Thursday, July 22, 2010

The benefits of factory farming

As an undergraduate I had a really difficult time figuring out what to major in. I took classes in 13 disciplines, but I have a distinct memory of flipping through the class list and smiling as I found the one area that had absolutely zero appeal: "Agricultural Economics." Ugh! Manure maximization just really had no appeal.

Well, look at me now- got my Ph.D. in it. Wish I'd know that my undergraduate major in Sociology, minors in Math & Computer Science, and interest in environmental issues meant that maybe no area was more appropriate for me to study. As noted by an article in a recent New Scientist (h/t to Marginal Revolution), "agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all methods of transport put together, and it contributes to a host of other problems, from nitrogen pollution to soil erosion." If you want to solve environmental problems, you'd better take a look at agriculture!

To me the interesting part of the article is when it notes that factory farms are in some ways lighter on the environment than pasture-grown livestock. Pigs and chickens who are fed a diet of grains produce more meat for less grain than cattle in grassy pastures, and they produce much less methane as well. (Methane is a problem not just because it smells bad, but because it's a potent greenhouse gas.) Obviously diverting grain from people to animals is inefficient in many ways, but livestock can still eat crop residues and milling wastes that we can't. Of course, animal rights advocates have a separate set of issues that, well, generally aren't that compelling for me.

Vegan fantasies about worlds without meat not very realistic, though encouraging people to eat less meat seems like a good idea. Just be aware of all of the related issues!

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