Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Livestock's long shadow - the debate

Here's the early Hansard record of my Westminster Hall debate today on "The Livestock Industry's Impact on Climate Change" (which despite what all my colleagues have been saying to me today is not just about flatulent cows!) Always a bit weird reading things in Hansard as it doesn't convey the spirit in which certain things were said. The Minister requoted the line that becoming vegetarian does more to combat climate change than switching to a hybrid car, and then said she had no intention of doing either (although she did tell me afterwards that her ministerial car is a Honda hybrid). I made what at the time seemed like a humorous intervention, saying I wanted it put on the record that I drove a Smart car. In cold print that just looks completely off topic! Or a bit smug. Actually I said Smart car roadster - the roadster bit is very important, it's not one of those funny little things. Wonder if it's too late to amend Hansard? Or maybe I could bring it up on a point of order after business questions tomorrow? We have to set the record straight!

Bit disappointed with the Minister's response. In fact, I got the impression that the objective was to say as little as possible... or as little on the actual topic as possible. For example, this: "Traditionally, here in the UK meat is an important source of protein, iron, calcium, zinc and other vitamins and minerals. I have a lot of sympathy with those who say that there is no such thing as bad food, that it is the diet that we get wrong and that we need a balanced diet and must exercise greater portion control. Delia Smith was arguing for that just the other day and I think that she is right." Fine, yes, it's one viewpoint, but nothing to do with the topic we were debating. (Her boss, Hilary Benn, is of course a vegetarian).

The main problem was that the Minister is from Defra, and so was only briefed to talk about UK agriculture and to stick up for British farming, whereas as I made clear in my opening speech, it's a global issue, and it requires global action. Reducing the environmental footprint of UK agriculture is just tinkering at the margins. So we really need to take the debate to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Of course what I should have done was raise all this during the passage of the Climate Change Bill, but I was preoccupied with other things at the time and was kind of hoping someone else would do so. Someone who's not a vegan.


Dave H said...

Happy Birthday MP for Bristol East.

Kerry said...

Off topic - but allowed!

Glenn Vowles said...

Well done for raising the issue. I hope, and I'm sure you will, persist with your work on this.

The Evening Post report and online debate on the issue was hardly well informed and considered though - starting with the headline!!

You/others may be interested in
my blog post on the matter (and others available if you click on the 'meat' label). Plenty of facts there!

Hughes Views said...

Any mention of the environmental impact of pets? One of my many hobby horses...

Dave H said...

By astrology-confounding coincidence your birthday is easy for me to remember. I was tempted to email an MP3 which may or may not have brought a nostalgic glow.

BTW it’s not “flatulent cows” that are the problem, it’s eructative cows. There is an important difference between the two and might I suggest your next question to the Minister is devoted to the matter. I have milked enough ruminants to marvel at just how much gas they emit.

“The waste leaches into the water supply and emits 30 million tonnes of ammonia each year, and that translates into 68 per cent. of the emissions that cause acid rain...”

I don’t understand this. Ammonia in the atmosphere would tend to neutralise the gases that cause acid rain. You would have to oxidise it to generate acidic gases.

Kerry said...

Is that a convoluted way of saying it's your birthday too? If so, happy birthday! You might be relieved to know that you also share it with six other MPs - William Hague, David Amess, Maria Miller, Sandra Gidley, Barbara Keeley, and Pat McFadden, as well as me. Not sure what that tells the astrologers...

As for the ammonia point, I will have to check where that came from, and get back to you.

Glenn Vowles said...

Dave H -

A bit of environmental chemistry...

Ammonia can be a component of 'acid rain' (a term which fails to sum up this phenomenon to be honest) in the sense that it increases the conversion rate of sulphur dioxide to sulphate ions (making ammonium sulphate, which increases soil acidity).

Dave H said...

Are you saying if you add ammonia to a solution of SO2 in water the pH goes down? Seriously?

Ammonia in the atmosphere would tend to neutralise the gases that cause acid rain

And what have 'rates' got to do with this example? k not K.

Old Holborn said...

Nope, this thread has gone weird.

If it's any consolation Kerry, I have named one of my new chickens after you. I won't be wringing it's neck although I do expect it to lay golden eggs.

It even squawks your surname when she lays a egg. So my kids tell me.

Pete said...

Not to do with climate change (so off topic also) but have you heard about the spate of calf deaths in Germany ?
Quite apart from anything else, mother's milk seems to be a serious candidate for transmission - and it's not just calves that consume cow's milk is it? (Even vegetarians mght be at risk.)

Dave H said...

OH, are you a novice at this trolling thing? In summary* Kerry said to the Minister that, aside from the ethics of rearing animals for food, the practice of industrialised livestock production is grossly inefficient and environmentally damaging. As a carnivore it would be lovely to come up with a sincere and robust counter-argument to that but unfortunately I have to admit it's true.

She did however make (at least) two blatant factual errors, one slightly amusing, the other fundamental, which in the absence of anything credible must serve as ammunition:

A) Cows emit methane via flatulence.

Wrong (mostly). I believe she has misled the House and should apologise. I have a lovely image of Kerry solemnly explaining to the Speaker, in a packed House, the difference between a burp and a fart.

B) Ammonia contributes to acid rain.

