can battery chicken save the planet?

So, we can all agree on the new enemy.


Livestock generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has three hundred times the GWP (Global Warming Potential – you knew that, right? Not to be confused with GDP or GNP or  SWP… of CO2.

Then there’s the 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23x as bad as CO2) from belching and farting ruminants, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain. One cow can produce 600 litres of methane every day. Enough to fill a modest hot air balloon. (Well, it is all they do…)

Plus, there’s the matter of growing all their feed. It takes 17kg of good quality vegetable protein to produce 1 kg of beef. 70% of the destruction in the Amazon is for grazing, and most of the rest for growing soya to feed the blighters.

And then there’s their starring role in the Common Agricultural Policy’s subsidy to European farmers. Each European cow gets 100 times more EU subsidy than each sub-Saharan African human gets in EU aid. Or, to put it another way, the average EuroCow has a higher income than half the world’s population. 

The trouble is, livestock are very useful, not just for eating. Take their use as draft animals in the Third world. Unlike tractors, they run on renewable energy, their only emission is organic fertiliser, and when they’re no longer viable, you can eat them. How cool is that!

We may love animals but we love meat more. Globally, livestock is growing faster than any other agricultural sector. Meat and milk production are projected to more than double before 2050. (If we get to 2050, of course. I’m not betting But then I’ll be 195 by then)

Even turning over the soil to grow vegetables  causes CO2 emissions. Not to mention that land grazed by animals is better for biodiversity – there are 50% fewer birds, bees and butterflies on land that’s no longer grazed 

So, in theory, the thing to do would be keep the good bits – fuel and fertiliser – and get rid of the bad bits – gas and feedstuff.

You could try genetically modifying the cows, to stop them farting and belching. But people don’t like that idea. (Yet. Believe me, when things get a little bit worse, we’ll all be gagging for GM. But that’s another diatribe).

You could feed them on different crops: it turns out that high-sugar grass produces more milk and less ammonia and other greenhouse gases. So if you’re a cow, sugar is actually good for you 

Unfortunately, it turns out that, from the planet’s perspective, it’s much better to keep animals indoors. Indoor cows produce much less methane than happy, grass-fed cows, whatever the grass. Plus, you can collect the methane and use it. The Vintage Dairy in Fresno California is already doing it, producing enough methane for all the power in 1200 homes, and fertiliser in industrial quantities as a byproduct. BUT do we really want our cows living all their lives in sealed barns? Isn’t this why we all gave up battery chicken ?

Maybe we made a mistake! Guess what – if you can’t bear to give up meat, battery chicken is the environment’s best friend. Cows and sheep need 8kg of grain for every 1kg of meat they produce, pigs about 4kg. The most efficient poultry units need a mere 1.6kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken. But! That means – oh dear – intensively reared. Organic chicken has 45% more global warming potential than indoor reared chicken 

There’s only one other solution, and it does depend on your feelings about squirrels –

  Eat roadkill  At least that way your car has a purpose.