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The meat industry and its front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom are perpetuating the myth that Americans should not be worried about the meat & global warming connection. This is the argument:

The US has a more efficient livestock production system. According to the 2006 US EPA report, US agriculture causes less than 6% of US greenhouse gases, while livestock causes only 2.58% of US GHG. The UN says 18% of *global* GHG is due to livestock. We should resume consumption patterns and keep the industry competitive; otherwise we’d be importing more meat from less GHG efficient livestock production systems, and cause MORE global warming.

The argument exploits very misleading and incomplete statistics and rests on some flawed assumptions. In the final analysis, what matters is the total VOLUME of American consumption & GHG production, and factoring in livestock’s land and land-use.

Below are some facts which point to how the US livestock industry is definitely a major contributor to global warming.

1. The US consumes FAR more meat / animal products than most of the world.

  • According to the UN FAO, the average American eats about 275 pounds of meat per year (more than any other country). The average Chinese eats 108 pounds per year (Earth Policy Insitute, 2005).
  • According to a 2005 FAO study on meat consumption between 1998 – 2002, the average meat consumption per Chinese is 52 kg, compared to Americans at 125 kg, and Britain at 80 kg.   note:  there are smaller countries which (on average, per person) consume a little more meat than the US – 300 mil. people (for example: New Zealand – 4 mil. people, Denmark 5.5 mil. people, and some countries which consume around the same amount of meat.
  • If the whole world ate meat at the American rate, only 2/5 of the world’s population (2.5 billion people) would be fed (Lester Brown).
  • So much for American efficiency. The world’s leading consumers of meat and animal products share the biggest responsibility for continuing to make the global livestock industry grow! As long as the meat industry continues to be supported by a growing culture of high volume meat eaters, the industry will be able to expand its reach globally.

    Dr. Barry Popkin, author of “The World is Fat”, agrees

    What’s more, the developing world seems to be falling in step, Popkin says. In India, meat and dairy intake more than doubled between 2000 and 2005. In 2006, the average diet of 67% of the Chinese population comprised at least 10% meat and dairy products, up from about 39% of the population in 1989. “We truly did this to the globe — changed the way the world eats,” says Popkin.

    2. The US produces FAR more GHG than most of the world.

    The U.S., with a population of about 300 million (5% of the world), produces about 18% (2009 US EPA) of GLOBAL greenhouse gases.

    Consider the image below which portrays the CO2 responsibility PER CAPITA by country between 1950-2000.

    CO2 responsibility 1950-2000

    Not surprisingly, most of the US and “Western countries” are the highest emitters. See more “List of countries by greenhouse gases in 2000”

    Even though China as a whole produces more CO2 as a country (since recently), their per capita emissions figures are STILL 1/3 – 1/4 of the US population (China recently officially surpassed the US in producing GHG, but China has 4 times the population (China has 1.3 billion people, US has 300 million people)).

    It’s a huge difference. So what does this tell us about the EPA’s estimates on livestocks GHG impact?

    We can predict that X% of US GHG per capita is far greater than X% of China’s GHG per capita.

    Basically 2.58% of US GHG is much more than 2.58% of China GHG (or most other countries).

    We know this because on average, one American is emitting as much GHG as four Chinese. In addition, one American consumes as much meat as 2-3 Chinese citizens (again, the average meat consumption per Chinese is 52 kg, compared to Americans at 125 kg – 2005 FAO)

    3. The US EPA report does not include land-use (deforestation, desertification) and other criteria used in the UN FAO report.

    As I explain in a previous post, the EPA report excludes the whole GLOBAL livestock commodity chain including fuel combustion, agricultural CO2 fluxes and land-use changes (such as deforestation), while the UN report includes these factors (as its a global organization, and land-use is probably difficult to quanity on a country level).

    According to the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow report, land-use is the primary reason why livestock’s share of global GHG is so high:

    “(livestock) accounts for nine percent of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, most of it due to expansion of pastures and arable land for feed crops.

    The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land. Grazing occupies 26 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, while feed crop production requires about a third of all arable land. Expansion of grazing land for livestock is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the reminder.

    Consider the GHG volume of land use compared to livestock’s other GHG sources:

    Land use and land use change: 2.5 Giga tonnes CO2 (#1) equivalent; including forest and other natural vegetation replaced by pasture and feed crop in the Neotropics (CO2) and carbon release from soils such as pasture and arable land dedicated to feed production (CO2)
    — Feed Production (except carbon released from soil): 0.4 Giga tonnes CO2 equivalent, including fossil fuel used in manufacturing chemical fertilizer for feed crops (CO2) and chemical fertilizer application on feedcrops and leguminous feed crop (N2O, NH3)
    — Animal production: 1.9 Giga tonnes CO2 equivalent, including enteric fermentation from ruminants (CH4) and on-farm fossil fuel use (CO2)
    — Manure Management: 2.2 Giga tonnes CO2 equivalent, mainly through manure storage, application and deposition (CH4, N2O, NH3)
    — Processing and international transport: 0.03 Giga tonnes CO2 equivalent

    From these figures we know that the U.S EPA omitted a huge cause of GHG from the livestock industry.

    In conclusion

    We know that…

    1. US meat consumption per capita is higher than most of the world’s.
    2. The US produces way too much GHG per capita (5% of world population produces about 18% of GHG)
    3. The US EPA report does not factor in the #1 cause of CO2 emissions from livestock: land and land-use (2.5 Giga tonnes).

    The US livestock industry’s share of the GLOBAL livestock industry’s greenhouse gases is much higher than the industry (whose prime consumers are Westerners) is willing to admit. It’s hard to calculate an exact figure, but we know the leading consumers and producers of meat also support the growth of a global livestock industry, which contributes most of its GHG through land and land-use.

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    (1/23/09 – UK Guardian) Germany’s environment agency has recommended to German citizens that they should lower meat consumption, if they want to lower their carbon footprint and stop global warming.

    Speaking at Berlin’s Grüne Woche (Green Week), Andreas Troge, president of the UBA (Germany’s environment agency) said:

    “We must rethink our high meat consumption.  I recommend people return to the Sunday roast and to an orientation of their eating habits around those of Mediterranean countries.”

    Troge explained that agriculture was responsible for 15% of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and that meat production was the most energy-intensive form of farming.  I have to admit it is surprising to hear, considering that Germany is a world leader in terms of meat consumption (39% of Germany’s total calorie intake derives from meat and meat products, compared with 25% in Italy).  It’ll be interesting to see how citizens react.

    Edmund Geisen, agricultural adviser to the liberal Free Democrats, was not pleased with Troge’s message.

    “Andreas Troge should stop trying to damage the nation’s appetite by discrediting agricultural production,” he said, calling his attack on meat “populist and one-dimensional”. “Our enlightened consumers should decide for themselves what they want to eat.”

    Enlightened consumers deciding for themselves? It is an argument we hear often.  But how many consumers are aware that the price of meat does not reflect it’s environmental costs?  I bet not many.  Troge’s message will help consumers make more educated and enlightened decisions about their carbon footprint, rather than dwell in ignorance.

    Go Troge!

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