Monday, December 29, 2008

Global Warming - Its What’s for Dinner!

(Published May 7, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

The other day, I was thinking; because, you know, that’s just something I do. Nothing short-circuited, but it did make some smoke bellow from my ears.

The subject of all this effort, believe it or not, was cows. Not the cute, talking ones affiliated with Chick-fil-a, mind you, but more regarding their 1.3 billion non-talking, non-standing grain fed brethren.

The issue goes to the environmental impact of mankind’s agricultural activities, but also the sustainability of those same activities in a modern system of agribusiness, which is entirely dependant on oil to make food.

In a culture which is accustomed to a stream of incessant entertainment and infotainment, but lacking a solid understanding of physics and science which a high school graduate would possess, it is regrettably not an issue high on the radar screen.

In other words, the environment is not as interesting as say, Brittney Spears.

As we are all stakeholders in about the only decent planet around, maintaining the biosphere should be interesting, or at least important.

Globally, cattle emit an estimated 100 million tons of methane annually, the result of anaerobic digestion of grass and grain in their 7 tummies. Methane is the second major green house gas resulting from human activities, behind carbon dioxide.

Granted, there are other sources of methane, such as rice cultivation, coal mines, land fills, and other ruminants, such as sheep, goats and buffalo.

In the case of mines and landfills, the methane can be captured and used as an energy source, while preventing the gas from reaching the atmosphere to act as a warming agent. An example of this strategy is the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Sylva.

Dr. James Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has suggested that a methane reduction strategy could effectively slow global warming in the short term in his paper “Global Warming in the 21st Century: An Alternative Scenario.”

Methane has a 10 to 12 years life cycle in the atmosphere, compared to the 120 years cycle for carbon dioxide. Thus, reductions in methane emission have a relatively quick reduction on warming.

Currently, on a global scale, food prices have risen dramatically over the last several weeks, an indication of the amount of fossil fuel energy used to produce food. On average, about 10 calories of fuel energy are expended to create 1 calorie of food energy. As a result, an increase in energy prices is magnified in the price of food to consumers.

In the case of beef production, the ratio is closer to 60 to 1. Let’s examine the steps. Natural gas is used to create fertilizer. Oil is used to create pesticides. John Deere powered mechanization is used to plant, maintain, and harvest grain. Tractor trailers haul the grain to the cattle. Tractor trailers haul the cattle to processing, which incidentally is a rather cruel process for the Moo-moos. Finally, they haul beef to supermarkets and burger joints. Viola! Dinner is served!

In the coming few decades, as oil prices continue to climb and supplies start to drop off, one strategy may be to produce our own locally grown food to minimize the dependence on the dwindling resource. In fact, the issue extends into the realm of food security, two words which have not been typically used together to describe the situation in the US.

Well, all this ruminating has left me a bit peckish. Probably mosey over to The Library for a Filet Mignon and a martini. You know, hand mashed potatoes and olives are considered veggies. Then I’ll probably download some Brittney Spears.

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