This recent report at NPR serves as confirmation that big agriculture in America recognizes they have an image problem on their hands and is concerned:

Agriculture Industry Seeks to Restore Its Image


In a 2009 study, published in Advances in Agronomy, Vol. 103 (“Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change”), three researchers from the University of California, Davis urge that the FAO report (“Livestock’s Long Shadow”) uses “apples to oranges” methodology when comparing the relative world-wide greenhouse gas contributions of the livestock industry and transportation sector. The authors conclude that the FAO’s assertion that “18% of anthropogenic global GHGs [greenhouse gasses] is caused by livestock production and that livestock produces more GHG than transportation (FAO, 2007) is based on inappropriate or inaccurate scaling of predictions, and thus is open to intensive debate throughout the scientific community.”

Author Frank Mitloehner posing at work for UC Davis article on his report

This report has been getting quite of lot of press recently. Some urging that the report, if valid, effectively means that meat eating has no impact on environmental well-being (Quote: “Eating less meat will not reduce global warming, and reports that claim it will are distracting society from finding real ways to beat climate change, a leading air quality expert said on Monday”). Other reports are less sensationalistic (Quote: “So, livestock may make-up a smaller share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (an exact percentage was not given), but, on the other hand, livestock production does put a considerable strain on the environment, through pollution, water-consumption, deforestation, and land-use.”).

What is clear is the press is not alone in using this data to urge that curbing the demand for meat is environmentally wrong-headed. The authors of the report itself attempt to utilize their critique of the FAO study to . . .

(i) Attempt to derail the growing impact of the FAO study (and the anti-meat/environmental movement in general) and

(ii) Attempt to shift the focus away from the idea that we should cut back on meat consumption and towards the idea that we should continue to develop existent methods of raising livestock that have a lower environmental footprint (e.g., “intensification of livestock” production).

As has already been pointed out in a existent blog on this study, good science generally does not attempt to make any assertions that go beyond the empirical data they generate. Arguably, at least one author of this study violates this principle. In a reply the above mentioned blog, author Frank Mitloehner (working under the assumption that his post in this blog is in fact authentic) states:

If we go along with the erroneous calculations [from the FAO study], then we relax on the transportation in the developed world, which is not right.

This conditional (i.e., “if, then”) statement urges a causal link between public acceptance of the data from the FAO study and a corresponding relaxed view of the environmental harm produced by the transportation sector. This sociological speculation is clearly not a piece of empirical evidence contained in or entailed by the actual study.

Elaboration on the dubious nature of this claim is hardly needed. Has anyone experienced a growing trend of transportation being let off the hook for the role it plays in pollution? Moreover, has anyone noticed that not only is this occurring but that in large, it is a function of the popularity of the idea that the livestock industry is a great source of pollution? One must wonder if the author himself actually believes such idle and unsubstantiated speculation. It is fathomable that he has been exposed to a recent comparison germane to these matters; variations of “a vegan in a Hummer has a smaller environmental footprint than a meat-eater in a Prius.” However, even a person with mere baseline critical thinking skills would not mistakenly conclude that memes of this nature have in fact actually moved vegans (and others thus exposed), en masse, to trade in their environmentally forms of transportation for gas-thirsty varieties of transport.

Most importantly, even if the criticisms levied in “Clearing the Air: Livestock’s Contribution to Climate Change,” (henceforth, CTA) are largely correct and the FAO study did in fact come up with an inflated percentage concerning the worldwide contribution of GHGs of the livestock industry, the following points remain true (many of which are made by or reiterated in CTA itself):

Livestock is a major contributor to pollution in the developing world (“livestock production in the developing world can be a dominant contributor to a country’s GHG portfolio, due to the developing world’s significantly smaller transportation and energy sectors.”-CTA, p. 3)

The alternative to reduced meat consumption favored by the authors of the study (“intensification”) champions artificial methods such as using bovine hormones to significantly increase per cow milk production (“it should be noted that superior genetics and technology have made animal nutrition more efficient from both a production and GHG perspective. For example, as study regarding bovine somatotropin (BST) hormone calculated that if all the dairy cows in the United States were using BST, the current milk supply could be reduced by 11% fewer cows” –CTA p. 28-9), as well as unspecified technologies to speed up the maturity and increase the size of broiler chickens (“The average time needed to produce a broiler in the United States has gone from 72 days in 1960 to 48 days in 1995 with a 1.8-2.2 increase in slaughter weight and a 15% decrease in feed conversion ratios” -CTA, p. 29).

The implicit point is that the environmental harm of livestock rearing and related activities can be mitigated and managed by genetically altering meat and dairy products and that this is something we should strive for.

