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Wednesday, Oct 30 2013 11:00 PM

PATSY OUELLETTE: History shows Kern not really interested in fixing air quality

"Wow! That's fantastic. We might be able to improve our air quality!" That was my reaction to an article in the early 2000s about a local dairy investing in a new technology called anaerobic digesters, which claimed they could reduce methane gas emissions by up to two-thirds. Shortly thereafter, I read that Bakersfield had approved an increase in our dairy cow population from 100,000 cows to 300,000. What? The industry had just advanced technologically, only to have the population growth directly counter any potential improvement. Then I knew Kern County wasn't truly interested in improving its air quality.

In Robert Price's Oct. 27 column, "Our fatalistic acceptance of horrible air," he challenged us to take a hard look at our own behavior and consider reducing our personal contribution to the problem. One of his suggestions was that we consider electric cars. I'm all for it. But I would like to recommend attacking the problem from a different front as well. Instead of spending thousands of dollars more on a vehicle, we can impact the environment and actually save money at the same time by changing our diet just a little. Gideon Eshel, a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times in 2008 that if America were to reduce its meat consumption by 20 percent, it would be the equivalent of switching from a mid-sized car, like a Camry, to the ultra-efficient Prius. So just by eating spaghetti with marinara sauce, or a stir-fried vegetable lo mein, instead of a hamburger once or twice a week, we could make a marked difference.

Some of the impact of meat consumption is pretty startling. Here are some examples: The United Nations Report from 2012 states that, livestock production accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gases, compared to 14 percent for transportation. From the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, in March 2010, we learn: "More than two-thirds of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8 percent is used to grow food for direct human consumption ... If the entire world population were to consume as much meat as the Western world does -- 176 pounds of meat per capita per year -- the global land required would be two-thirds more than what is presently used."

Regarding the newly scary news about antibiotic resistant infections, consider that 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used by the livestock industry. Corn and soybean production, 80 to 90 percent of which is used for animal feed, is heavily subsidized by the government, while fruit and vegetable farms receive little or no subsidies, illustrating how government policies influence practice. Living in the Central Valley makes water conservation of paramount interest. The amount of water needed to grow one pound of apples is 49 gallons and one pound of potatoes uses a measly 24 gallons, but to produce one pound of beef it takes a staggering 5,000 gallons of precious water. Grain products are also wasted: 12 pounds of grain can be made into 12 loaves of bread, or it can be fed to cattle to produce 1 pound of beef.

Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times in January 2008 ("Rethinking the Meat Guzzler") writes, "The environmental impact of growing so much grain for animal feed is profound. Agriculture in the United States -- much of which now serves the demand for meat -- contributes to nearly three-quarters of all water-quality problems in the nation's rivers and streams."

Sarah Ruby of The Californian, writing in May 2008, contributed to this growing body of knowledge ("Cows a top polluter in Kern"), noting, "Dairy cows are still the Central Valley's biggest source of one type of smog-forming gas ... Each dairy cow produces 19.3 pounds of volatile organic compounds per year ... (The finding) means any dairy with 1,290 cows or more will need a permit from the air district, adding about 200 existing dairies to the rolls of permitted facilities. It also could affect whether county supervisors approve 19 new dairies that want to come to Kern with roughly 200,000 cows." Unfortunately, it didn't.

The Californian's Price is right. We need to stop playing the victim, throwing up our hands in resignation. We can make a difference, starting with our next meal. Bon appetit!

Patsy Ouellette of Bakersfield is an eighth-grade English teacher at Norris Middle School.

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