Animal Agriculture and the Air We Breathe

By Andrea Alban-Davies

Although CO2 receives the most attention, it is actually one of the least damaging of all the greenhouse gases when it comes to health. Methane, on the other hand, is a precursor to ground-level ozone (smog) – itself a greenhouse gas –, which is a toxic air pollutant that can trigger serious respiratory problems.

The air in our atmosphere is a lot like the water in our oceans. We can consider its quality on a local level, but there’s no escaping that it’s a global issue. Just as water freely mixes across ocean basins, so gases remaining in the atmosphere become well mixed. While localized air quality and pollution problems can create respiratory and other health problems in one city and not another, the problem ultimately belongs to all of us. The global nature of our air is never more clear that when we talk about the atmospheric level of greenhouse gases, which is roughly the same all over the world, regardless of where emissions originate.

Most scientists agree that the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect itself – the warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth back into space – is not a bad thing. In fact, without it, temperatures on Earth could not reach the life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Water vapor is actually the most abundant greenhouse gas. The problem for us is that greenhouse gases come in two very different varieties: those that respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature or “feedbacks”, and those gases that are long-lived, remain semi-permanently in the atmosphere, and do not respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature, or “forcing” [climate change]. In the latter category is where we find carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. And even within the category of “forcing” gases, we discover that not all are created equal when it comes to global warming potential (GWP) over a given period of time.

As most are well aware, our consumption of fossil fuels is responsible for a huge portion of the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to global human activities. What is less well understood is the role that our food choices make. There are many estimates on the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to livestock, each taking into consideration a number of different factors in their calculations. For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the widely accepted figure of 15% from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. This figure doesn’t take into consideration all of the knock-on effects of raising livestock, but it does include some. Just to put it into perspective, that is more than the emissions attributable to the entire transportation sector.

How is it possible that livestock accounts for such a large portion of greenhouse gases? The full story behind this outsized impact is the type of greenhouse gases that the animal agriculture industry produces. Forty-four percent of livestock emissions are in the form of methane. The reason for this is enteric fermentation, or the digestion process, primarily of non-dairy cattle and dairy cows. Methane is produced as a by-product of the fermentation process, and is exhaled, belched, or expelled from these cattle. Methane is particularly potent when it comes to GWP; it is 25 to 35 times more effective at trapping heat when compared pound to pound with CO2 over a 100-year period. That’s why it’s possible for methane to comprise only 16% of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but to be responsible for anywhere from one-third to one-half of the current global warming trend. Fittingly, methane has been coined “carbon on steroids” by one prominent climate scientist.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 because it absorbs more energy and breaks down much more rapidly. It has a half-life of approximately 8.5 years, compared with many decades for CO2. As such, the shorter the time span examined, the starker the disparity between the GWP of these two gases becomes. For example, if we look at the first five years instead of the first hundred, a ton of methane causes nearly 100 times the warming of a ton of CO2. To comprehend the magnitude of this difference, consider this calculation by climate scientists: a ton of methane emitted today will exert more annual warming than a ton of CO2 emitted today until 2075; not until the year <7300> will the cumulative warming exerted by the two become equal.

It’s not all bad news, though. The upside of the role that methane plays in global warming is that it’s a good target for emissions reductions. The very same characteristics that make methane so destructive – its shorter lifetime and its energy absorption capacity – also means that atmospheric levels are much more responsive to reduction by emissions cuts. Especially because global warming can accelerate dramatically due to feedback loops, it’s most important to focus on measures that can help keep the Earth from overheating in the short-term. That buys us breathing room to work on implementing expensive, longer-term measures to control CO2 emissions (which usually requires huge infrastructure and technology investments). Immediate reductions in methane emissions can translate into a substantial slowing in warming over the next few decades. Studies have shown that reducing short-lived gases like methane, and keeping them low is the way to have the biggest impact on warming over this century.

What’s the best thing that we can do to reduce our methane emissions (which also happens to be the cheapest and can be implemented immediately? Well, the statistics tell the story best, so here they are… According to the Institute on Climate and Planets at NASA, animal agriculture is responsible for approximately 30% of global methane emissions. This is close to half of man-made emissions. To put that into context, coal and oil mining/natural gas accounts for 20% of global emissions. The breakdown puts enteric fermentation at 16%, animal waste at 5%, biomass burning (largely burning jungle to graze cattle, or grow food to feed cattle) at 8%. Therefore, eliminating or, at the very least, massively downsizing animal agriculture would be a huge – and some would argue necessary – step to combatting global warming.

As an added benefit, cutting methane emissions would also have a considerable positive impact on human health. Although CO2 receives the most attention, it is actually one of the least damaging of all the greenhouse gases when it comes to health. In contrast, methane is a precursor to ground-level ozone (smog) – itself a greenhouse gas –, which is a toxic air pollutant that can trigger serious respiratory problems.

There’s also the remainder of livestock emissions to consider when making food choices. While methane is the largest single component of emissions, the remainder is made up of almost equal parts Nitrous Oxide (N2O, 29%) and CO2 (27%). I won’t go into the same detail on N2O (the third most influential greenhouse gas), but suffice to say that it has a GWP 265-298 times that of CO2 over a hundred-year period and can have deleterious effects on human health. I won’t delve into the non-greenhouse gases emissions attributable to animal agriculture operations, but there are a good number of them. The most well known is ammonia (which comes from livestock and poultry waste), partly because of its acrid smell. When it reacts with N2O, moisture, and other compounds, it creates nitric acid vapor and related particles, which, among its other harmful effects, often causes lung tissue damage in humans.

