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Can we cool the Earth by eating less red meat?

Two scientists writing in a major health journal are heating up a debate about global warming: whether eating less meat will help cool temperatures.
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Cows produce not just red meat but also flatulence — especially when eating. And that emission contains methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.Brandi Simons / Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Two scientists writing in a major health journal are heating up a debate about global warming: whether eating less meat will help cool temperatures.

In a special energy and health series in the medical journal The Lancet, Tony McMichael of the Australian National University in Canberra and John Powles of Britain’s University of Cambridge said worldwide average meat consumption could be realistically reduced by 10 percent.

Doing so, they say, would decrease the amount of methane gas emitted by cows, sheep and goats. Such methane flatulence is a major greenhouse gas, the kind that most scientists tie to global warming.

But a Washington think tank funded by restaurants and food companies wasn't at all pleased.

"Something doesn't smell quite right here," David Martosko, research director at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said in a statement. "It's sad that a few scientists truly believe cow flatulence is the biggest threat to humanity.

"If someone can breed livestock that emits less methane, I'm all for it," he added. "But consumers are never going to give up their steaks, milkshakes, and drumsticks. This opinion paper doesn't offer convincing reasons why they should."

McMichael and Powles noted that demand for meat is increasing worldwide. In China, for instance, people are eating double the amount of meat they used to a decade ago.

Global average meat consumption is currently 100 grams per person a day but there is a tenfold variation between high-consuming and low-consuming populations.

Other ways of reducing greenhouse gases from farms — like feeding animals higher-quality grains — would only have a limited impact, the authors said.

Worldwide, agricultural activity accounts for about a fifth of total greenhouse-gas emissions and livestock production has a particularly big impact because of the methane.

And while global methane emissions are much lower than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, methane is about 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The scientists said that reducing meat consumption would not only help to battle warming but also reduce health risks associated with excessive consumption of red meat.

The food think tank had different advice.

"The authors of this opinion paper say governments should tell consumers to eat less meat on environmental grounds," Martosko said. "The last time I checked, people who want to be vegetarians already have that option. But it should be their choice."