I'm ready to be corrected by anyone informed but I think ammonia itself can only ever make water less acid. You could make 'caustic rain' with it.

I was a bit miffed by the patronising G.V. who has obviously passed his NuLab Science exams with flying colours and thinks acidity is the function of rates of reaction. pH is all about how far reactions 'go' (thermodynamics, equilibria, the symbol K etc.) not how fast (kinetics, rates, symbol k etc.).

*I think. The link doesn't work now. Perhaps the Hansard writers are debating the meaning of flatulence. It's their job, I suppose.

Glenn Vowles said...

Dave H -

A bit more environmental chemistry (all adds to the variety of blog comments!!)

No Dave I'm not saying what you indicate !! I'm talking about what can happen out in the environment.

What I'm saying is that ammonia increases the rate at which sulphur enters the soil (as ammonium sulphate). I think that once ammonium compounds are in the soil they can then be oxidised to nitric acid. You'd then have an acid effect both from the sulphur and from the nitrogen...

Am I making any sense here?? Its not my specialist area of environmental science...

Kerry said...

My understanding is that what someone I came across in my research described as 'burps from both ends' are the problem. I was going to cite some references but the first thing I hit upon was this -
- and now my brain hurts and I need to go and lie down for a while.

This might be more on most readers' level:

As for ammonia, a quick search against ammonia, acid rain and cows seems to yield rather a lot of evidence in support of what I said. But will leave it to you two boys to fight it out.

Kerry said...

PS Pete - just read the link you posted - that's a really horrible, and strange, story. Thanks for the link.

Dave H said...

(Continuing this means more seconds of our life we'll never get back, but the weather's vile and it's a few more minutes before time to attack the liver)

In my experience of ruminants (mostly goats and not biblical) they burp far more than they fart, it comes from the way they break down the cellulose in the stomach.

Soil and atmospheric chemistry is not my thing, so I may have to put my hands up if you have proper research. Not Google! I did a search on “ammonia, acid rain cows” The second hit was from Sweden:

“Ammonia in the atmosphere can cause acid rain”

WTF? Or to be more exact, HTF? I’m pretty sure that article’s cack of the highest order. Ammonia is a base. It can’t, by definition, make rain acidic. If it were oxidised in the upper atmosphere to HNO3 or something, that would be different.

“You'd then have an acid effect both from the sulphur and from the nitrogen...”

But without the ammonia, SO2 in the raindrop will form sulphurous, then sulphuric acid, so the sulphur is already in the most aggressively acidic form possible.

Ammonium sulfate caused soil acidification when it was used last century as a fertilliser (images of dustbowls come to mind) but it is a slightly acidic compound naturally.

Soil acidification isn't a problem with the world's most widely used fertiliser (handy for Al Quaida) ammonium nitrate, so I would say soil conversion of the ammonium ion itself does not lead to acidification, though I accept that could sound like (ironically) ignorant bullshit to a soil chemist.

Anyway: enough for today. Anything posted by in the next 18 hours will be at the 'Bristol South' level.

Dave H said...

Damn idiot! That last bit was cack. Just as I was off to get ratted it occurred to me that when you oxidise ammonium to nitrate you must generate a lot of protons. I felt such a fool I came back and turned the computer on.

NH4 + 3H2O = NO3 + 6H+. Mmm... This is what G.V. was on about and is maybe partly why you have to lime soils used for crops. But this is taking place in the soil and is not ‘Acid Rain’.

Whether the soil suffers more from gradual bacterial acidification than raindrops containing sulphuric acid is another matter and one I’d obviously better not attempt to try.

Grumpy now for both making a stupid fundamental mistake and being late for my dissipation. Gah!

Glenn Vowles said...

You are sort of on on to what I was on about Dave H. In my earlier post, where I was not in the least trying to be patronising just informative, I did indicate that acid rain is a poor term for a complex phenomenon with a number of aspects to it. It seems odd that a base can contribute to 'acid rain' but it can, through a series of reactions.

Thought I'd send the following on methane here too - my blog comments, like Kerry's, have delved into some chemistry/science too...

Mammals can produce very small amounts methane but cows belong to a particular sub-group of mammals called ruminants (sheep, goats, deer...also in this group). The front-ends of ruminants produce especially large amounts of methane (estimates I've seen show cow methane production of up to 200 litres each day!).

Humans, veggies and vegans included (!), produce very little methane (the gas in flatulence is mostly nitrogen) as they just dont have the digestive system to produce it - many make none at all and those that do wont make even half a litre a day!

Ruminants chew, swallow, 'ferment' and then regurgitate, and rechew partially digested food before again swallowing. As result of all this their bodies can digest and use fibre (thus we can feed them grass and then obtain good amounts of meat, milk etc). In the process of 'fermenting' food/fibre in their fore-stomach, ruminants like cows 'burp' and otherwise give out methane from their mouths. 90-95% comes from the mouth end rather than from the rear end!, so the headlines you often see in newspapers are misleading.

spam-me said...

Can we have a picture of the Smart Roadster please?

And (sadly) I think one of the other commenters makes a good point about the environmental impact of pets. But even that largely comes down to agribusiness, which decides what goes into pet food. It's possible to feed dogs (at least) on an environmentally friendly vegan diet.