Few creatures would seem as beneficent as the cow. Properly grazed and groomed, it gives us burgers and brie, boot leather and fertilizer. Lately, however, radical green groups and celebrity vegans like Paul McCartney have made cows out to be weapons of mass destruction: not only has their meat caused an epidemic of hypertension and heart disease, but they also trample rainforests, trash the soil, and foul the air with greenhouse gases. Scientists say that every year the average Holstein produces up to 180 kilos of methane, which traps 25 times more heat than does carbon dioxide. All told, bringing meat from the pasture to the griddle produces 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the United Nations. Last year, Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, called upon everyone to give up eating meat at least one day a week, giving birth to the global meatless Monday. "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat," McCartney famously said.
Perhaps. But since 1960, worldwide production of meat has quadrupled to more than 280 million tons a year. Even if everyone in the rich nations swore off meat today, consumption would continue to soar, driven by the protein-hungry rising middle classes of China, Brazil, and other developing nations. For this reason, serious environmental planners have recently focused not on eliminating the meat industry but on turning it green.
It's a tall order. Making beef, pork, or chicken can be an environmentally devastating process, from felling forests for pastures to the fossil fuel required to produce fertilizer for feed crops. Compared with tofu production, meat-making gobbles up 17 times as much land, 26 times as much water, 20 times the fossil fuels, and 6 times as many chemicals, according to Plenty magazine. And among animal proteins, beef is the real hog; producing a kilo of beef takes up seven times more farmland than it does to produce a kilo of chicken and 15 times the area needed for a kilo of pork. Yet scientists, herders, and green groups are convinced they can curb the damage by making adjustments all along the supply chain, changing the way we farm and feed livestock and building a cleaner cow through modern genetics. Suddenly, the search for what food activist and author Michael Pollan calls "green meat" has become a worldwide effort.
The effort starts with the beast itself. When a cow eats, its stomach produces methane as a byproduct. Cows are pretty efficient at eating grass, but the soybeans and corn that most industrial livestock farms feed them make the bovine stomach rumble with excess gas. To fight this, some farms in Vermont and France have begun to roll back the clock. The owners of the Stonyfield Farm in Vermont found they could improve health and boost milk production in the herds, and reduce methane emissions, by eliminating the soybean- and corn-based feed that became popular during the bumper harvests of the Green Revolution. Instead, they give their cows old-fashioned flax and alfalfa, which are packed with nutrients and benign fatty acids. This tactic, widely used in France, is now being replicated elsewhere in the U.S. In Canada, where cattle grazing accounts for 72 percent of total greenhouse-gas emissions, scientists are tinkering with the chemistry of feed—adjusting the balance of key nutrients such as cellulose, ash, fat, sugar, and starch—as another way of lowering the cow's carbon footprint.
The more ambitious projects involve tinkering with the cow's genetic code. Researchers at the University of Alberta are examining the DNA in cows' four stomachs to identify the genes responsible for making them burp and regulating how much gas they produce. In time, they hope to be able to breed cleaner cows, which could reduce emissions from cows by 25 percent, says Stephen Moore, professor of beef-cattle genomics at Alberta. Researchers at Colorado State University have identified DNA markers that they believe will help them selectively breed animals to digest their food more efficiently and so produce less methane.
Cutting down forests to make room for livestock farms is another big reason meat is environmentally unsound. Brazil has in recent years risen as an agricultural power-house, but it now ranks as the fourth—biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, thanks mainly to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Though the pace of felling has dropped, 12,900 square kilometers of rainforest (an area larger than Jamaica) were destroyed last year, releasing 160 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. As national leaders prepare to make a new pact in Copenhagen for curbing climate change this December, international green groups have criticized Brasília for its plans to build roads through the Amazon and for bowing to the farm lobby, which has expanded its frontier to the lip of the rainforest.
Many leaders in business and government are embracing the green agenda. Brazilian meatpackers like Marfrig, food sellers like Wal-Mart, footwear companies such as Timberland, and thousands of ranchers have signed on to a moratorium on using beef from recently deforested areas. "For years, the way to produce cattle was to chop down the forest to plant pastures," says Ocimar Vilela, head of environmental sustainability at Marfrig. "Now customers are demanding we change, and these demands are here to stay."
Still, the livestock industry has a long way to go. Many of the reforms are just getting started and are only being tried at a few farms, and many advances are still in the testing phase. No matter how green the business gets, meat will still weigh heavily on the planet. But going green seems to be the only realistic path. Even if everyone in the rich nations swore off meat today, consumption would continue to soar, thanks to the burgeoning middle classes of China, Brazil, and other nations. Brazilians today eat 89 kilos of red meat and poultry a year, nearly triple the per capita consumption of 15 years ago, while the average Chinese citizen consumes close to two and a half times more meat than he did in 1990. Even India is getting a taste for red meat—its beef consumption jumped 36 percent in the past decade. Overall meat consumption in poorer countries is growing by more than 5 percent a year, twice the world rate, making meat the most coveted agricultural commodity in recent history. The global recession has surely slowed the trend, but appetites once whetted are hard to blunt. Although meat is a health problem in the West, to many poor nations it's a boon. "Even small additional amounts of meat and milk can provide the same level of nutrients, protein, and calories to the poor that a large and diverse amount of vegetables and cereals could provide," concludes a study by the International Food Policy Research Center in Washington. "Who is going to tell the developing world's new consumers, 'Sorry, you can't eat beef'?" says Paulo Adário, an expert in the livestock industry at Greenpeace. Of course, with green beef, you might not have to.