If you think that your meat-eating ways have nothing to do with global warming, think again. A study published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B indicate that antibiotics, which are commonly used in livestock to improve animal health, could be contributing to the abundance of greenhouse gas emissions.
But let’s back up for a moment.
In order to understand anything in relation to the findings, we need to take a look at how antibiotics are used in livestock. Typically, they are given to animals to prevent disease and promote growth. This study is the first to show that antibiotics can increase the emission of methane gases from livestock feces.
To draw their conclusions, the authors of the study collected feces samples from 10 cows. Five of the animals were given a three-day course of a common antibiotic called tetracycline, while the other five received none. The scientists measured the samples to compare flows of gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. In the end, they discovered that the antibiotics increased methane emissions by as much as 1.8-fold.
“Unexpectedly, antibiotic treatment raised methane fluxes from dung, possibly by altering the interactions between methanogenic archaea and bacteria in rumen and dung environments,” wrote the authors of the report. “Our findings that antibiotics restructure dung beetle microbiota and modify greenhouse gas emissions from dung indicate that antibiotic treatment may have unintended, cascading ecological effects that extend beyond the target animal.”
To make more sense of the findings, it’s worth noting that methane is approximately 20 times more efficient at trapping solar heat than carbon dioxide. Understandably, this has led many people to assume that it’s a catalyst for global warming. Methane also accounts for 40 percent of all farming emissions.
Does this mean that we should all ditch our meat-eating diets?
Not necessarily. PETA claims that we can all fight climate change by going vegan and eliminating meat from our diets. The idea is that less reliance on meat will reduce the need for an abundance of emission-producing livestock. However, a study published by Carnegie Mellon University in 2015 showed that eating lettuce is “three times worse” in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to bacon.
“Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than you would think,” said Paul Fischbeck, professor of social and decisions sciences and engineering and public policy. “Eggplant, celery and cucumbers look particularly bad when compared to pork or chicken.”
In actuality, there may be no “lesser evil.”
Carnegie Mellon University. “Vegetarian and ‘healthy’ diets could be more harmful to the environment, researchers say.” ScienceDaily. Published December 14, 2015.
Hammer, Tobin. Noah, Fierer. Hardwick, Bess. Simojoki, Asko. Slade, Eleanor. Taponen, Juhani. Viljanen, Heidi. Roslin, Tomas. “Treating cattle with antibiotics affects greenhouse gas emissions, and microbiota in dung and dung beetles.” Proceeds of the Royal Society B. Published May 25, 2016.
AFP. “Drugs and dung a bad mix for climate: study.” Phys.org. Published May 25, 2016.