Where’s the beef?

Scientist takes a second look at UN numbers that have led many environmentalists to forego meat

For those advocating for urgent action on the climate change file, it’s been a rough few months.

From the “Climategate” email scandal at the University of East Anglia to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report’s now-debunked claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, advocates have been hit by a series of damaging credibility gaps.

Now the latest: the notion, trumpeted by environmentalists and animal rights crusaders in Europe and in North America, that reducing our consumption of meat will help keep the planet cool.

The idea derives much of its scientific heft from a claim put forward by “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report from 2006. “The livestock sector is a major player [in anthropogenic climate change], responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent,” the report states in its executive summary. “This is a higher share than transport.”

Burgers outstripping Hummers in an FAO account of our environmental sins? Powerful stuff. Indeed, the claim, as University of California, Davis animal science researcher Frank Mitloehner points out, has had a major influence on public policy initiatives in the U.S. and Europe since its release (as Maclean’s reported last week in a story examining the growing movement to moderate meat consumption for environmental reasons).

“There are hundreds of hospitals and universities and schools that have taken meat and other animal protein products out of their diets for certain days a week in order to protect the climate,” says Mitloehner, referring to Meatless Monday initiatives that have sprung up worldwide.

Even former Beatle and renowned vegetarian Sir Paul McCartney has latched on to the number with his Meat Free Mondays drive, declaring: “Less meat = less heat.”

Too bad the FAO statement may well be wrong.

According to a report Mitloehner wrote with his UC Davis colleagues Maurice Pitesky and Kimberly Stackhouse, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” arrives at the “18 per cent” slice of emissions attributable to livestock by employing two very different kinds of numbers—the “life cycle” emissions associated with livestock (a cradle-to-grave examination of the industry that takes into account everything from the fertilizer used in growing feed to the methane burps of cattle) and the direct emissions of the transportation industry as calculated by the IPCC (i.e., the burning of fossil fuels as independent from everything else, including extracting the oil from the ground, manufacturing the cars, etc.).

It’s a criticism that has since been accepted by the FAO: “I must say honestly that he has a point,” the agency’s livestock policy officer, Pierre Gerber, told the BBC. “We factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn’t do the same thing with transport.” He added, however, that “on the rest of the report, I don’t think it was really challenged.”

So what are the worldwide numbers, really? “I am skeptical that anybody knows,” says Mitloehner, whose report, “Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contributions to Climate Change,” was published in October.

Indeed, the FAO’s 18 per cent figure has had a distorting effect. Based on Environmental Protection Agency figures, livestock accounts for just 3 per cent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the U.S., compared to 26 per cent from the U.S. transportation industry. In developing countries like Paraguay, meanwhile, where the livestock sector is much larger in comparison to transportation than in the U.S., meat production would likely total more than 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

“In the U.S., the 18 per cent number for livestock would be six times too high and in Paraguay two times too low,” says Mitloehner. “But who knows what the numbers look like globally? I don’t.” Though he praises much of the FAO’s work in examining the emissions associated with food production (a more comprehensive FAO analysis is due out later this year), Mitloehner argues the focus on reducing meat consumption is a dead end, one that distracts us from more significant sources of greenhouse gases (like that Hummer) and which may deprive hungry people in developing countries of a crucial food source—meat. He also believes more intensive livestock farming—more animals on less land—can reduce meat’s relatively small footprint even further, particularly in the developing world. (Mitloehner is transparent about funding he has received from organizations bankrolled by the beef industry, but downplays its importance, calling one industry source “such a small percentage that it is inconsequential.”)

Proponents of moderate meat aren’t much swayed by the critique. Nathan Pelletier, an ecological economist at Dalhousie University, notes “Livestock’s Long Shadow” isn’t the only report linking meat production and greenhouse gases. “It would certainly be disingenuous to hold up [the report] as a lonely example of researchers calling attention to the role of the livestock industry in climate change.”


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