- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Earlier this month Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (of the Kennedy Kennedys) was asked at a congressional hearing if a 2002 over-the-top quote attributed to him - that hog farmers are a greater threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden - was accurate. “I don’t know if that (quotation) is accurate, but I believe it and support it,” said Kennedy, who has been waging a substantial legal fight against the meat industry for years. While one may question Kennedy’s judgment, he does have a point, whether his testimony that a single hog consignment can put out more pollution than a city of a million people is spot-on or not.

One sentence in another recent news article backed up Kennedy’s concerns and was dumbfounding: “The trillions of farm animals around the world generate 18 percent of the emissions that are raising global temperatures, according to United Nations estimates, more even than from cars, buses and airplanes.” Hey, between the New York Times and the U.N., they couldn’t make up this stuff, right? No wonder a 187-nation gathering of environment ministers held talks in December in Poznan, Poland, on a new treaty to combat global warning, with U.N. climate officials calling agriculture one of the two most “problematic” sectors, the other being transportation.

Both ends of cows and other ruminants discharge flatus (mainly methane that traps heat 25 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide); animal manure contains not just methane but nitrous oxide, which is even more powerful a warming agent. Animals need a lot of land and feed such as soy, which contributes to clearing forests and their trees and vegetation that absorb carbon dioxide. Meat also requires refrigeration from farm to marketplace to home. Ever more animals are needed - in large developing countries like China, India and Brazil, meat consumption is soaring, and globally is expected to double between 2000 and 2050.

There are various partial solutions short of the obvious one preferred by vegetarians (eat no meat) or dietitians (eat less meat). In Sterksel, the Netherlands, a Times article said a group of farmers cook manure from their 3,000 pigs to capture the methane trapped within it, and then use the gas to make electricity for the local power grid; California is working on a similar program. Other, more high-tech, projects include inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane. Some do-gooders want a “sin tax” on pork and beef and, in Sweden, they now label food products so shoppers can tell how much emission can be attributed to steak compared to, say, turkey (a pound of beef has 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a pound of chicken and 100 times as much as a pound of carrots, a Swedish group says). In Denmark, farmers must bury manure under the soil, which enhances its fertilizing effect, reduces odors, and prevents emissions from escaping. New Zealand will by 2013 include agriculture in its new emissions trading scheme.

In Maryland, the Department of the Environment has new rules this year bringing the state in line with most other states regulating where, how and how long chicken farmers can spread manure on their fields or store it in outdoor piles. This is no small matter, as the poultry industry, concentrated along the Eastern Shore, is Maryland’s most lucrative form of agriculture and one of its largest employers, contributing more than $700 million annually to the state’s economy. Its 570 million chickens create piles of manure, which not only fill the air with ammonia but in some cases leech with runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, one of the nation’s most polluted estuaries. The phosphorous and nitrogen spawn algae that deplete oxygen needed by other aquatic life. The crab population has fallen 70 percent in the past two decades, while the number of working oystermen has plummeted from 6,000 to less than 500. Agriculture accounts for over 40 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous in the Bay and over 70 percent of the sediment.

Some Maryland farms have been working to help the environment, planting trees and environmental buffers around chicken houses and feeding the birds an ingredient to cut down on phosphorous in their manure, some of which they recycle in the world’s largest chicken manure recycling plant, which produces organic fertilizer pellets.

While neither Burger King nor Chic-Fil-A is likely to go out of business anytime soon on account of a sudden aversion to belching cows or pooping fowl, the role that agriculture plays in the environment is a serious issue that clearly deserves attention. The farmers of Sterksel in the Netherlands, the officials of the Department of the Environment for the State of Maryland, and Kennedy (bin Laden comment aside) may be on to something helpful.

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