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Cargill Cattle Plant Closes: Global Warming Casualty?

RP Siegel | Friday January 25th, 2013 | 9 Comments

cattleIt sounds a bit like justice served, doesn’t it? When Cargill announced the closing of its Plainview, Texas, cattle operation, they cited a record low cattle supply as the result of the region’s severe drought. Though scientific models don’t yet have the precision to directly tie a particular weather event, be it a storm or a drought, to global warming trends, there is plenty of evidence indicating that drought is clearly increasing as the result of the changing climate. More clear is the linkage between the beef industry and the changes to our planetary thermostat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that somewhere between 14 and 22 percent of all greenhouse gases were generated directly by the meat industry. Scientific American says that beef production produces 13 times as much global warming as chicken production, and 57 times as much as growing potatoes.

In fact, the U.S. cattle herd is the smallest it has been since 1952, due, not just to the drought, but also to increased feed costs. Herd liquidations are taking their toll as well. Beef consumption in 2011 was 25.6 billion pounds, down 8.25 percent from a decade earlier. The decline over the past five years was even steeper, at over 12 percent. According to Dr. Robert Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health this trend is driven primarily by health concerns rather than environmental ones.

The drought, which has been declared a natural disaster in 597 counties in 14 states, severely impacted the domestic corn and soybean crop, pushing feed prices higher.

Meat producers have pointed fingers at the ethanol mandate, also known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for adding to the pricing pressure. However, increased production in other countries in response to the US drought resulted in a global corn crop that was only 2 percent below the year before.

Most of the 2000 employees who work at the facility are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local Union 540 which is urging the company to relocate as many workers as possible to other plants.

It would be nice to imagine that there was a kind of closed loop process, in which the effects of our actions would be subject to a kind of self-regulating mechanism as the title of this piece somewhat wishfully suggests. Unfortunately, although such a mechanism exits theoretically, in practice there is a problem. Because the half-lives of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are so long, (40 years+ for CO2, 7 years for methane) it takes a long time for any changes to take effect. That means that even if we were to completely stop emitted greenhouse gases tomorrow, it would take several decades for the atmospheric concentrations to decrease.

That is what makes this problem so difficult to confront. Because if we wait for the concentrations to get high enough for the effects to make themselves so apparent, beyond any shadow of a doubt, with enough force to overcome the objections of those entrenched interests who stand to profit handsomely by delaying action (some might say that is where we are now), it will likely be too late to avoid very serious consequences.

[Image credit: Fellowship of the Rich: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


▼▼▼      9 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Bill

    Did you know the FOA has now recanted earlier statements about how much greenhouse gas is produced by animal agriculture. They now say less than 6% by ALL agriculture. Responsible journalist check their facts.

    • RPSiegel

      Bill, Thank you for this, but you apparently neglected to include a link to your source. As somehow who has been following this story closely, I am surprised to have heard nothing about it.

  • disqus_DqZNq1JkEP

    This person is a brain dead drone liberal! Ever heard of la Nina! It’s called a weather pattern and the earth goes the it’s cycles. So in 1952, was it global warming that caused the droughts back then? U are brainwashed! Get a life

    • Tory

      Why are you dragging politics into this? Increased severity of events like La Niña and El Niño are exactly what climate models predict

  • Raider

    While “global warming” is an easy answer, the fact is that the demand for corn and other ag-based food sources for the production of ethanol mandated by this country is a grotesque waste of our most valuable resource–water. More importantly, ethanol is less efficient than convential fuel and even more wasteful of resources. The glancing mention of ethanol in this article tells me that the author alredy had their mind made up prior to writing the article, let alone doing any real research.

  • mjonesx

    Thanks for the overview about the meat industry. For over 30 years I have steered clear of meat after reading “Diet for a Small Planet”. Unfortunately, countries like China are getting richer and demanding more meat in their diets. It seems like a large task for folks to see the big picture.

  • Laura B.

    Take a look at what environmental investigator and activist George Monbiot has to say on the matter (2010). He attributes his shift in understanding to the book that Simon Fairlie wrote called “Meat: A Benign Extravagance”. I find his take on the subject fair and comprehensive. :-)

    http://www.monbiot.com/2010/09/07/strong-meat/

    • RPSiegel

      Interesting. Thank you. He argues that there is a place in a sustainable world for a meat industry, albeit a smaller (less than half) and much more efficiently run one. He also suggests that those concerned (vegans, etc.) might do more good by trying to reform the current system, as opposed to getting rid of it entirely. It would be good to see more analyses of this issue to see if a consensus can indeed be arrived at.