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Eating less meat and dairy has minimal impact on global warming, expert argues

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There is no doubt that livestock are major producers of methane, one of the greenhouse gases, but comparison figures may be inaccurate.

By ScienceDaily Posted Jan 25, 2011

CowsEditor’s Note: Discussing whether the more accurate figure for meat and dairy contribution to greenhouse gas accumulation is 3% or 18% is reasonable and warrants clarification. We believe that reducing meat consumption benefits both individuals and the environment, however this article is published to present an alternate view of the discussion on the impact of meat and dairy with regards to climate change.

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Cutting back on consumption of meat and dairy products will not have a major impact in combating global warming — despite repeated claims that link diets rich in animal products to production of greenhouse gases. That’s the conclusion of a report presented at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.

Air quality expert Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., who made the presentation, said that giving cows and pigs a bum rap is not only scientifically inaccurate, but also distracts society from embracing effective solutions to global climate change. He noted that the notion is becoming deeply rooted in efforts to curb global warming, citing campaigns for “meatless Mondays” and a European campaign, called “Less Meat = Less Heat,” launched late last year.

“We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk,” said Mitloehner, who is with the University of California-Davis. “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”

The focus of confronting climate change, he said, should be on smarter farming, not less farming. “The developed world should focus on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries where growing populations need more nutritious food. In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices to make more food with less greenhouse gas production,” Mitloehner said.

Developed countries should reduce use of oil and coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels. Transportation creates an estimated 26 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., whereas raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent, he said.

Mitloehner says confusion over meat and milk’s role in climate change stems from a small section printed in the executive summary of a 2006 United Nations report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” It read: “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport.”

Mitloehner says there is no doubt that livestock are major producers of methane, one of the greenhouse gases. But he faults the methodology of “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” contending that numbers for the livestock sector were calculated differently from transportation. In the report, the livestock emissions included gases produced by growing animal feed; animals’ digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk into foods. But the transportation analysis factored in only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving and not all other transport lifecycle related factors.

“This lopsided analysis is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue,” he said.

Reference: The above story is reprinted in Science Daily from materials provided by American Chemical Society.

Posted in Science and Transportation Tags , , ,
  • wabstemer

    I think this certainly calls into question more than just his figures but the method used to measure emissions outside of the agriculture world.

  • JaneOBrien

    Sadly, Ireland’s livestock looks set to feed off GM crops after the government u-turns on their policy.

  • Jenne

    I've read (most recent in "The Big Necessity") about projects to produce power using livestock manure, even on relatively small scales. Could the use of such methane power offset the carbon load of livestock?

    • Greg Seaman

      Interesting. Any use of methane for power would serve as a carbon offset. If you have any additional information please let me know and I'll post it to this blog. Thanks.

  • Sonja-Sophie

    I believe Al Gore, in his book "Our Choice" checked his numbers, and they clearly show an impact. Also, how does less meat/milk consumption increase hunger in poor countries again? That fact has to be proven first! It is, however proven, that all Western Countries numbers of heart -and similar disease has increased, with the increase of meat consumption. I will not even touch on the moral responsibility of humankind when it comes to meat/dairy production. Clearly, eating less meat will have a positive impact on the earth on many different levels.

  • Sven

    The “American Chemical Society” ??? … that says it all !

    I wonder who their biggest client is? … the meat industry? … whether they supply chemical products to the feed-growers or the feed-lots, if the demand for meat dropped, so would their profits.

    Less meat-consumption would actually mean less crops, as production of meat is a highly wasteful process (see p27 of  http://www.unep.org/pdf/FoodCrisis_lores.pdf) … therefore a corresponding decrease in the demand for chemicals = a healthier planet :)

    Furthermore, the FAO grossly underestimated the impact of the livestock industry in the above-mentioned 2006 report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/a0701e/a0701e00.pdf) …

    “livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32,564million tons of CO2e per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions” !!!

    … download the full 2009 report  from World Watch Institute’s website …
     http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf

  • http://twitter.com/econowblog Daniel Hudon

    I’m a meat eater but I’ve been cutting down after seeing the film Food, Inc., which makes it clear that factory farming is inhumane. There’s something quite suspicious about the article, beginning with the fact that it’s from the Chemical Society (hello fertilizers!) But also the number 1 cause of deforestation is conversion of land for agriculture, either for cattle or for feed for cattle. So, yes, eating lower on the food chain will indeed have an effect on climate change and it will preserve forests at the same time.

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