06 Dec 2012: Report

Should Environmentalists
Just Say No to Eating Beef?

Conservation organizations are working with industry to try to make beef production more sustainable. But some are questioning whether green groups should be accepting funds from the beef industry or whether they should instead be urging consumers to stop eating beef.

by marc gunther

Like plastic bags, coal, and SUVs, beef has few friends in the environmental community. Most environmentalists would point to beef — in particular, beef cattle that spend their final days in confined feedlots — as being responsible for an array of ills — the greenhouse gas emissions that the cattle generate; the groundwater pollution from their manure; the use of antibiotics in animal feed; the vast quantities of monoculture corn grown to feed the cattle; and the enormous amount of chemical fertilizers and water needed to grow the corn. As advocacy group Food and Water Watch put it in a 2010 report, “The significant growth in industrial-scale, factory-farmed livestock has contributed to a host of environmental, public health, food safety and animal welfare problems.”

Jason Clay believes those problems can be fixed. Clay, 61, who grew up on a Missouri farm, is senior vice president for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and an expert on the environmental impacts of farming. He has now set out to “green” the hamburger — along with the steak, the prime rib, and the rest of the steer.

To that end, WWF this year helped launch the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, an association of businesses and environmental groups
WWF is accepting financing from the National Cattlemen’s Association and JBS, the world’s largest beef producer.
that has begun to “facilitate a global dialogue on beef production that is environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable.” The roundtable plans to identify the best practices for raising beef, and spread them widely using the leverage of retailers like Wal-Mart and brands like McDonald’s to do so. Someday your burger may come with fries, a Coke, and a “green” seal of approval.

This is a controversial undertaking for a bunch of reasons, and not just with vegetarians. First, cattle are by nature inefficient converters of plants into protein, so beef has a far bigger environmental footprint than foods like fish or even poultry. Second, given the strong involvement of the beef industry, the roundtable is likely to challenge a green orthodoxy that says cattle should be allowed to run free on pasture and eat grass. (All cattle are grass-fed when young, but conventionally raised cows spend most of their lives in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where they are fed corn.)

Third, WWF has chosen to collaborate with — and, more importantly, to accept financing from — industry partners that run factory farms, medicate the animals, and tout the health benefits of a T-Bone steak. The roundtable’s members include JBS, the world’s largest producer of beef; McDonald’s and Wal-Mart; Cargill, one of the world’s largest commodity trading companies; Merck Animal Health and Elanco, which make medicines for livestock, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Can the beef-it’s-what’s-for-dinner crowd really be trusted to reform the industry?

Environmentalists could take a far simpler approach: Advise people to eat less beef. Beef, after all, has twice the greenhouse gas emissions of pork, nearly four times more than chicken, and more than 13 times as
WWF’s Clay says the reality is the world will need more, not less, beef in the decades ahead.
much as vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu, according to the Environmental Working Group. Eating less meat is the most important thing an individual can do to curb climate change, some scientists say. Citing a study by Gidon Eshel, a research professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, the New York Times’ Mark Bittman has noted that if Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by a mere 20 percent, “it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius.”

Nevertheless, green groups that readily fight coal plants or suburban sprawl have for the most part shown little desire to do battle with meat. The Meatless Monday campaign was started not by environmentalists but by the school of public health at Johns Hopkins. The Mayo Clinic has more to say about meat than The Nature Conservancy, although TNC’s chief executive, Mark Tercek, is a vegetarian. Another vegetarian, Danielle Nierenberg, who directs the Nourishing the Planet program at the Worldwatch Institute, explains: “Most environmental groups don’t want to tell people what to eat or what not to eat. It’s a personal issue that’s tied to your culture, to your history, to what your mom fed you when you were five years old.”

Americans may be persuaded to eat less beef — in fact, they already are doing so — but WWF’s Clay says the reality is that the world will need more, not less beef, in the decades ahead. The global appetite for meat is rising, particularly in emerging markets, and it will continue to grow, as incomes and population increase, he says. Besides, WWF can’t tell people to eat less beef “and then try to work with the industry to make it better,” Clay says.

Beef Cattle

lillisphotography
Feedlots for cattle require huge amounts of corn.
That’s understandable. But WWF does more than work with the industry: It raises money from its corporate partners. In the U.S., WWF collected $13.3 million in corporate donations in 2011, accounting for about 6 percent of its budget. Cargill has identified itself as a WWF donor but, aside from that, WWF won’t disclose the names of its donors or how much money it has raised from the meat industry — despite the fact that WWF’s website says transparency is one of the “most important guiding principles for our corporate engagement.”