Eschewing animal products and choosing a plant-based diet is undoubtedly a hard step for most of us to take; and, sure, it means letting go of foods that many of us hold dear. But holding onto them comes at a cost that is worth examining.

We’ve been lucky to have Rye Neck High School senior Philip Beebe the past six weeks. He’s turned press releases into prose and handled anything we’ve thrown at him with aplomb. And he’s already set up a template for the end-of-summer Back to School issue.

Wishing Philip good luck at Emerson College, where he is headed to study Journalism.

On Memorial Day morning, spectators lined Purchase Street, confident that it wouldn’t rain too hard on the annual parade on its way to City Hall, where the official and solemn ceremony was held.

All ages waved flags and cheered as veterans, emergency vehicles, newly awarded Eagle Scouts, members of Rye’s treasured community organizations, and City officials passed by.

At the ceremony, Rye American Legion Post 128 Commander Fred deBarros introduced Mayor Joe Sack, who walked to the podium carrying a mock-up of the front page from The Rye Chronicle published on Memorial Day 1946. The paper reported that the 1,400 Rye residents who served and the 46 who gave their lives “served with distinction to themselves and their city.”

Veterans! And we paid tribute to them on Veterans Appreciation Day at Playland May 29.

“Westchester County has the privilege of honoring our veterans, and Playland really is the perfect place to host it,” said County Executive Rob Astorino. “On behalf of a grateful county, thank you, welcome home, and God Bless each and every United States veteran, living and deceased.”

Veterans, as well as residents of all ages, enjoyed watching four U.S. Marine helicopters land on the field at Read Sanctuary. When the dust settled, spectators were allowed to go inside for a closer look.

  • Photos by Melanie Cane

Abu’s Ice Cream

By Khalid Azim

As my parents and I waited at an airport gate in New Delhi, I asked if they would like a cup of tea. They both declined, but then, with a smile, my father asked for ice cream. I tried to find something in the crowded food court, but as our departure time approached, I told my father I would get him some ice cream when we were back in America.

When we landed, I took my parents back to my home in Rye, instead of their New York City apartment, giving them the chance to recover from jetlag in a more relaxed setting. I knew how much my father enjoyed the landscape of my suburban home, surrounded by families with children, the color green, and the sound and smell of Long Island Sound nearby. For him, the shape and texture — and even the time and space — of the world mattered. “Come here,” he would say, as he showed me something I had seen countless times in my home, and I would look at it through his eyes for the very first time.

“Abu,” I said, “Let’s go for a walk.” Though my father’s mind had faded, when we walked together, it was his intellect that penetrated the poignant elements of our conversation. He would talk about phonological origins of various languages, discuss Islamic history and civilization, and question the validity of a math theorem. As a retired professor, his language was always measured and each word he spoke always had a definitive purpose. His most annoying and endearing trait was the manner in which he repeated himself. Sometimes it was for emphasis, sometimes it was a way for him to gather his thoughts, and sometimes the act of repeating himself became a metaphor for the mind and memory he was losing. 

My father’s long-term memory remained largely intact, and it was this history I always tried to mine in the hope that through understanding my father’s past I might better appreciate some of the events which weighed on the course of my family’s history. Yet, piecing that history together was like being on a sailboat, my father’s memories were the rudder, yet without a commensurate wind of context. A rudder without wind simply meant that it was impossible to point, let alone move in any one direction.

As we walked in Loudon Woods, I could see that he was happy, so I asked him if he wanted to continue our walk into our small, charming downtown and get some ice cream. He delighted in the idea. We sat in front of Longford’s, each with a cone of mango ice cream, my father’s favorite. 

“Abu,” I asked him, “Do you remember when you took me to your village in India and showed me where you planned to plant your mango orchard?” He recalled that day perfectly, but not the time he showed me the graves of my grandparents, his description of the mango tree leaf, bloom, and harvest, nor the tremendous heat which overpowered me. Most of all, I remembered him picking up the soil from the fields of his village with his hands and telling me how this dirt had brought him tremendous despair and impecuniousness, yet it was also the foundation of everything he would become.

The next day I took my parents back to their apartment in the city. The following day I received a call from my brother who was very upset. Our father needed to be immediately taken to an emergency room. We learned that he had an acute gallbladder infection, which had built up over time but was probably triggered through the digestion of some fatty food. 

When my father died six months later, following a maze of circuitous events, I was the second, after my brother, to take a shovel and place dirt on his grave. As I picked up the dirt, which would cover the remains of my father’s body, I tried to measure in my mind the improbability of my father’s life. His horizons were measured in miles, while mine were in inches. Perhaps I might find the wind to set sail, and my rudder might still be the memories of my father’s life, but I longed for my father to direct me along the way.


The author, age 4, in his father’s arms


Hail Honorable Women and Humor

Supporters of the Rye Youth Council filled the large dining room at Shenorock Shore Club for their annual spring benefit luncheon May 4. Glasses were raised for Susan McGovern, this year’s Community Honoree, for her immeasurable contributions to the Rye Youth Council for over a decade, as well as the community-at-large. McGovern, who currently serves as Director of Rye Youth Employment, is one of the co-founders of Rye ACT and has been involved at Rye Country Day for a number of years. 


And there was another reason to celebrate. After lunch, Rye’s very own best-selling author and columnist Annabel Monaghan shared her humorous take on the trials and tribulations of parenthood. 


— Kathleen Durkee