The US cattle industry has the highest level of manure methane emission in the world. Curiously, this fact is cited admirably by the authors of the study, as it is coupled with the assertion that “high levels of methane emissions from manure management are typically associated with high levels of productivity.” (CTA, p. 20-1). (One might pause here to consider whether or not eliminating the very need for extensive “manure management” would be a more environmentally sound policy and alternative to the “high levels of productivity” championed by the study?).

• “Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are inherently tied to livestock population size (USDA, 2004). . . There are currently 1.5 billion cattle and domestic buffalo, and 1.7 billion domestic sheep and goats in the world, which account for over two thirds of the total biomass of livestock (FAO et al., 2006). Within the United States, there are over 94 million beef cattle and 9.3 million dairy cows (NASS, 2009). Cattle are the largest contributing species to enteric fermentation in the United States.” (direct quote from CTA, p. 11-2)

• “With respect to management in the developed world, the increased use of liquid versus dry manure waste systems (liquid systems produce significantly more methane) in dairy and pig operations has resulted in a relative increase in methane production.” (CTA, p. 19).

Seemingly, so as to avoid inadvertently armiung opponents of the livestock industry with their own munitions, the authors quickly attribute this unfortunate increase in pollutions via livestock industry trends to governmental regulation: “One reason for the trend toward liquid-based systems is a response to regulations in the United States including the United States Clean Water Act, which restricts land application rates of manure.” (p. 19)

Once again, shouldn’t the creation of a far less need for manure waste systems (via a lower demand for and consumption of meat) be on option that is at the very least “on the table”?

Whether or not the authors of this study succeed in dismantling the link between the demand for meat and environmental harm is up for you to decide. To this end, you are urged to read the actual report.

Similarly, whether or not this putative “scientific” study is in some sense biased toward the meat industry something you should also decide for yourself.

As the title of this post states, one fact all sides on these issues recognize (scroll to the end for disclosure) and admit is that this study was in fact funded by a $26,000 grant from a group called “Beef Checkoff.” Beef Checkoff, according to a UC Davis report, “funds research and other activities, including promotion and consumer education, through fees on beef producers in the U.S. “

So, ultimately, all the monies that generated this report—one dealing primarily with the seemingly negative impact the FAO study had on the environmental reputation of the livestock industry—were in fact provided by a central part of the livestock industry: U.S. beef producers.

If one positive note can be gleaned from what from every indication appears to be a rather dubious use of academic resource, fiat, and clout, it is that the meat industry is clearly taking notice of, and is seriously concerned about, the public’s growing recognition of their myriad of major contributions to environmental degradation on a global scale.

Among other findings, the authors of this March 2010 study note:

“Because only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are absorbed, animal waste is a leading factor in the pollution of land and water resources”

One editor concludes . . .

“So much of the problem comes down to the individual consumer . . . People aren’t going to stop eating meat, but I am always hopeful that as people learn more, they do change their behavior. If they are informed that they do have choices to help build a more sustainable and equitable world, they can make better choices.”

But people do “stop eating meat.” Perhaps in this case, the simplest solution is the best solution.

Read more about the report here . . .

According to a Science Daily report, a 2010 study found that the Campylobacter bacteria, commonly found in cattle manure and “the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the developed world,” “can survive composting and persist for long periods in the final product.”

Read the full article here . . .

UN Proposes Livestock Tax

Alarmed in part by a substantial worldwide increase in meat consumption, the UN’s department of Food and Agriculture has proposed a livestock tax in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can read a Financial Times report here and a commentary piece in the UK Telegraph here

McCartney has created his own website to promote his idea of abstaining from eating meat for one day a week to help the environment. According to his homepage:

“Meat Free Monday is an environmental campaign to raise awareness of the climate-changing impact of meat production and consumption. Many people are unaware that livestock production is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than the entire transport sector.”

Check the site out here

The “News” section has a number of informative posts concerning meat consumption and the environment.

According to Foer . . .

“someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call himself an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”

Peter Singer, in his review of Foer’s book notes that Foer’s comment in some way implies that people who eat non factory-farmed meat may claim to be acting in an environmentally sound fashion. According to Singer . . .

But, as far as climate change is concerned, the emphasis on factory-farmed animal products is a mistake. While raising animals on pasture is much more animal-welfare friendly than confining them indoors, ruminants (cattle and sheep) produce more methane when they eat grass than when they are fed grain, because it takes more digesting to break down the cellulose in grass.

Read Singer’s full review of ‘Eating Animals’ here . . .