Clay says that changing beef production is impossible without industry collaboration, and its partners are willing to pay for advice and insight that will serve their companies well in the long run. Still, other environmental groups work closely with business but accept little or no corporate funding. The Environmental Defense Fund’s corporate donor guidelines, for example, specifically prohibit contributions from the livestock industry.

Amy Larkin, who has led successful corporate engagements with Coca-Cola, Unilever, and the Consumer Goods Forum as the solutions director at Greenpeace USA, says green groups that take corporate donations will have a hard time pushing for the transformational changes that business needs to make. “If you want to make serious, dramatic change, you have to be brutally honest,” she says. “Who wants to tell the truth to the hand that feeds you? At some point, you have to be free to say ‘not good enough’ and walk away from the table. That’s hard under any circumstance, but harder if a company is giving you money”

In their defense, WWF and Clay can point to a long history of working productively with industry. They’ve formed NGO-corporate alliances like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council that
‘Who wants to tell the truth to the hand that feeds you?’ asks Amy Larkin, of Greenpeace.
have set standards and certified environmentally friendly forest products, wild fish, palm oil and soy. WWF’s theory of change is simple: Rather than wait until billions of consumers decide to shop their way to a more sustainable planet, it wants to persuade a hundred or so global brands and retailers to produce and sell greener products. “Don’t give consumers bad choices,” Clay says. “Make sure that everything on the shelf is good.” Other NGOs in the beef roundtable include the Rainforest Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation.

All the partners say the roundtable’s work will be driven by science. If that leads to more of the large-scale feedlots that some foodies find distasteful, so be it. Clay and others point to evidence that indicates that beef cattle raised in CAFOs have a lighter footprint than pasture-raised beef. “I see a lot of ideology and assumptions being thrown around as science,” Clay told me. “We have to start figuring out what we can measure, and what we can manage. How many liters of water does it take to produce a calorie? How many meters of land?”

Globally, Clay notes, the largest environmental impact of agriculture is the conversion of natural habitats to farm land. Beef production is a land hog; it accounts for 60 percent of the land used to produce food but generates about 1.3 percent of the world’s calories. (Outside of the U.S., most cattle graze.) CAFOs diminish those impacts — in part because they use far less land, and in part because the cattle in feedlots grow bigger and faster: The U.S. produces more beef than Brazil, with about half the cattle. At the roundtable’s first meeting in Denver, Chandler Keys, an executive with Brazil-based JBS, the world’s largest beef producer, told reporters: “In the next 20 years, you’re going to see more cattle in Brazil come off grass and going into grow yards.”

Others say that’s exactly the wrong approach. Fewer cattle should be in feedlots, they say, and land now devoted to growing corn and soy should be allowed to revert to pasture. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which accepts no corporate money, lists on its website 10 reasons why meat lovers should opt for beef that have been fed all their lives on pasture. Courtney White of the nonprofit Quivira Coalition writes about carbon ranching, a way of raising cattle that enriches soil, sequesters CO2 and produces what he calls “climate-friendly beef.”

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By email, the author Michael Pollan tells me: “When it’s done well, (grazing) is a great positive — to carbon sequestration, improved fertility, soil biodiversity, etc. The idea of putting more animals of grass is also to re-perennialize a bunch of corn fields in the midwest, which will have tremendous environmental benefits. It's all part of shifting from annual monoculture to perennial polyculture farming, which I would think any environmental organization would want to support.”

By phone, the NRDC’s Jon Gelbard, a PhD biologist, says the debate about how to produce beef should not be reduced to an either-or. “People are lobbing life-cycle metrics over a fence at each other,” he says. Environmental impacts depend on the places where cattle are raised and corn is grown, as well as ranching and feedlot practices. “The scale will tip between grass-fed and feedlot depending on the inputs,” he says. Like Clay, he says metrics and standards are needed to drive better practices. “We need a signal in the marketplace,” he says. “Let’s create a system that generates a race to the top.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article failed to attribute a statement about a study by Gidon Eshel and Pamela A. Martin. The statement was made by Mark Bittman of the New York Times.

POSTED ON 06 Dec 2012 IN Business & Innovation Climate Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Sustainability Asia North America 

COMMENTS


I bought a half side of beef earlier this year from a local farm family. The animal is raised without chemical inputs (feel free to add your own pesticide and anti-biotic residues at home), grass-fed, and butchered only after it is sold. The butcher/processor is located in a small town a couple miles away and employs several individuals with living-wages. The absence of stress-inducing transportation, confinement, pesticide/anti-biotic inputs, corn and "animal by-product"-based feeds, etc makes for great meat at reasonable prices (below $3.00/lb).

