The cows, pigs and chickens in the room

First came Harvey, with as much as $180 billion in damage to the Houston area. Then came Irma at $100 billion in damages to Florida. Maria destroyed Puerto Rico, and Nate finished off Dominica. And the hurricane season isn’t over. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming will increase the intensity of storms and that global warming is the consequence of human activity.

For most of us not in the pocket of the carbon exploitation industries or under the influence of the alternative facts forced upon us by the climate denial movement, fossil fuels are the focus of our attention, and to the extent we feel any power to influence the future of our planet, the reduction of fossil fuel production and use becomes the focus of our personal efforts. We change our light bulbs to LEDs, purchase Energy Star appliances, insulate our homes, put solar panels on our roofs, bicycle or walk to work, and buy hybrid or all-electric vehicles when we can’t. If we’re truly serious, we wean ourselves from the profits that oil stocks contribute to our retirement by divesting our portfolios.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, (, the U.S. transportation sector — cars, buses, trucks and trains — contribute a whopping 30 percent of our total contribution to global warming. Nearly everyone agrees this is an important place to start, and we’re more than happy to show off our “environmental cred” by driving a new Prius, Volt or Leaf. We’re happy to talk at a party about the new solar panels on our roof. But just mention an area where we, as individuals, might have the most impact on global warming, and watch it fall flat, the silence deafening. What am I talking about? Meat. The cows, pigs and chickens in the room.

According to a 2006 United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report, our diets, and specifically the meat in them, spew more carbon dioxide, methane and nitric oxide, the main greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry (Scientific American, February 2009). What? Let’s start with beef. First, a cow’s ruminative digestive system, necessary to digest raw plant material, makes it belch out methane, a gas that has 21 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Second, beef cattle are generally gathered in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and fattened with corn, seven pounds of corn to produce one pound of beef. The production of corn contributes directly to global warming. Third, cattle in CAFOs produce huge amounts of manure, stored in lagoons, which releases even more methane. The Union of Concerned Scientists report that a pound of beef produces 18 times the greenhouse gas emissions as a pound of pasta. Although poultry and swine convert grain more efficiently to meat protein, they are still predominantly raised in CAFOs, their manure still emitting methane.

Finally, the melting icing on the cake, deforestation. The Union of Concerned Scientists ( reports that beef cattle production is the number-one driver globally for deforestation, more than twice as much as the next three drivers combined. According to Scientific American ( deforestation adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum of all the cars and trucks in the world.

Americans eat a lot of meat, 270 pounds per year on average, four times the global average. We set the standard, but the rest of the world is catching up. What can you do as an individual to help global warming? Well, you can drive less and carpool to environmental marches. But you can also eat less meat. Next time you’re in a restaurant, look around, look for the cows, pigs and chickens in the room. Order the pasta.

Steven Sonnenberg lives in Saranac Lake.