Hey Bill Nye! Should Humans Go Vegan to Slow Global Warming?

Methane gases from livestock production is contributing to the acceleration of global warming. Is a plant-based diet a smart way for individuals to curb the effects of climate change?

Erin: Hey Bill.  I’m Erin and I’m from Scotland. I went vegan after I watched documentaries like Before the Flood and Cowspiracy. It presented me with lots of terrifying information such as that from the FAO which suggests that 14.5 to 18 percent of the world’s global emissions are due to animal agriculture. However, Worldwatch suggests it’s closer to 51 percent.  I was wondering if you knew why there was such a difference between these two figures and whether you think that adopting a vegan diet is the best thing we can do as individuals for the planet. 

Bill Nye: Erin, you raised a very good point. I don’t know why the two figures in those two studies, the documentary and the—was it a scientific paper?—are discrepant, but it probably has to do with trying to assay or figure out how much greenhouse gas is created by cattle or other livestock. 

And the problem, everybody, is that livestock eat plants; then bacteria in their livestock stomachs metabolize the plant material into methane, natural gas. And you can make all the jokes you want, but methane is a very strong greenhouse gas. 

The first place I’d look to find the reasons for the discrepancy between the two figures is in the amount of greenhouse gas supposed to come from a cow or a sheep or goat.

So with humans, the human population getting so big that we are raising so many farm animals, it’s very reasonable that we’re creating a tremendous amount of extra methane that wouldn’t otherwise be there in the atmosphere. And that is causing global warming and climate change to happen more rapidly than would otherwise.  

However, if humans weren’t there animals would be all over the place anyway; it’s not clear that they’d be in these concentrations though.

It could be a difficult thing to measure, but it’s also reasonable that agriculture researchers are going to produce or breed farm animals that produce less methane by changing the bacteria that are in their stomachs that metabolize plant matter. 

To get all the way down to a plant based diet might be tricky for a lot of people. However, it seems like a good idea. Check in with me in a few months, because I noticed that my diet is becoming increasingly vegetarian, and so in the next little while I may be all the way over. “Why aren’t you now Bill?” That’s a great question. I’m working it—I’m working on it. 

It’s a very interesting question and and an important one. And literally a huge one because we’re talking about the Earth’s atmosphere. Thank you Erin. 

 

Make all the jokes you want, says Bill Nye, but methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, and as Earth's population increases so too does the size of the meat industry that caters to it. Demand for meat is growing steeply in developing nations, according to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the methane emitted by livestock is undoubtedly contributing atmospheric gases and accelerating global warming. So is a plant-based diet the answer, slashing the demand placed on the meat and dairy industries? Nye finds himself choosing to eat more and more vegetarian dishes, so while he hasn't gone 'full vegan' yet, his awareness of the problem has sparked a reductionist diet. Nye also mentions that agricultural scientists may soon find themselves under public pressure to reduce methane output. One way they might do that? Changing the bacteria in livestock's stomachs so they metabolize food with less methane byproduct. So we could bio-engineer the stomachs of other animals, or we could simply reduce the amount of animal products that go into our own.


Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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