Because the low volume of animal wastes are dispersed across hundreds acres throughout the year, groundwater and surface water contamination is virtually non-existant. Moreover, the low impact rotational grazing program used by the family means that invasive exotic plants are kept at bay.

My family is very lucky to live where we do (Madison, WI area) because we have this option. I look forward to the day that all Americans have access to healthy, safe, sustainable, and delicious food supplies a goal that requires de-centralization, diversification, and social support to achieve.

Posted by Dave on 06 Dec 2012


The only real solution to rising global demand for meat is to make it in laboratories, i.e., "cultured meat." As an enviro one part of me is repulsed by the idea — after all, this is the ultimate factory farming — but once the safety of the product is conclusively demonstrated (and my sense is that this will be easier than doing so with GMOs) people will get over it. There isn't enough ag land in the world to raise beef sustainably (and we ought to be talking about reconverting farmland to true wildlands anyhow). Cultured meat isn't a magic bullet but it is by far the best way forward.

Posted by Dave Harmon on 06 Dec 2012


Moving cattle from CAFOs to pastures is not the "green orthodoxy." Many environmental groups oppose this tweak because it trades one problem for another: livestock grazing is the number one cause of ecosystem degradation on western public lands. It dwarfs mining and logging.

Cattle production generates 16-18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. When you consider the massive erosion and vegetation loss associated with livestock grazing, as well as the fossil fuels used to ship them to market (I'm assuming no CAFOs in this model), it is clearly a fantasy to think cattle can improve carbon sequestration at even a fraction of the gains to be made by not grazing cattle. You could do a massive amount of reform to get the global GHG contribution to 15 percent or maybe 12 percent. But that's like increasing a SUV's mpg from 12 to 14. It's effectively pointless.

Add in the millions of wolves, bears, beaver, mountain lions, prairie dogs, coyotes and other species deemed to prey on, compete with or get in the way of cattle and you've got an ecological disaster.

Environmentalists should focus on reducing meat consumption, ceasing the conversion of native forests and deserts to pastures, and eliminating cattle degradation, especially on public lands. That will get us were we need to be.

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity

Posted by Kieran Suckling on 06 Dec 2012


Professor Gidon Eschel was grossly misquoted by your statement that "If Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by a mere 20 percent, it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius, according to Gidon Eshel, a research professor at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy".

I checked with him just now, and his paper (from which you apparently cite) says instead that if we Americans were ALL to become Vegans, we would cut our total greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent. This is a far more modest figure than you imply. To realize the savings you imagine, one would have to switch from an extreme red-meat diet comprising 49 percent of total calories, to being a vegan. This is a much more improbable transition. I don't know where you got the figure of a "20 percent reduction of meat" but it is highly inaccurate.

Jeff Severinghaus
Professor of Geosciences
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California, San Diego

Posted by Jeff Severinghaus on 06 Dec 2012


it would be much smarter and environmentally correct to work on humanely reducing the human population while increasing the amount of beef....

Posted by sas on 07 Dec 2012


At present there are still some big misconceptions about 'vegetable protein' dating back to the work of Thomas Burr Osborne, author of the 1924 book 'The Vegetable Proteins' and his close colleague Lafayette Mendel of Yale University.

See my web article: http://www.glooskapandthefrog.org/Stanley%20explains.htm

Posted by Stanley Scharf on 07 Dec 2012


Both eating less meat and making the beef industry less destructive are important goals. Why does Jason Clay say WWF can’t tell people to eat less beef and then try to work with the industry to make it better? An organization that finds itself self-censoring about the problems of eating meat should do some soul-searching. If WWF has integrity it should surely not be afraid to promote a more planet-friendly diet.

Posted by Jennifer Freeman on 07 Dec 2012


WWFs' history of working 'constructively with industry' needs to be seen for what it is. It is greenwashing. FOE abandoned the FSC for this reason and the WWFs newer agreements: soybeans, palm oil, sugarcane, shrimp, etc are unenforceable and have appallingly low and moveable standards. The closer you look the less credible they become.

Plenty of details here:

http://independentsciencenews.org/environment/way-beyond-greenwashing-have-multinationals-captured-big-conservation/

Posted by Jonathan Latham on 07 Dec 2012


What Kieran said.

As the author of the first comment, I would only add that I am 100 percent against grazing on public lands. Moreover, when I looked for a source of local beef, one of the criteria was a very low density of animals without access to waterways. The catch is the difficulty in finding this type of producer in most parts of the country.

