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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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    It’s upsetting and a bit disturbing that a NY Times “Green blogger” has perpetuated a claim from the Center for Consumer Freedom that there is no strong connection between meat and global warming.

    The recent NY Times article titled “Meat & Climate: The Debate Continues” (which I refuse to link to) cites a press release from the CCF (a.k.a a front group for the restaurant, alcohol and tobacco industries) which used an EPA figure estimating that only 6% of US greenhouse gases are caused by agriculture production, including meat. They used this figure to argue that there is no significant connection between meat and global warming. The EPA figure stands in stark contrast to the 2006 UN FAO report (Livestock’s Longshadow) which attributes 18% of global greenhouse gases to livestock production.  Considering how much meat Americans consume, I find it hard to believe that the US produces far less GHG relative to other countries.

    If you read the first paragraph of the study, you would learn that the EPA figure omits the emissions from CO2 and land-use changes.  In contrast, the 2006 UN FAO study includes CO2, as well as methane and other greenhouse gases as a result of the entire livestock production process.

    EPA on Agriculture Emissions in 2006:

    “Agricultural activities contribute directly to emissions of greenhouse gases through a variety of processes. This chapter provides an assessment of non-carbon-dioxide emissions from the following source categories: enteric fermentation in domestic livestock, livestock manure management, rice cultivation, agricultural soil management, and field burning of agricultural residues (see Figure 6-1). Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and removals from agriculture-related land-use activities, such as conversion of grassland to cultivated land, are presented in the Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry chapter. CO2 emissions from on-farm energy use are accounted for in the Energy chapter.”

    Livestock’s Longshadow:

    …Scientists usually tie their estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming to sources such as land use changes, agriculture (including livestock) and transportation. The authors of Livestock’s long shadow took a different approach, aggregating emissions throughout the livestock commodity chain – from feed production (which includes chemical fertilizer production, deforestation for pasture and feed crops, and pasture degradation), through animal production (including enteric fermentation and nitrous oxide emissions from manure) to the carbon dioxide emitted during processing and transportation of animal products.

    Why the EPA chose to ignore the impact of CO2 and US land-use changes, is a puzzle to address.  As the UN report shows, land-use is a major reason why GHG from livestock is high.  When one looks at the example of deforestation of the Amazon (80% of which is attributed to livestock), it’s not hard to see why global land-use, and the whole livestock commodity chain should be a concern.

    Another commenter of the Times article adds “CCF had to go as far as misrepresenting a Bush era EPA report, that were often lower bounds or distortions of staff reports.”

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    Eating Less Meat to Save the Planet:  Why is Meat-Eating Left Off the Table in Environmental Discussions? (mp3) – Your Call Radio KALW 91.7  San Francisco

    I recommend listening to this really interesting discussion between panelists and callers.  I promise this isn’t just a presentation of all the facts about how the production of meat releases greenhouse gases.  The guests actually analyze why meat is a difficult topic to address.  It’s also about how to persuade people to make the choice to eat less meat, through empathy and understanding.

    What I learned: It can be difficult to understand why meat is responsible for so much greenhouse gases. It’s easy to understand the carbon footprint of a car or airplane, because you can visualize it.  It’s not the same for meat.  You don’t see the resources put into creating cattle feed, the land cleared for rainforests, the energy it takes to slaughter, the methane emitted from the cows and manure, etc.

    Also, I got the impression that some people feel threatened by those who raise the subject of the environmental impact of meat because it suggests everyone should be a vegetarian or vegan.  Fair enough.  Perhaps this is a subject that must be handled more carefully.  In my opinion, talking to someone about the environmental significance of eating less meat should be like talking to someone about why a SUV is not climate friendly.  I would rather encourage many people to eat less meat, rather than possibly alienate some people in order to push vegetarianism.  At the same time, I think it’d be wise to provide resources on how to be a vegetarian or vegan, should one choose.

    Interesting point from Linda:  Lets focus not just on why we shouldn’t eat meat, but why we DO eat meat.

    Guests

    • Melanie Joy, UMASS, Author of Strategic Action for Animals
    • Linda Riebel, Save Nature, Author of Eating to Save the Earth
    • Chris Jones, Staff Researcher at Berkeley Institute for the Environment, Leader Developer for Cool Climate Calculator

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