Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Won’t Anyone Consider Vegetarianism?

Omelets, glasses of water…

and Uncle Charlie smells like a cow—

At last count, and this was several years ago, there were about 1.2 billion cows in the world. (There are probably even more now, although I suppose for the most part they are different cows.) Now, it seems that each of these animals, by belching and by various other means, which we cannot mention here, emits about 14 cubic feet of methane gas each day. This makes cows a major source of air pollution, and a large contributor to the "greenhouse effect."

At the U.S. government's agricultural research facility in Beltsville, MD they put cows in Plexiglass cages and study the amount of methane that is produced. The idea is to alter the cow's diet and other conditions to come up with a "clean cow" that won't pollute so much. This would, of course, make barns smell a whole lot better, and would make many farmers very happy. I'm sure it's a terrific use of our tax dollars. Still, I wonder if they've thought about vegetarianism?

For years scientists have been working on ways to preserve milk so it can endure long periods without refrigeration on your cupboard shelf and still be drinkable. More recently, they've developed ways to raise chickens to produce eggs with less cholesterol. These are exciting ideas and make dairy farmers and omelet lovers very happy. But do you think they've considered vegetarianism?

In Zimbabwe they have a problem with preserving wildlife. As is the case in so many other countries, raising cattle is a status symbol there. As the population gets wealthier and more westernized, the expanding cattle ranches displace wildlife habitat. The government has come up with a program to charge hunters big bucks (that's the money kind of bucks) for every lion or elephant they shoot, and to funnel these funds back to the local villages. This gives the rural population an incentive to preserve habitats and make sure game is there for the rich tourists to hunt. Pretty clever idea, huh?—hunt the game you're trying to save. But wouldn't it have been better just to promote vegetarianism?

In California for the last couple of years there has been a water shortage. The problem was so bad last summer that restaurants in Los Angeles could be fined if they served a glass of water to a customer without it being requested. Of course, it took 2500 gallons of water to produce the steak that same customer would eat. Did anyone consider vegetarianism?

It seems that so many of the world's troubles— from depletion of rainforests, to drift nets killing our oceans, to your Uncle Charlie's evening flatulence— could be solved by humans simply giving up eating animals. Instead, though, people prefer to labor for years to find politically acceptable compromises or miracle scientific "cures" for these problems. And of course no one gives vegetarianism a thought.

To ask that people give up their ham sandwiches would require too much of a sacrifice, I suppose. Our meat eating society would rather live with dirtier air and water, faster global warming, massive climatic changes from loss of the earth's vegetation, extinction of species, soil erosion, more heart disease, more cancer, higher food prices, etc., etc. Not to mention ugly golden arches and pictures of Colonel Sanders on every corner.

Getting back to our consideration of cows and their gas, though, I may have a solution to this methane problem. I once knew an agricultural engineer who told me food could be recycled four times through a cow. The trick, he said, is to mix in a little molasses each time. (Apparently a cow will eat anything if it's covered with molasses.) I figure digestion of food four times— actually four cycles times four stomachs equals sixteen times— will help this mess. If it doesn't, I haven't a clue. Unless, of course, someone wants to consider vegetarianism.

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