Unfortunately, as Kieran mentioned, grazing is devastating to public lands throughout the west. Stopping this taxpayer-subsidized destruction and restoring degraded ecosystems is the only way to address this issue.

Posted by Dave on 09 Dec 2012


No story of the beef industry in America should be without mentioning the name of the Marquis de Mores who, in 1883, built Chateau de Mores in Medora, North Dakota. The bizarre de Mores built a meat packing plant in Medora to ship grass-fed cattle, in refrigerated rail cars, to Chicago bypassing the Chicago stockyards. The thwarting of his operation by the 'Chicago beef trust' {And range-fed—on grass—beef turned out to be less popular with consumers than beef that had been fattened—on corn—in the stockyards of Chicago} led to some profound events in the history of the twentieth century and into the present. Around this time, December, in 1886 he and his wife, Medora, left the grasslands of North Dakota for good...

Posted by Stanley Scharf on 09 Dec 2012


Three points:

1. Corn is a component of feed lot fodder, not 100 percent of the feed given to cattle, which is sometimes implied in these type of conversations.

2. As a grass-fed beef and vegetable farmer in New York, not all of my land is suitable for growing vegetable crops and beef production is a way in which I can diversify my products, fertilize my vegetables, and maintain the rural character of my land (including keeping it from being taken over by invasive plants) which has been farmed for 200 years. The western US is not the only place where beef can be raised - know your farmer.

3. Pasturing livestock is not as simple as taking them out of feedlots (or keeping them from feedlots in the first place). It is a planned land management practice that has benefits and tradeoffs which can be mitigated through steps such as rotational grazing and raising cattle in areas that are environmentally and culturally appropriate. The whole feedlots are bad, pastures are good argument is generalized too much.

Joe Orefice, Yale FES '09
Owner/Operator of North Branch Farm
Assistant Professor - Paul Smith's College
Research focus: Silvopasture

Posted by Joe Orefice on 10 Dec 2012


Parallel to the discussion of environmental impacts, we should also discuss human health and nutrition. Grass-fed beef is one of the healthiest and most nutrient-dense foods that us humans can possibly consume. It delivers significant amounts of healthy protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and just about every vitamin and mineral. Industrial/corn-fed/factory farmed beef, not so much. What's bad for the environment is also bad for human health, and vice versa.

Posted by The Pooch on 10 Dec 2012


Animal fat in the diet accounts for close to 90 percent of dioxin exposure in the United States, according to a 2003 National Academies of Science report on dioxins in the food supply.

Posted by Dave on 12 Dec 2012


It seems puzzling to me that we are worried about the amount of red meat that people will be able to access when there are deer starving to death in my backyard because of overpopulation. Instead of forcing an ecosystem to do something that it does not have a propensity for, why not harvest the resource that we have in overabundance? It seems that a PR campaign for "green hunting" of deer might be a more worthwhile effort than scrambling to entice major corporations and please environmentalists with a "green beef" campaign.

Posted by Rachel F on 12 Dec 2012


Thanks for these comments. This is a complicated issue, and it's hard to tell the full story in 1,500 or so words.

@dave, your decision to buy beef from a local farmer makes perfect sense to me. Others tell me that it's expensive to do so, but if that's the case, why not just eat less (but better quality) beef?

@Dave Harmon, lab meat is a fascinating alternative. I've heard good things about a startup company called BeyondMeat that sells a chicken-like product at Whole Foods.

@Keiran Suckling, we agree that people should eat less meat, but you'll get an argument from people like Courtney White at Quivira about the impact of well-managed grazing. Food and Water Watch, NRDC, Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben all favor pasture-fed beef over feedlot beef--that's about as close to orthodoxy as you can get.

@Joe Orefice, it's great that you are raising cattle in upstate NY in what sounds like a more sustainable way. I didn't mean to imply that corn is 100\% of the feed in factory farms, but the feed is overwhelmingly corn, I'm told. I'm going to do another story about pasture-fed beef and will be in touch.

@Rachel F, hunting deer makes sense to me.

@Jeff Severinghaus, first, the interpretation of the study was Mark Bittman's not mine. To my horror, I inadvertently failed to attribute that statement to him.

However....I think his interpretation is correct. It was published on the front of the Week in Review section in the Sunday Times and never corrected.

