degrees highest than now,
China’s agricultural production will crash.
Yields of staple crops like rice, wheat, and
corn will decline by nearly 40%, perhaps more if
water supplies for irrigation run out.”
If rice, wheat, and corn were only
raised for human consumption, not to
inefficiently feed to livestock for slaughter,
global output of these grains could decline by
40% next year, while nearly doubling the
presently tight supply of grain available to feed
“Given that world foodstocks are already
at historical lows because of population growth
and droughts,” Lynas writes, criticizing the
notion that biofuels are an effective response to
global warming, “devoting more of our best
farmland to growing fuel for cars seems close to
insane. It may also be immoral,” Lynas
continues. “Because car-owning people are by
definition among the world’s rich elite, using
food crops to replace gas would create scarcity
and drive up food prices on the commodity
markets, leaving the poorest to starve. The
reality is simple: you can use land to feed cars
or to feed people, but not both.”
Overlooked is that the same argument
applies to growing fodder crops for
factory-farmed pigs and poultry.
“A related question arises with the
European Union’s target of 5% biofuels in its
vehicle fleet by 2010,” Lynas adds. “Much of
this fuel will come from biodiesel, and a major
feedstock for this is palm oil grown on
plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. These
plantations have been responsible for disastrous
clear-cutting of the fast-declining natural
tropical forests, destroying the habitat of rare
species like the orangutan and causing major
additional carbon releases through the burning of
wood and underlying peat.”
This is all correct–and this same
argument applies to clearing tropical forests in
Central and South America and parts of Africa to
expand grazing lands used to produce beef.
A hint as to why Lynas is so determinedly
oblivious to the role of meat production in
creating global warming comes when he mentions
that “Anti-wind farm campaigners truly concerned
about dangers to bird populations would probably
be served to grab a shotgun and conduct a cull of
the local neighborhood cats.”
Among other details, the birds most
menaced by wind power generation include hawks
and owls, who are in no way menaced by cats.
What Lynas advocates as the best solution
to global warming is for humanity to retreat to
essentially the lifestyle of a time when
shotgun-owning people were the world’s rich
elite–an argument that King, for one, rejected
in a recent interview with Oliver Berkeman of The
“There is a suspicion, and I have that
suspicion myself, that a large number of people
who label themselves ‘green’ are actually keen to
take us back to the 18th or even the 17th
century,” King said. “I think that is utter
hopelessness. What I’m looking for is
technological solutions to a technologically
driven problem, so the last thing we must do is
eschew technology.”
Concludes Lynas, “Just as people were
better off and healthier in Britain under food
rationing during the Second World War, so most
of us would see a dramatic improvement in our
quality of life if ‘carbon rationing’ were
introduced by the government.”
Presumably Lynas does not incorporate the
terror of the Blitz or the disease threats
occasioned by bombed water and sewer lines in his
assessment of “better off and healthier.”
The major food commodities that were
rationed in Britain during World War II were
meat, milk, and eggs, a point Lynas fails to
mention. Some people were “better off and
healthier” through avoiding the effects of
consuming animal products, and that could be
repeated, but is more likely to occur, along
with slowing global warming, if what really
needs to be done is actually discussed.
The technological solutions that King
seeks may or may not be found. Yet finding a
relatively quick, clean fix to much of the
global warming problem is as simple as abandoning
the meat habit.

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