This is a quote from the study (p. 12):

"To place the planetary consequences of dietary choices in a broader context, note that at mean U.S. caloric efficiency (blue line in Figure 3), it only requires a dietary intake from animal products of ∼20\%, well below the national average, 27.7 percent, to increase one’s GHG footprint by an amount similar to the difference between an ultraefficient hybrid (Prius) and an average sedan (Camry)."

I read this to say that if Americans cut meat consumption from about 27 percent of their dietary intake to less than 20 percent — which is actually a reduction of nearly 25 percent — that's the same as switching from a Camry to a Prius. So I believe that Bittman was close to correct. He should have said "about 25 percent" rather than a "mere 20 percent." The reduction does not require a vegan diet.

Posted by Marc Gunther on 12 Dec 2012


Mr. Gunther,

Thank you for your responses to my and others comments, it's encouraging to see an author take the time to respond to specific comments on their writing. I look forward to hearing about your story on pastured beef.

Posted by Joe Orefice on 13 Dec 2012


I feel it is very wrong to continue beef grazing on public land west of the Mississippi. We need to restore water quality in our streams and rivers. Big Ag subs are inherently wrong as they incentivize pollution, land degradation and species extinction. Those corporations most involved are known to be criminal in their interests and actions. It is these very same folks who are currently shooting wolves and preventing deer harvest legislation, pushing for deregulation of pollution laws, eliminating the ESA and advancing biotech for profit that only compounds the problems. Just as I would not allow a fox to guard my hen house, I would question WWF recent funding decisions. People can learn to eat less meat, and would, if not for artificially low prices that hide the true costs.

Posted by Scott Newell on 21 Dec 2012


This was a very disappointing article. It fails to acknowledge that grassfed beef production is one of the few land usesd that can be both revenue and habitat generator, simultaneously. It fails to acknowledge the role of ungulates in "near time" North America, and how well-managed cattle can mimic long term process.

It's a very very high horse that this author rides, disregarding the amazing work of the creative ranching community that owns much of the key, unfragmented land left.

Grassfed beef comes right after salmon in terms of omega 3's. Ranching keeps the core, corridors and connections needed for wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife is helping ranchers become more predator friendly. What's needed are more ways to incentivize ranchers to husband a greater diversity of wildlife habitat on their ranches, and ways to help them stay on their land.

VIVA RANCHERS! VIVA WWF!

Kelly Cash
Member
"Friends of Ranchers"
Bay Area Chapter
Berkeley, California

Posted by Kelly Cash on 07 Jan 2013


However attractive it is for a world without beef eaters, we must face the truth: People will continue to eat beef. Indeed, less are eating it, as the article suggests, but that does not mean all beef consumption, and consequently production, will cease.

That being said, rather than holding high hopes of global vegetarianism, we can continue to educate people on beef eating effects, while at the SAME TIME improving the industrial processes behind beef production! This tactic improves the situation from two different angles.

At university I was never taught to take one sided arguments seriously. Though I am a vegetarian of many years, I acknowledge and respect the fact that others will make their own decisions. So why not help them at least eat more sustainable beef?? I know, 'less bad' is not necessarily 'good,' but rather than sit and pout about not getting our way, we can at least have a bipartisan agreement that pleases everyone. :)

Too bad the U.S. government can't follow similar logic...

Trenton Doyle
UCSB
Environmental Studies
Santa Barbara, CA

Posted by Trenton Doyle on 16 Jan 2013


Yes, environmentalists should just stop eating beef, to answer the question in your title.

Posted by Sailesh Rao on 24 Jan 2013


"Beef production is a land hog it accounts for 60 percent of the land used to produce food but generates about 1.3 percent of the world’s calories"

What about the percentage of essential bioavailable amino-acids, and vitamin B12?

Posted by dann on 13 Mar 2013


To answer the article's question, YES. If environmentalists/conservationists want to call themselves such, and act on behalf of the fore mentioned, they should not eat animal flesh nor their secretions. It is far more damaging for land, water, air, biodiversity, health and food equality, than vegetable nutrients. Eating animals is also inefficient in regards to nutrient density per calorie, availability and absorption. We eat the animals to get to the nutrients in which they have consumed. Why go throw the animal to get the nutrients when you can go directly to the source: PLANTS. And yes even protein. Thank you for your article.

Posted by Anna Fiona on 04 Apr 2013


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marc guntherABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Gunther is a contributing editor at Fortune, a senior writer at Greenbiz.com and a blogger at www.marcgunther.com. His book, Suck It Up: How Capturing Carbon From the Air Can Help Solve the Climate Crisis, is available as an Amazon Kindle Single. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has reported on systems being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and on how technology can help consumers make greener choices.
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The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


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Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

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